Italian regional cuisines

Typical aspects of each Italian region's food

Each Italian region has had thousands of years to develop its own culinary practices—and its own distinctive wines—and each still proudly sticks by its native dishes.

What most Americans think of as Italian dishes is what Italian emigrants brought with them to the U.S., but the majority of those came from Southern Italy, which is why when we think "Italian," we think of olive oil, pasta with tomato sauce, garlic, and pizza.

Generally, Northern Italian cooking uses a lot more cream and butter in sauces in addition to tomatoes. Also, pasta is not necessarily the first course of choice up north, often substituted by risotto (arborio rice boiled to be thick and sticky, usually studded with some vegetables) or polenta (a cornmeal mush, often mixed with mushrooms or a dollop of meat ragù).

This will merely scratch the surface of the cuisines of various Italian regions to give you a sense of what each one specailizes in.

THE DOLOMITES - Dolomiti food is mountain food: rib-sticking and hearty, largely influenced by Austrian cuisine. Look for speck ham, canederli bread dumplings in thick broths, Wiener schnitzel, and grostl (hash made of veal, onions, and potatoes).

THE FRIULI - Alpine cuisine runs from the Tirolese influences of the Dolomites to Venetian specialties to Slovenian cuisine. They toss sauerkraut in their minestrone can call it jota, and serve up platters of everything from San Daniele prosciutto (the most delicate, expensive, and delicious in all of Italy) to brovada (a peasant dish of sausage, turnips, and grape skins).

LIGURIA - This is the homeland of the seafarers of Genoa, who brought back from the New World many cooking ingredients now taken for granted. What, for instance, would Italian cooking be without tomatoes, potatoes, or peppers? The sea-skirted region is also famous for its seafood, including a shellfish soup called zuppa di datteri, and for pesto, a pasta sauce of ground basil, pine nuts, and olive oil. To the world of bread, Liguria has contributed focaccia—flat, delicious, and often topped with herbs or, when eaten as a snack, with cheese and vegetables.

LOMBARDY - Like other northern regions, Lombardy favors butter over olive oil and seems not to be overly concerned with cholesterol. A specialty is osso buco, sliced veal sautéed with the bone and marrow. A fine starter for any meal is the region’s vegetable soup with rice and bacon, minestrone alla milanese, or a risotto made from arboreal rice that grows on the region’s low-lying plains and is often served in place of pasta. Panettone, the region’s most popular dessert, is a local version of fruit cake that arrived from Vienna courtesy of Lombardy’s 19th-century Austrian rulers. Austria also exported to Lombardy the breaded veal scallop of Wiener schnitzel, in Italy called cotoletta alla Milanese. Remember, too, that Lombardy is blessed with the Italian lakes, and trout and perch find their way into ravioli and other pasta dishes as well as simply sautéed as a secondo.

PIEDMONT & VALLE D’AOSTA - As befits these regions of cold winters, meat roasts and hearty soups are served, often accompanied by thick slabs of polenta. Piedmont is blessed with strong-flavored white truffles (the lovely town of Alba is Italy’s truffle center), and they’re used in a favorite local dish, fonduta, a fonduelike cheese dip mixed with milk and eggs. Piedmont is also home to Gorgonzola cheese.

VENICE & THE VENETO - Venice gained fame and fortune as the spice market of the world beginning in the 12th century (when Marco Polo visited the Orient), which may help account for the amazing ways local chefs dress up the scampi, crab, squid, and other creatures they pluck from the Adriatic. The Venetians also have raised that humble combination of liver and onions (fegato alla veneziana) to an irresistible level of haute cuisine, and have done the same with risi e bisi (rice and peas).

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