I grew up in an Italian-American home. Most of the time we were like any other family in our neighborhood, but at mealtimes our Italian side took over.
We ate aged cheeses, wrinkled oil-cured black olives, spicy salami, and prosciutto. Fresh ingredients were essential, and we consumed lots of vegetables- stuffed, fried, and in soups and pastas. The bread was bought fresh daily from an Italian bakery, and it was crisp and chewy. Dessert meant perfect seasonal fresh fruit. Our coffee was espresso made in a little silver stove-top pot called a machinetta. Everyone in the family cooked, and I learned about combining flavors and cooking techniques by watching and helping my parents and other relatives. I learned that cooking was fun and sharing food with others one of life's great pleasures.
Holidays and special occasions meant a house full of friends and family. Preparations began days in advance, and we all participated. Guests would bring special desserts from prized bakeries or their favorite homemade dishes, such as Struffoli (Honey Balls, see Cookies, Cakes, Tarts, and Pastries), Cannoli (see Cookies, Cakes, Tarts, and Pastries), or a grand Zuppa Inglese (Italian Trifle, see Fruit, Ice Cream, and Spoon Desserts), and wines that were more distinctive than the jug wines we drank every day.
When I married in 1970, my husband and I took our first trip to Italy. We marveled at the architecture of Rome, the awesome beauty of Venice, and the magnificent art of Florence. We also discovered that there was far more to Italian food and wine than we had experienced back home. My grandparents were from the Naples area, and my husband's were from Sicily. Until we began to travel, our Italian culinary experience was pretty much limited to the foods of those southern regions, often reinterpreted over the years and filtered through the availability of ingredients in America.
When we traveled in Italy, we ate risotto in Milan, white truffles in Piedmont, and fresh egg pasta in Emilia-Romagna. We boldly sampled horsemeat in the Veneto and learned to eat sea urchins in Puglia. We experienced the German-accented dishes of northeastern Trentino-Alto Adige and the Middle Eastern-spiced cooking of Sicily.
When we returned home, we added these foods to our family favorites and enhanced the experience with great Italian wines.
I became fascinated by the different regions of Italy and why and how their culinary traditions differed. Until the 1860s, what is now Italy had been a group of separate kingdoms, each with its own history, geography, and cultural influences. Language and monetary systems were different, too.
Sicily, for example, had been invaded countless times and ruled by the Greeks, Arabs, Normans, and Romans, all of whom left their traces on its culinary traditions. Cassata, a very sweet layered ricotta and sponge cake (see Cookies, Cakes, Tarts, and Pastries) that is the pride of Sicily, is a vestige of Arab domination. Its name comes from the Arabic word qas'ah, for a deep terra cotta mold used to make the cake. The Arabs also introduced Sicily to cane sugar. While the rest of Italy used honey or cooked grape must--which have distinctive flavors of their own--for sweetening, Sicilian bakers had neutral-tasting sugar, which revolutionized pastry making.
Naples was originally a Greek settlement that was later ruled by Spain and France. The city was originally called Neopolis by the Greeks, and it is said that they introduced a flatbread called pitta seasoned with herbs and oil that was a forerunner of the modern pizza. Portions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. German is the common language in Trentino, and popular recipes there and in Friuli include gulasch, made in many different ways. Geography and climate also helped to determine how people in the different regions ate. With its long, narrow shape, Italy has a variety of climates from cold and wet in the north to sunny, hot, and dry in the south. Though the Alps border the northernmost regions, there are wide, fertile plains and plenty of water across northern Italy for growing crops such as rice and corn and for raising cattle. Risotto and polenta are eaten more frequently than pasta in the north, and veal, butter, cow's milk cheeses, and cream are plentiful.
The south has stony, mountainous terrain that supports only a limited range of crops. Sheep graze on the rocky hillsides, and small plots of vegetables grow on every bit of arable soil. Pasta is made with flour and water. Olive, fig, and almond trees thrive in the hot sun. Lamb, goat, and pork are the most commonly eaten meats.
As if these physical, cultural, and historical differences were not enough to divide the regions, there were also the people themselves, who were reluctant to surrender their local customs as the country merged politically. Italy was finally united in 1864, though it took many, many years for the separate regions to begin to function together as one country. There are times when they still do not.
Today, improvements in transportation, education, and communication have blurred some of the regional characteristics. Though there are efforts to keep the old dialects alive, Italian children study the same curriculum and learn to speak standard Italian. Food customs are changing, too. Health- and fashion-conscious Italians are concerned about making a good appearance, and low-fat, low-calorie foods are becoming more available. Olive oil has replaced lard as one of the principal cooking fats.
Chain restaurants are everywhere, and young people in particular are attracted to them. In Rome, fast food eateries feature insalata caprese, the classic Italian tomato and mozzarella salad, as well as macedonia, Italian fruit salad, alongside the french fries and hamburgers on the menu, though the burgers seem to be gaining in popularity. Lunch hours are shorter, and many people make do with a sandwich or salad rather than the full meal at midday. Supermarkets are replacing open air markets, and the European Economic and Monetary Union has brought bureaucracy to the food supply, resulting in conformity, rules, and regulations that often are more concerned with efficiency than quality. Most women work, and few spend as much time cooking as they once did. Family-run restaurants with home cooking are disappearing as smaller families mean fewer people to work and maintain them.
Many Italians have been alarmed by these negative changes, and they are determined to reverse the trends. The government has taken steps to protect the good names of regional specialties such as cheeses and wines by passing laws that specify how and where they can be produced. In the past few years, several professional schools have opened to train chefs in classic Italian cooking. Organizations such as Slow Food publish scholarly papers, support research projects, and organize conferences so that the public can become involved. They are making good progress in holding back the trend toward globalization of foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar, and hopefully a balance can be struck between tradition and change.
Fashions in cooking change and evolve as with anything else. On a recent trip, I noticed that rather than typical aperitivi such as Campari and soda or Aperol, young Italians were enjoying predinner wine coolers made with fruit juices. Chinese and Japanese restaurants have proliferated in Italy, and Asian ingredients are turning up more frequently in many creative Italian restaurants. Sushi and raw fish dishes are very popular, especially in Milan. And more restaurants seem to be foregoing fresh fruit desserts in favor of cakes, ice cream, and other rich sweets. Rome, Florence, and many other cities are seeing a boom in wine bars that serve cheeses, salumi, and perhaps a few hot dishes along with wines by the glass.
Any collection of recipes is a reflection of the taste and experience of the writer and how he or she likes to cook and what he or she likes to eat. I have compiled the recipes in this book from a number of different sources. Many are old family recipes. Though I first learned to cook like my grandmothers and mother--with a handful of this, a pinch of that, and my own judgement--I have adapted these recipes to today's cooking style by giving specific information on ingredients, measurments, pan sizes, and cooking times. Others are recipes I have collected in my travels, either from friends who are good home cooks or from restaurants where I have eaten. Still others are recipes I have come across in Italian regional cookbooks and magazines. I've chosen and adapted recipes that would appeal to today's home cooks who are interested not only in authenticity but also in flavor, ease of preparation, variety, and health.
I have tried to create a balance between old favorites and contemporary recipes. Many traditional recipes are rich in fat. Where possible, I have reduced the fat without sacrificing flavor. Overall, I have tried to keep the recipes as close as possible to their Italian roots by using techniques I have observed in Italy. For example, most of the Italian cooks I know begin many cooking operations by adding olive oil to a cold pan, along with aromatics like onion and garlic. When the heat is turned on, the pan, oil, and aromatics warm up together so that the vegetables can slowly release their flavors into the oil. Adding oil and aromatics to a preheated pan increases the danger of burning the flavoring ingredients and decreases the time alotted for the vegetables to soften and flavor the oil. Pasta cooked al dente, firm to the bite--the way the Italians like it--is much more interesting to eat than the mushy overcooked pasta often served in the United States. On the other hand, I often serve meat, fish, and vegetables less well cooked than they do in Italy, because it better suits the ingredients we have in the United States. No recipe can compensate for differences in how animals are raised and butchered, varieties of fruits and vegetables, and availability of some ingredients.
As an old Italian adage declares, A tavola si sta sempre in allegria ("At the table, one is always happy"). I hope that you find joy and satisfaction in cooking and eating the Italian way.
From "1,000 Italian Recipes." Copyright 2004 by Michele Scicolone. Used with permission of the publisher, Wiley Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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