Regional Tastes: The Flavours of Italy

Find out about the local specialities available around the country...

Northern Italy

Valle d'Aosta's hearty meat broths fit its alpine setting, but the region is better known for fontina DOP, a characterful cheese akin to a rich, creamy Gruyère. Ripened in the local caves, the cheese is used in fonduta, similar to neighbouring Switzerland's fondue but incorporating egg yolk (rather than wine) and mopped up with crostini. A luxury, seasonal Piedmontese version of fonduta incorporates white truffles.

In Piedmont, the quest for gastronomic excellence, for refinement and for the official categorisation and control of its finest products reflects a close affinity with French traditions. The greatest prize in the Piedmontese larder is the tartufo bianco, the most expensive truffle in the world. Unlike black truffles (worth ten times less), the white Alba truffle (named for the Piedmontese town) is used raw; grated over fresh pasta, fried eggs or risotto. Piedmontese beef is also renowned, often served up in stews like bollito misto, a dish common to much of northeastern Italy and featuring multiple types of meat and vegetables.

The Ligurians' preference for coastal living prioritises fish over meat (when they're not eating vegetarian). Pesto is the iconic dish, a crush of basil, olive oil, garlic, grated pecorino or parmesan cheese and pinenuts, apparently invented to keep scurvy at bay on long sea voyages. It's added to Liguria's long flat pasta, trenette, stirred into vegetable soup, minestrone alla Genovese, and can also appear on the local focaccia bread. Other staples born of the region's seafaring traditions are baccalà (salted cod) and stoccafisso (dried cod), still popular today but often imported due to overfishing locally.

Lombardy's professional spirit often precludes the long leisurely lunches found elsewhere in Italy, and yet Milan has many of the country's most feted restaurants. The region's famous dish is risotto alla Milanese (see overleaf). Mostarda di frutta from Cremona is similar to British piccalilli but uses fruit rather than vegetables; it often accompanies bresaola, a thinly sliced air-dried beef with Swiss origins. Lombardy is spoilt for cheese, producing Gorgonzola (blue-veined crumbler), Mascarpone (soft, mild and creamy), Taleggio (semi-soft and stinky) and Grana Padano (hard, milder relative of parmesan).

Cross-border influences sway the diet in Trentino-Alto Adige where many dishes have an Austro-Hungarian flavour. Potatoes, dumplings (canderli) and pickled cabbage (crauti) are regular staples and even goulash makes it on to the menu on Sundays. The speck hams work well with local beers (Italy's brewing industry is based here), while apfel strudel or sachertorte are popular desserts.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia's most famous foodstuff is prosciutto di San Daniele , a ham to rival Parma's. Matured in barns around the town, the ham's notable sweetness benefits from a combination of cold Alpine air and warm Adriatic sea breezes. Fresh figs often partner prosciutto di San Daniele when in season. Polenta here comes in three colours, white, yellow and black, the latter made from buckwheat and served with sardines. The sea and coastal lagoons provide ample varieties of fish to accompany the region's fresh and fruity dry white wines.

Venice, star of the Veneto, consumes a tremendous amount of fish, often in a risotto coloured black with squid ink. Inland the emphasis is on vegetables (again, often eaten in a risotto); the region is famous for asparagus from Bassano, radicchio salads from Treviso and peas, eaten in risi e bisi (literally, rice and peas). Beans are mixed with pasta for pasta e fagioli, a dish that has its equivalent in most Italian regions. Most Veneto households have a copper polenta pot and a long wooden spoon for stirring (in a clockwise direction only please); the dish is a traditional accompaniment to small birds such as quail and to baccalà. Tiramisù, Veneto's famous pudding (it translates as ‘pick me up'), may be a relatively recent invention, apparently first conceived in a Treviso restaurant in 1969. The region's fine pastries have older roots.

Emilia-Romagna and its cities, Bologna (or La Grassa, the fat one), Modena and Parma, comprise Italy's gastronomic heartland. Ingredients here resonate around the world: parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, aceto balsamico di Modena and pasta fresca. Famous dishes include pasta with ragù, the superior parent of the spaghetti bolognese that the rest of the world enjoys but Bologna doesn't recognise; zampone, a Modena sausage encased in a boned pig's trotter; and various stuffed pasta including tortellini filled with cheese or mortadella sausage.

Five certified foods from the North of Italy

  • Basilico Genovese DOP: Ligurian basil used to make pesto sauce
  • Bresaola della Valtellina DOP: Seasoned and cured lean beef from Lombardy
  • Asparago bianco di Bassano DOP: White asparagus of Veneto
  • Mortadella di Bologna IGP: Pink, fatty Emilia-Romagnan sausage popular at Christmas
  • Laghi Lombardi DOP: Extra virgin olive oil from the lakes in Lombardy

Central Italy

The diet in Tuscany is simpler than elsewhere. Vegetables, spelt and pulses are commonplace, often turned into thick soups like ribollita or zuppa di farro. Bread features more than pasta; the stale leftovers made into bruschetta, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with Tuscany's aromatic olive oil. Beef is simply grilled, as in bistecca alla Fiorentina. While Tuscany fights Sicily for the provenance of ice cream, it claims sole ownership of cantucci, the almond-flavoured biscuits taken with coffee and a glass of vin santo after a meal.

Landlocked Umbria likes its meat, particularly game, although the lakes and rivers teem with fish, including the fattest carp south of the Alps. The pork butchers of Norcia are famed throughout Italy for their hams and salami; the same town is also Umbria's black truffle capital. Tighter budgets can feast on the lentils of Castelluccio.

Like Umbria, Marche is big on sagre – the food festivals that celebrate specialities like porchetta (whole, boned, roast suckling pig), brodetto (fish broth), and campofi lone or vincisgrassi (both egg pasta). Meat, fish and vegetables stuffed with various fillings are also popular in the region; even the olives in Ascoli are painstakingly filled with forcemeat before being breaded and fried.

Lazio has traditionally dined on frugal peasant food. Little is wasted in the preparation, and offal is still widely eaten in dishes like coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew) and trippa alla romana (tripe). Rome is enamoured with pasta, variations of which include spaghetti alla carbonara (with eggs and bacon) and penne all' arrabbiata (with tomatoes and chillies).

Dishes in Abruzzo and Molise are often spiced with the locally grown chilli peppers, peperoncini. Crocuses are cultivated around L'Aquila and the saffron produced finds its way into both savoury and sweet dishes. The iconic dish is maccheroni alla chitarra, in which the pasta is made by being flattened and then rolled against metal strings stretched over a wooden board rather like the fingerboard of a guitar.

Five certified foods from Central Italy

  • Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia IGP: Italian equivalent to puy lentils, from Umbria and Marche
  • Marrone del Mugello IGP: Chestnuts grown to the north-east of Florence
  • Chianti classico DOP: A single estate Tuscan olive oil (and also a wine), produced between Siena and Florence
  • Lardo di Colonnata IGP: Strips of cured pork fat aged in Carrara marble tubs, Tuscany
  • Vitellone bianco dell'Appennino Centrale IGP: Meat from young cows reared in the central Apennines

Southern Italy

Campania, Naples in particular, cherishes its food like nowhere else. The mantra of refined simplicity inhabits dishes like spaghetti alle vongole (with clams), spaghetti alla putanesca (with anchovies and capers – the name means 'whore's pasta') and pizza (native to Naples). The marinara is the most authentic pizza; made with a slightly puffed crust, baked in a very hot wood-fired oven and simply topped with tomato, garlic and oregano – there's no cheese topping, even while the countryside around Naples produces Italy's finest mozzarella di bufala. Pizza, often sold here as street food, also comes fried (pizette) and folded (calzone). Campania also enjoys prodigious seafood and its taralli, sweet or savoury bread snacks.

Puglia is Italy's breadbasket, producing 80 percent of the durum wheat used in the nation's bread and pasta. It also makes more olive oil than all the other regions put together, and vegetables grow easily in the fertile, sunbaked soils. Pasta combined with vegetables, drizzled with olive oil, is a mainstay of Puglian cooking. Fish, mussels and oysters (both farmed) from the long Adriatic coastline bring variety to the diet.

Basilicata's famous sausage, the lucanica (after the region's ancient name, Lucania), is now produced nationwide. It's one of many products here and in neighbouring Calabria drawn from the pig, an animal well suited to the inventive local cooking that stems from generations of poverty – they've always extracted the most from land and animal. Simple vegetable (typically broccoli or aubergine) and pasta dishes, often spiced with fresh peperoncino or dried black pepper, are the norm.

The seas surrounding Sicily dominate the island's diet with abundant tuna, swordfish, anchovies, octopus and sardines (a quarter of Italy's fish comes from Sicily), while the long history of foreign rule can be seen in fennel and orange salads, couscous and sticky sweets featuring marzipan, pistachios, lemons and figs. As in Sicily, fish looms large in Sardinia's diet, here adding rock lobster to the mix. They have their own version of bottarga, a pressed grey mullet roe with roots in ancient Tunisia (Sicilians eat a tuna variety). However, Sardinians have always been more at home shepherding than fishing; a third of Italy's sheep graze here. Lamb is popular grilled over open fires, while the ewe's milk cheese, pecorino sardo DOP, is ubiquitous.

Five certified foods from Southern Italy

  • Soppressata di Calabria DOP: A slightly flattened, seasoned Calabrian salami
  • Pomodoro di San Marzano DOP: The finest sauce tomato in the world; produced near Naples
  • Fagiolo di Sarconi IGP: Basilicata's fine canellino-type bean; used fresh or dried
  • Agnello di Sardegna IGP: Sardinian lamb grazed on wild mountain herbs
  • Arancia rossa di Sicilia IGP: Seedless blood oranges at their best in the Sicilian climate and soil
Extract from Speak the Culture Italy, a Thorogood publication Speak the Culture series website / Buy online Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing