Italian Recipes For Dummies
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To cook truly wonderful Italian meals, it helps to have some knowledge of Italian cooking tradition. This Cheat Sheet summarizes important factors in cooking like an Italian, including cooking terms, pairing flavors, and Italian culture and history. It also includes explanations of ingredient labels, wine labels, and an Italian meal-planning checklist.

How to cook like an Italian

What lures most people into the kitchen to prepare authentic Italian dishes is the desire to recreate their favorite recipes. Perhaps it’s something your grandmother made when you were young, a family holiday tradition, or a custom of an Italian friend.

Travelers usually return from Italy full of ideas for recipes that are not widely available in the US. These are all great reasons to cook authentic dishes and reconnect with those happy memories.

Behind each recipe you eat are history, stories, and lore. When you take the time to appreciate the people and the places behind the food you eat, it makes cooking and eating those dishes even more enjoyable. It also helps to ensure that you continue to preserve culinary traditions that often are direct links connecting the past with the present and extending to the future.

Here are ways you can cook like an Italian:

  • Adopt an Italian culinary mindset: Italians appreciate food and view eating and cooking as their daily chance to treat themselves and their loved ones well. Try thinking like an Italian—if you eat three times a day, you have three chances to show the edible love.
    Sometimes the only thing that you truly have control over in the course of your day is what you eat, so why not make it great? To an Italian, coming to the table each day is one of the greatest pleasures of life. If you adopt this mentality alone, you are already on your way to success in the kitchen.
  • Use only the freshest ingredients possible and the best quality you can afford: Keep in mind that this approach doesn’t mean that you need to spend hours a day in the kitchen or that you need to spend a ton of money on food. It just means that when choosing food, you enjoy yourself and the process and get the best ingredients you can within your budget. It means that if you are making a meal that day, you are thankful because you have the capacity and the means to be able to make it, and you are grateful for that luxury.
    To share food with others is one of the most beautiful moments in life, which is also good for your health and is the basis for the Mediterranean lifestyle and diet.
  • Immerse yourself in Italian culture: If you’ve never been to Italy before, the best way to experience the food is to go and sample it. If that is out of the question, consider taking an Italian cooking class or spend time with an Italian friend in the kitchen. This is important to familiarize yourself with how food should taste, be presented, and be paired.
  • Also watch Italian food shows online or on television, because they give you lots of ideas for how people eat on a daily basis, how Italian food should be presented, and serving standards. Anything you can do to familiarize yourself with authentic, genuine cuisine in the early stages is best.
  • Know your history: In order to truly master Italian cooking, you must understand the history of Italy through a culinary lens. Knowing which ingredients came first, which indigenous tribes lived where, and what foreign power ruled the various regions and when will give you a basic knowledge that you need to understand the cuisine. There are books dedicated to the topic, and you can easily access lectures on my YouTube channel and posts on my blog where I discuss Italian culinary history.
  • Learn Italian kitchen vocabulary: Primi, secondi, ragù, caffé, for example—the more Italian words you learn and concepts that you adopt, the better you will be at cooking confidently, serving food authentically, and mastering the art of Italian cuisine.
  • Follow Italian meal patterns: Serving certain types of dishes at specific times during a meal is an important Italian tradition. One of the biggest mistakes I see in Italian kitchens run by non-Italians is the misplacement of dishes. Sometimes they might make a menu with two first courses and no second course, or vice versa. Part of mastering Italian cuisine isn’t just cooking specific recipes; it’s also putting those recipes together to form a meal and eventually an entire diet.
  • Discover how to pair Italian food properly: Italian cooks are constantly striving to come up with the best flavor combinations. Some of them, such as poultry with sage, pasta with tomato sauce, and other classic pairings have already been taken care of. Within the course of a meal, however, it’s important that the first course pairs well with the second, and so on. Newcomers to the Italian kitchen may want to start with simple pairings. Here are some suggestions:
    • Pasta, when served, is a first course, not second.
    • Since soups are also first courses, they don’t precede pasta dishes in a meal. They should be served instead of pasta, or risotto, or gnocchi, prior to a second course.
    • A first course of pasta with tomato sauce is perfect before a second course of grilled or roasted fish, poultry, or meat.
  • Do your prep: The way housewives historically ran their kitchens in Italy offers lots of wisdom for modern cooks. Planning in advance, making menus for the week, and having a plan enables you to enjoy your time in the cucina more.
    If you are tired and harried, and you enter the kitchen without knowing what you have on hand, it is virtually impossible to come up with something descent, let alone enjoy yourself while preparing it. Set aside a few hours each week for shopping and a few hours for prepping your ingredients and making a meal plan for the following week.
    Start with the recipes you like and anticipate eating, and then incorporate others. These are just a few ways to get your creative juices flowing in the Italian kitchen. One of the things that will set you up for success, however, is the daily execution.
  • Waste not, want not: Show respect for food and the environment by using everything you buy. Root-to-tip use of vegetables and snout-to-tail butchering has always been common practice in Italy. Learn to repurpose leftovers and serve proper portions.

Read Italian food labels like a pro

Italians take quality seriously ― so much so that the Italian government developed a food label system that helps consumers distinguish authentic Italian products from overpriced fakes. This section provides a handy guide to those designations; take it with you when you shop for authentic Italian foods and ingredients.

It is important to know that some quality products from smaller legitimate producers meet the same standards ― or maybe even exceed them ― but do not have the official designation. If the source isn’t apparent from the product label, however, then stick with products that carry the official markers to take the guesswork out of your purchases.

These are some of the acronyms used to denote high-quality Italian products. Note that each product has its own specific set of very strict standards that it must meet in order to qualify for these designations:

DOP: Denominazione di origine protetta (or protected designation of origin, or PDO, in English). DOP is a designation used on the label of high-quality Italian foods to indicate that the product was locally made according to very strict regulations that begin with the treatment of the animals, the other ingredients, the techniques used in making and storing them, and even the packaging.
Buying Parmigiano cheese with the Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP label, for example, ensures that you are getting a genuine product that is made in the same way that it has been made for centuries.

IGP: Indicazione geografica protetta (or protected geographic indication) means the product originated in or is famous for coming from a specific area in Italy, but at least one part of its production took place in that area. Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP, for example, means that the balsamic vinegar is made in Modena and meets certain standards, but the grapes may come from outside of the region. There is also Aceto Balsamico di Modena that has a DOP designation, as explained earlier.
The distinction is that the version with the DOC trademark only accepts specific grape types that are grown in the province of Modena and registered with a DOC origin. This version also has the word Traditional in front of its name.

STG: Specialità tradizionale garantita (or traditional guaranteed specialty). This certification guarantees that a product’s quality is related to a process based on a traditional Italian component or a traditional method. This label is used for Neapolitan pizza and mozzarella.

Olive oil labels

Some Italian olive oils have the DOP label, which means the olive oil meets tough standards, such as limits on acidity levels and storage time of olives before processing.

The IGP Olive Oil label means the product meets the basic standards, such as using only olives picked directly from the tree rather than the ground, but has looser origination requirements.

Italian wine labels

DOC: Denominazione di origine controllata (or designation of controlled origin) means the wine was produced within a limited area, using precise grape varieties, and adhering to strict production controls. Cirò DOC guarantees that this wine comes from the main wine producing area in Calabria native to Gaglioppo and Greco Bianco grapes.

DOCG: Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (or designation of controlled and guaranteed origin) is the finest quality label, given to wines subject to the strictest varietal, processing, and production controls.

IGT: Indicazione geografica tipica (or typical geographic indication) means the wine was produced from approved grape varieties within a defined geographical region.

Italian meal-planning checklist

In today’s hurried culture, even in Italy, the full traditional meal is often only served on Sundays (when most Italians still participate in the ritual family meal), when entertaining, in fine-dining situations, or on holidays.

When serving a traditional, complete, Italian meal (typically, lunch, unless it is a special occasion or you’re entertaining guests), the following components and courses should be presented in this order:

  1. Antipasto – appetizers
  2. Primo – First course of soup, gnocchi, risotto, or pasta
  3. Secondo – Main course of egg, poultry, fish, seafood, or meat with a contorno, or side dish.
  4. Contorni – Vegetable side dishes, usually a green vegetable with another color
  5. Insalata – Light green or mixed salad
  6. Frutta/formaggi – Fruit, nuts, and cheese
  7. Dolce – Sweet dessert
  8. Caffe – Espresso
  9. Digestivo – an after-dinner liqueur such as grappa, amaro, sambuca, or a “cello” such as limoncello

Other Italian meal planning factors to consider include:

  • Workday lunches may now consist of a primo (first course), salad, and espresso (often omitting the second course).
  • Workday dinners may consist of a second course, side dish, salad, fruit and cheese, and espresso (often omitting the appetizer and first course).
  • Pasta, risotto, or gnocchi is typically present in Italian lunches.
  • Fresh, seasonal, local, organic foods are always preferred.
  • Holiday meals and special occasions call for additional, more intricate dishes, which are often symbolic of the holiday in each course along with special breads and baked goods.
  • Bread accompanies all meals and is typically eaten with the appetizer or the salad course.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Amy Riolo is an award-winning author, chef, television personality, food historian, and culinary anthropologist. She is known for simplifying recipes for the home cook. She leads culinary tours in Italy, is the co-founder of A.N.I.T.A. (National Italian Academy of Food Traditions), and has her own line of private-label Italian products.

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