The truth about Italian cuisine is that – with the exception of pizza and ice cream – there's no such thing as 'Italian' food. The vast majority of popular Italian dishes are regional or local. Pesto is a classic case in point. Every Italian knows of Pesto, but it comes from Genoa, in Liguria, so most restaurants in the other 19 regions don't use it very often.
In Italy, you can typically find five variants of the same recipe in a five mile radius in the same city. Italian cuisine is all about the quality of ingredients and simplicity, so here are seven dishes that have become part of the Italian culture, regardless of where they come from.
Carbonara – Lazio
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Carbonara symbolises Rome and the Lazio region. Romans are quite serious about it and they know the original recipe didn't include cream or mushrooms. Furthermore, traditional Carbonara is made with 𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘪𝘢𝘭𝘦 (cured pig's cheek), not bacon, even though use of the latter is widely accepted in modern cuisine. When it comes to pasta, it has to be either 𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘨𝘩𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘪 or 𝘳𝘪𝘨𝘢𝘵𝘰𝘯𝘪 and crucially, the original recipe only included 𝘱𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘰 𝘳𝘰𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘰, a traditional Roman hard cheese made from sheep milk.
You'll find Carbonara in every region and town in Italy because everybody loves it, and that means you'll find a million variants, some even add onions to it. If you want to try it at home, my advice is you can use bacon and a different type of cheese (as long as it's hard cheese), just don't add cream.
Polenta – Northern Italy, especially Lombardy and Veneto
Polenta is one of the oldest Italian dishes tracing its roots back to the early 1200s. It was originally made with different grains until about 500 years ago, when cornmeal was imported to Europe from America. Polenta is a basic dish, historically associated with the lower classes, and can be prepared as hot porridge, fried, baked or grilled. It is usually served with 𝘳𝘢𝘨𝘶' (Italian meat-based sauce), mushrooms or, in modern times, even truffle.
It is naturally identified as a cold weather dish. Especially in northern Italy, it is usually prepared for Christmas lunch or NYE dinner, and served with lentils and 𝘤𝘰𝘵𝘦𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘰, which is slow-cooked pork sausage.
Cacciucco – Tuscany
Cacciucco is a stew made from several types of fish, shellfish, broth and toasted bread with garlic and olive oil. Most chefs agree you should include at least one of five different types of molluscs and fish. In plain English, this means you'll almost always find shrimp, mussels, calamari, octopus, cuttlefish, scorpionfish and clams while tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and red wine are often used in the broth.
This dish became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s because it allowed fishermen to utilise unsold fish and two or three-day old bread. Cacciucco originated in Livorno on the Western coast of Tuscany, but similar dishes can be found elsewhere along the Italian coasts.
Pesto – Liguria
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Pesto is an integral part of Italian culture, as well as being delicious. Pesto is a sauce that originated in the city of Genoa in Roman times. It traditionally consists of crushed garlic, pine nuts, salt, basil leaves, Parmigiano, 𝘱𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘰 (hard cheese made from sheep milk) and olive oil. The name Pesto actually refers to the method that is used to prepare it: 𝘱𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘢𝘳𝘦 is Italian for "to pound / to crush".
While the original recipe was invented in Liguria, a few other regions have their own version of Pesto. My favourite is Pesto alla Trapanese, from Sicily, which also includes tomatoes and almonds.
Arancina – Sicily
Arancina (Sicilian) or Arancino (Italian) is a type of deep fried stuffed rice ball coated with breadcrumbs and usually filled with either 𝘳𝘢𝘨𝘶' or 𝘮𝘰𝘻𝘻𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘢. The name arancino/arancino, Italian for "small orange", refers to the colour of the Arancina, which often comes with a conical shape in honour of Etna, an active volcano on the east coast of Sicily.
Arancina originated about 1000 years ago, when Sicily was ruled by the Arabs. It is now one of the most popular street foods in Italy and can be often "customised" with vegetables or spicy sauce.
Tiramisù – Friuli-Venezia Giulia & Veneto
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Tiramisù is a dessert made with coffee: 𝘵𝘪𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘪 𝘴𝘶 is Italian for "cheer me up". It is a relatively modern dessert, by Italian standards, having been invented in the 1930s in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Even though its origins are disputed among Friuli and Veneto, it is listed as "PAT" (official approval certificate for traditional Italian food) in Friuli, so we'll go with that.
Tiramisù is made with layers of 𝘴𝘢𝘷𝘰𝘪𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘪 biscuits (also known as ladyfingers in English) dipped in coffee and covered with a whipped mixture of sugar, eggs and Mascarpone (sweet cream cheese mixed with lemon juice). Some cooks use Marsala or Vin Santo wine instead of coffee. Amaretto Disaronno and brandy are also popular for a boozy kick.
Pizza – Campania
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Pizza had to be included in the list. It's by far and away the most popular and recognised Italian dish in the world. The word pizza was first used in A.D. 997, and flatbread with toppings has been served, especially for the lower classes, for hundreds of years. The first written mentions of modern pizza can be found in 1743 with the Marinara, a Neapolitan type of pizza with tomato, oregano, olive oil and garlic, and in 1796 with the Margherita. However, most people agree Pizza as we know it was invented in 1889 when pizzamaker Raffaele Esposito created the "Margherita" for Margherita di Savoia, Queen of Italy, with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil to symbolise the Italian national colours.
There are hundreds of pizza toppings around the world, from the simple to the unorthodox, and the downright weird: French fries and pineapple anyone?