Every cuisine has a collection of dry, canned, preserved and fresh staple ingredients that form the backbone of its repertoire. These staples show up time and again in countless dishes and define the characteristic tastes and textures of the cuisine. Italian cuisine is no different, and enormous regional variations in the cuisine notwithstanding, the Italian pantry is remarkably consistent across the country—one reason why we can talk rationally about a single, coherent “Italian cuisine” in the first place.
This post is dedicated to a description of the principal staples of Italian pantry. While I make no claims of being exhaustive in this listing, if you have these ingredients in your kitchen, you will be able to whip up the vast majority of Italian dishes, from whatever region. So if you want to maintain an Italian kitchen, here’s what you should keep in your pantry:
In many ways, cooking mediums can define a cuisine, and that is certainly true of Italian cookery. Most Italian savory dishes are cooked in some sort of fat, either sautéed gently (rosolato) in a relative small amount of it, or shallow or deep fried. When oven roasting, it is usual to coat the meat, fish or vegetable in oil. And even those dishes that start off using steaming, boiling or simmering in water or other liquids wind up in a rosolatura, like vegetables in padella or dressed with oil or oil-based sauces, like pasta.
One of the great traditional divides in Italian cookery has been defined by the use of cooking fats, with the North relying on butter while the Center and South rely on olive oil. This divides goes way back: there is a story that when Julius Caesar visited Cisalpine Gaul (now Italy north of the Apennines) and tasted butter for the first time, he was thoroughly disgusted—the stuff tasted to him like rancid tallow. (Well, maybe it was just not very good butter…) In modern times, with improved communications and transportation, together with mass marketing, this strict divide is breaking down. Northerners are using olive oil more frequently, while you begin to find cream in modern central and southern Italian dishes like fettuccine alla papalina or penne alla vodka. But even today, these preferences can persist. Angelina, who you may remember was from Campania, in the south of Italy, did not care for butter or cream, and would fry even American favorite like bacon and eggs in olive oil.
Here are the principal cooking fats used in modern Italian cooking:
- Olive Oil (Olio d’oliva): Where would Italian cooking be without olive oil? Perhaps more than any other ingredient, it characterizes Italian cooking, especially the cooking of olive oil growing regions like Liguria, Tuscany, Puglia and Sicily. If you want to maintain an Italian kitchen, you simply cannot do without olive oil. And really only extra virgin olive oil will do for most purposes, although so called ‘pure’ or ‘light’ olive oils lend themselves well to deep frying and making mayonnaise, where an extra virgin oil might be too heavy or assertive in taste. As with wines, Italy has an enormous variety of olive oils—literally hundreds—but some generalities are possible. Olive oils from southern Italy—principally Puglia and Sicily—tend to be deep green in color and very fruity in taste, while those from Liguria tend to be quite light both in color and taste, and those from Tuscany are nicely balanced.In general, I tend to prefer the bold taste of southern olive oils—a product of my southern Italian heritage, I suppose—but feel free to choose the olive oil that suits your personal taste. Of course, ideally, you would match the oil you use in a dish to the region it comes from—using Ligurian olive oil to make pesto, for example—but this might be taking authenticity a bit too far for most people. I usually try to find Italian olive oils, although other countries produce good olive oils—Spain, Greece and Morocco all come to mind—and many commercial olive oils, even under Italian sounding brand names, are either all or partially sourced from these countries. Olive oils are also being produced now in California, although I have not tried any and cannot speak to their quality.Olive oils are generally not cheap, but, like wine, they range in price from moderate to very expensive. Personally, I tend to keep three kinds of olive oils around: a reasonably priced ‘bulk’ extra virgin olive oil for every day cooking, a fine quality olive oil for use in salads and drizzling on finished dishes, and a large container of ‘light’ olive oil for deep and shallow frying and making mayo.
- Butter (Burro): The other principal fat in modern Italian cookery is, of course, butter. It predominates in the cooking of most northern regions, from Piemonte to Lombardia over to Venice, Alto Adige and Friuli, as well as, of course, Emilia-Romagna, where arguably the best dairy products in Italy come from. You can buy imported butter from Emilia-Romagna in the US and elsewhere, but the price is prohibitive for most people. When buying butter in the supermarket, look for so called “European style” butters, which tend to have more taste. Personally, I have found a local dairy that that makes wonderfully flavorful butter and, if that’s an option for you, I would heartily recommend it. If you like, you can even make your own butter, with not too much fuss, from un-homogenized cream. In most of Italy, butter is exclusively a cooking medium; it is never served at table for bread or anything else. (An Italian foodie, however, tells me that they do do this in some regions of the north, although personally I have never seen it.) Be sure to use unsalted butter—you can always salt the dish if it needs it.
- Vegetable Oil: Although less characteristic than olive oil, olio di semi, or ‘seed oil’, usually made from sunflower seeds, are increasingly popular for frying and every day cooking where the taste of olive oil is not an integral part of the dish. In the US, I always keep canola oil in the kitchen for frying and making non-Italian dishes, but use olive oil for just about everything else. Tomato sauces, for example, really lose a lot of character if you don’t use olive oil. Ditto for seafood.
- Mixed Oil and Butter: It is increasingly common to mix butter and oil in dishes that traditionally called for butter. Depending on the dish, this could be olive oil or a more neutral vegetable oil. This accomplishes two things: first, healthwise, it reduces the cholesterol content of the dish, while retaining the butter flavor. Second, since oil burns at a higher temperature than butter, it helps prevent burning. Personally, I rarely cooking a dish exclusively in butter any more, for both these reasons. And then there are dishes that actually call for a mixture of oil and butter, like the Piedmontese dish bagna caoda.
- Lard (Strutto): Although it is disappearing, lard was widely used in traditional Italian cooking, especially among the poor and in regions where there was little olive oil production. Although it surprises some people, lard, and not olive oil, was the traditional cooking medium in Campania, for example, and the original versions of classics like Neapolitan ragù were made with lard. Olive oil, which was expensive, was reserved for salads and fish dishes. But today lard still has its uses. I use lard myself, albeit sparingly, in dishes where I feel its ‘porky’ taste is essential to the character of the dish. And there is no better fat for deep frying—foods crisp up when fried in lard like no other fat. Try to find real lard from a local source—you will not believe the difference in taste.
Spices and Seasonings
- Salt (Sale): Who could imagine cooking without salt? Proper seasoning—not too much, not too little—is one good measure of the skill of a cook. Thomas Keller has some excellent advice: season enough to exalt the flavor of the food; if you can taste the salt itself, you have ‘salted’ the dish, not seasoned it. But it is very important to season sufficiently. Many cooks, at least in the US under-season their food out of concerns over the health effects of salt, but the result is inevitably a bland, ordinary and ‘flat’ dish. This goes particularly for making pasta: the cooking water should actually taste salty, or the pasta will taste flat, no matter how well seasoned the sauce may be. Salt is often necessary to draw out flavors, as in making broth, or for drawing out excess liquid from eggplant and other ‘watery’ vegetables. I always add a bit of salt when making a soffritto; it not only enhances the flavors of the aromatics (see below) but it helps prevent burning by drawing out their liquid. Some dishes—I am thinking of ajo ojo, for example, are actually meantto taste a bit salty, so use a generous amount of salt.In Italy, two kinds of salt are sold: sale grosso or coarse salt, and sale fino, or fine salt. Sale grosso is used for salting pasta water and other uses where the salt will have ample time to melt into the dish; sale fino is other cooking situations and at table. Sea salt is, of course, preferable if you can afford it. Trapani, in Sicily, is famous for its sea salt and, I can attest to its wonderful flavor. It is expensive, however, and like best quality olive oil, I usually reserve sea salt for topping off a finished dish or in salads. For everyday cooking, I would recommend using Kosher salt.
- Black Pepper (Pepe nero): It is surprisingly common in Italy for people to use pre-ground pepper. But here’s one case where I would not follow their lead. I always used freshly ground pepper from Tellicherry peppercorns if I can find them. Pepper is used quite discretely in Italian cooking, except in dishes—like the Tuscan beef stew called peposo—where its taste defines the dish. There is also a lovely Sicilian cheese, made with whole peppercorns called pepato. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Besides its use as a cooking ingredient, certain dishes—in particular thick soups—are nicely enhanced by a topping of freshly ground pepper. But the ‘theatrical’ use of enormous pepper grinders by waiters to top any and every savory dish is not an Italian custom—salads, for example, are not generally peppered in Italy (although having grown up in America I do like some pepper on my salad anyway).
- Hot Red Pepper (Peperoncino): Italian food is generally not particularly ‘hot’, certainly nothing compared with the cuisines of South Asia or Mexico. But in southern Italy, in particular in Calabria, dishes tend to be a bit spicier than in the center or north of the country. The peperoncino, dried hot pepper, is the spice of choice. In the US, the dried Mexican chile de árbol looks and tastes just like an Italian peperoncino. Whole chiles are preferable to the ubiquitous red pepper flakes, as the latter tend to burn in oil, but they can be used in a pinch—just be extra careful not to fry them too long. Pickled red peppers are a popular antipasto in the south, but not often used for cooking.
Under this heading I include fresh herbs and aromatic vegetables when used a flavorings rather than ingredients per se. The classic use of aromatics is to make a soffritto, the essential base for most Italian savory dishes. The most typical soffritto is a mixture of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery—the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Italian cooking—to which are sometimes added parsley, garlic and/or pancetta. Occasionally some other fresh herbs like rosemary or sage will also be added. But often, especially in central and southern Italy, the soffritto is limited to onion and/or garlic. The mixture is then sautéed gently in oil and/or butter until nice and soft, but never browned, to bring out the natural sweetness of the aromatics and allow their flavors to infuse the cooking medium. The main ingredient is then sautéed in the soffritto to absorb its wonderful flavor, a process called insaporire in Italian. The use of soffritto is one of the hallmarks of Italian cooking, and one of the little ‘secrets’ that make it so delicious.
- Garlic (Aglio): Garlic play a fundamental part in Italian cooking, particularly southern Italian cooking, but, contrary to popular belief, Italians use always use garlic with discretion, even in the south. More of than not, a garlic clove or two is slightly crushed to release its juices, sautéed gently in oil and then removed from the dish. Overly garlicky pasta sauces—just like so called ‘garlic bread’—are Italian-American inventions. As with black pepper, there are some dishes where the garlic is supposed to stand out, but the two that immediately come to mind—bagna caoda and pesto alla genovese—are northern, not southern dishes.
- Onion (Cipolla): Yellow onions will do for making a soffritto and most other uses in Italian cooking. The red onion, however, is typical of Tuscan cooking and practically a must for certain dishes where onion is to be used raw, like panzanella or fagioli e tonno, although the mild white onions, as well as the wonderfully sweet Vidalia onions, work very well in Italian dishes. If you only have yellow onions and plan to use them raw, soak them in several changes of cold water and rinse them well; this will take some of the harshness away.
- Parsley (Prezzemolo): Parsley is so common in Italian cooking that if you say someone is ‘like parsley’—’è come il prezzemolo‘—you mean that they keep turning up everywhere (often with the implication that you’re not necessarily thrilled to see them…) Parsley is a common ingredient in the ubiquitous soffritto, as noted above, and it is used to top off dishes, especially garlic and oil based pasta dishes where grated cheese is not called for (see below) like the classic aglio, olio e peperoncino.
- Fresh Herbs (Erbe): Besides parsley, the classic Italian fresh herbs include rosemary (rosmarino)—used in roasts—which adds a strong but pleasant ‘piney’ flavor, and sage (salvia), which lends a more subtle savor to many dishes, especially ones with sauces. Sage and butter is a classic condimento in bianco for fresh stuffed pasta dishes. Contrary to popular belief, oregano (origano) is not all that typical of Italian cooking, in particular in central and northern Italy. (Angelina hardly ever used oregano, by the way, and I never really got used to its flavor.) It is used in the south, but like garlic, with discretion. In fact, all herbs should be used with discretion—one of the hallmarks of bad Italian cooking outside Italy is the over-use of herbs. And, of course, use fresh herbs whenever you can. They make a world of difference. The one exception is oregano, whose flavor is improved by drying.
Here’s another category of flavorings that are used less today than traditionally, largely due to health concerns. But cured meats can add a depth of flavor that cannot be achieved any other way.
- Pancetta: Far and away the most common cured meat used in Italian cookery, pancetta is salt cured pork belly. Although often referred to in English as ‘Italian bacon’, pancetta is not smoked except in the northeastern part of the country, where the Austrian influence was strong. Pancetta comes either as a slab or rolled up looking a bit like a roast. Chopped up in a small dice, it is a common feature of soffritti and is particularly useful in bean dishes, stews and meat-based pasta sauces. Pancetta is the sine qua non for making the classic Roman pasta dishes spaghetti alla carbonara and bucatini all’amatriciana. Although perhaps more typical of cold weather months, I usually keep a chunk of pancetta in my fridge all year round. It also freezes well and defrosts in no time. Sliced pancetta is not very well suited to cooking—try to look for the whole slab or roll, and ask for a good chunk that you can cut up yourself as you need it. (It will also keep fresher for longer this way.) In Italy, it is not uncommon to find pre-cubed pancetta, and I have very occasionally seen this kind of pancetta in the US.
- Prosciutto (Prosciutto crudo). Prosciutto is sometimes used instead of pancetta as a flavoring element in soffritti. It provides a more ‘refined’ flavor. Prosciutto fat is sometimes used in pasta sauces as well. Perhaps it most famous use in cooking is in the Roman classic saltimbocca alla romana. I generally don’t keep prosciutto around, but buy it as I need it. Cooked ham, or prosciutto cotto, is used for a limited number of dishes, generally more modern ones such as fettuccine alla papalina.
- Salumi. Usually eaten sliced as antipasti or as a snack in panini, other kinds of cured meats like salamis can occasionally be used in cooking, for example in the classic Neapolitan genovese or in a pizza rustica. I buy them as needed.
There are some common ingredients, preserved in either salt, oil or vinegar—sotto sale, sott’olio or sott’aceto—that are common flavorings in Italian dishes, especially those of southern Italy. I always keep these on hand.
- Anchovies (Acciughe or alici): I love these little fellas, so much that I can eat them right out of the jar. Anchovies are one of those ingredients that make Italian food typically Italian. They are packed with flavor, including that fifth flavor known as imami. While they sometimes steal the show, as in linguine con le alici, more often anchovies melt into the dish and provide a subtle back flavor that is not at all fishy. The use of anchovy as a flavoring in Italian cookery goes back a long way—all the way to ancient Roman times, when garum—which is still used today under the name of colatura di alici–played the role similar to the one that salt does today in seasoning savory dishes. The best anchovies come packed in salt, usually in a large tin. These need to be rinsed and filleted under running water before using. More convenient and easier to find are anchovies packed in oil. If you can afford it, try to find the ones in jars rather than cans, as they tend to be of higher quality, with a higher price to match. Still and all, canned anchovies are perfectly acceptable.
- Olives (Olive): Cured olives, either dry or in brine, are used in many dishes. Most common in Italian cooking are the smallish black Gaeta olives. Other kinds of olives are generally eaten rather than used in cooking. Keep them in the fridge and they will last a long, long time.
- Capers (Capperi): Another staple of the Italian kitchen, capers can be packed either in salt (preferred for most cooking) or in vinegar. The best Italian capers come from Pantelleria, an island about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia.
- Bouillon cubes (Dadi da brodo): This is one of the dirty little secret of many Italian cooks. Like anchovies, bouillon cubes (usually chicken) can be used to give some extra ‘umph’ to many savory dishes. Although broth made from bouillon cubes is an abomination when used by itself, I have to confess that when I don’t have homemade broth on hand, I do resort to them when making risotto. Maggi is the brand most used in Italy. In the US, the best brand I’ve found goes by the awful name of ‘Better than Bouillon'; it come in the form of a rather thick paste rather than cubes.
- Wine. Wine is widely used in Italian cooking for a variety of purposes.You need it for making most risotti, as well as many pan-roasts and sauces. Both red and white wine is used, although white is by far the more common option. You need not use the best wine, but avoid ‘cooking wine’ at all costs! I always keep a bottle of relatively cheap white wine on hand for cooking. You can also leftover red wine that is no longer very drinkable for cooking, but don’t wait until it turns to vinegar!
- Vinegar: Italians principally use both red and white wine vinegars. Red wine vinegar has a most assertive flavor, while white wine vinegar (which I prefer) does not ‘stain’ the food it seasons, an advantage in potato salads, for example. Balsamic vinegar, which has become all the rage recently, is reserved for special occasions and purposes, usually not to dress a regular green salad. The best vinegars can be quite pricey, and the price of true aged balsamic vinegar is astronomic.
Canned, dried and frozen goods
While some cooks might turn their noses up at the thought of using canned products—and some canned products are truly vile—it is very common in Italian cookery to resort to certain canned goods, most commonly, of course, in the case of canned tomatoes. But canned beans and peas are excellent and convenient substitutes for the fresh or dried varieties.
- Canned tomatoes (Pomodori pelati or just pelati). An absolutely indispensible component of any Italian kitchen, proper canned tomatoes are also one of the most challenging ingredients to find outside Italy. The issue is so important, in fact, that I’ve dedicated a whole post just to selecting canned tomatoes in the US. I strongly recommend that you read that post, but the bottom line is that most canned tomatoes you will find in supermarkets in the US contain an artificial substance called sodium chloride. (According to one reader, this goes for Australia, too.) The effect of sodium chloride is to prevent canned tomatoes from falling apart when they cook. The problem is, in Italian cooking, this is exactly what you want them to do! So the most important factor in choosing canned tomatoes is to find a brand that does not contain this ingredient.
- The other main thing to bear in mind is to avoid all the extraneous ‘flavors’ that are added to canned tomatoes—especially the so called “Italian style” canned tomatoes with oregano or peppers or whatnot added. In reality, nothing could be less Italian. Most canned tomatoes in Italy are packed only with salt and perhaps a basil leaf or two. Try to find a brand that contains only tomatoes and those ingredients. Imported Italian canned tomatoes are your best bet, especially those from San Marzano in Campania, but reasons having to do with US tariffs, they usually come packed in tomato purée, so you need to account for that by either removing the purée (a bit fussy for me) or by adding water to whatever it is you are cooking to dilute it. Another option is to use ‘crushed’ tomatoes, which can be a fine choice but some brands of crushed tomatoes are just too thick and heavy, so be careful.
- Canned and dried beans: I always keep canned cannellini beans and chickpeas (ceci) on hand. They are, of course, essential elements in pasta e fagioli or pasta e ceci, two quick weeknight dinners that we enjoy at any time of year. Cannellini, in particular, are used in the iconic summertime antipasto, fagioli e tonno, as well as to accompany roast or grilled meats. Canned peas, while used less often, are also a staple in our house, if only to make one of my favorites, pasta e piselli. All of these pasta and legume combinations, so typical of southern Italian cooking, are healthy and very nutritious, traditionally providing a complete protein for folks who could not afford meat. The main factor is selecting canned legumes is their texture: some brands are so soft they turn to mush when cooked and some even break apart when being tossed in a salad. Others are a bit too firm—although this is a lesser defect, as it can always be corrected by cooking them until tender. Dried beans are said to be superior, and when I want to use beans by themselves, as in a dish like fagioli al fiasco, I do use them. Otherwise, personally, I find that the extra time they require is not justified by the fairly minimal difference in taste and texture. Both canned and dried beans last forever, so I always keep both kinds around.
- Lentils (Lenticchie). Unlike other legumes, lentils do not can well. They pick up an unmistakable ‘canny’ flavor that does not go away when combined with other ingredients. And canned lentils are invariably mushy. So dried lentils are the way to go. The good news is that lentils do not need any soaking (except when it is very important that they keep their shape, as when used in a salad) and cook in a relatively short time, usually less than an hour in a conventional pot and in just a few minutes in a pressure cooker. I always keep some dried lentils on hand to make one of my favorite pasta dishes, pasta e lenticchie.
- Frozen peas (Piselli surgelati): Peas are one of those few vegetables that are usually better frozen than fresh. This is because peas begin to lose their sweetness immediately after being picked, so by the time they get to the store, they are usually mealy and rather tasteless. Or at least, that has been my experience. So I used frozen peas for almost all dishes that call for peas.
- Other frozen vegetables. Except for peas, I am not a big fan of frozen vegetables. They just don’t taste right to me, and freezing changes their texture. But they do have their uses: in fact, Angelina herself was not above resorting to frozen artichoke hearts and asparagus when making her famous Fried Vegetables, one of her signature dishes.
- Dried porcini mushrooms: While fresh porcini are wonderful grilled or sautéed on their own, drying actually improves them for use as a flavoring for risotto or pasta sauces, or in stews. In the Fall and Winter, dried porcini are always in stock in my kitchen. Beware, as good quality dried porcini are not cheap. Try to look for the ones that come in fairly intact slices, not all broken up into small pieces, which is a sign of inferior quality. Cheaper and also very good are dried Chinese mushroom, which make for an acceptable substitute if porcini are not available or simply out of your price range.
- Canned tuna (Tonno sott’olio). Another staple that should never go missing in your Italian pantry! Of course, it should be packed in olive oil if you can find it. If not, some sort of oil, as water packed tuna is too dry and too tasteless for Italian dishes. Avoid ‘light’ tuna for the same reasons. If you can find nothing else, then make up for the flavor deficit by using a bit more oil and/or salt in your dish. There are some very expensive tunas out there, usually jarred rather than canned, like ventresca, which is tuna belly and admittedly is really delicious. Of course, tuna like that would be wonderful for a salad. But for everyday cooking, regular canned tuna is just fine.
Like France, Italy is home to a multitude of different cheeses, Most of these are eaten as themselves at the end of the meal as a kind of savory ‘dessert’. But a few cheeses are widely used in cooking, particularly on pastas. In fact, the very first condiment for pasta, dating from before the arrival of the tomato in Italy, was cheese. The most common cheese used in cooking include the world-famous parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano, both of which are used grated on pasta. A less expensive but very good substitute for parmigiano-reggiano is called grana padano. Besides grating cheeses, some softer cheese, notably young gorgonzola, called gorgonzola dolce, are melted into cream sauces, again usually for pasta. Although there are passable US versions of all of these cheese, there is really no substitute for the real thing. These items are a bit expensive, but a little goes a long way, and they keep rather well.
Two other cheeses are commonly used in cooking: mozzarella, which has pride of place in the cooking of Campania, and ricotta, indispensible for many stuffed pastas. These are fresh cheeses so they are quite perishable, so you should buy them as you need them. The good news is that even supermarket ricotta is quite passable, though some brands tend to be quite watery (ie, not sufficiently drained of their whey) so you need to drain it in a colander before using it for cooking. The bad news is that it is very difficult to find good mozzarella, even the expensive ‘artisanal’ kinds are not the real thing. Supermarket mozzarella can be improved by soaking it in a mixture of equal parts water and milk seasoned with salt. Even in Italy real mozzarella can be hard to find, since it doesn’t travel very well. When we lived in Rome, we used to look forward to visiting some friends that lived in Latina, in southern Lazio on the edge of the production zone. Now that was mozzarella! Anyway, if you can find it, the pasta maker Garofalo exports mozzarella di bufala and it is excellent.
A very important note: do not assume that grated cheese goes on every pasta dish. In general, cheese does not go on pasta with fish sauces. Nor does it go on ajo e ojo or other garlic-and-oil based pasta dishes. It is also important to note that, contrary to popular belief, parmigiano and pecorino are not interchangeable. As a general rule, spicy dishes call for ‘spicy’ cheese like pecorino, not parmigiano, or even more often, no cheese at all. Southern dishes call for pecorino while northern dishes call for parmigiano, although there are many exceptions, with parmigiano being used all over Italy, north and south. On this blog, the recipe will specify whether the dish calls for grated cheese. If nothing is said, then the dish does not call for grated cheese.
Pasta, Rice and Polenta
Last, but certainly not least, are the farinaceous foods that typify the first courses of an Italian meal. Where would Italian cuisine be without these foods? Pasta, in particular, really deserves its own post—in fact, there have been books written on the subject—but for now just a few notes with the basic considerations:
- Dried Pasta (Pasta secca): Of course, in any Italian kitchen there has got to be pasta around at all times. Most pasta you will find at the store will be so called pasta secca, or factory-made, durum wheat pasta. This find of pasta falls into three basic categories according to shape: (1) long pastas like spaghetti, linguine and bucatini, (2) short or ‘stubby’ pastas like rigatoni and penne, as well as conchiglie (shells), farfalle (meaning ‘butterflies’ but usually called bowties in English) and many other ‘specialty’ shapes, and (3) soup or ‘spoon’ pasta, those tiny shapes like tubetti, risoni (known in the US as orzo) or stellette. There are some dishes that are strongly associated with a particular pasta shape or shapes, like bucatini all’amatriciana, spaghetti alle vongole (also made with linguine), pasta e piselli (usually made with tubetti) and so on.Generally speaking, the sauce will determine the kind of pasta that you should use. It is difficult (impossible, actually) to give hard and fast rules—this is something that you get a feel for over time and with experience. But some general rules of thumb are possible. Long pastas tend to go well with tomato and other smooth sauces, as well as garlic and oil based sauces like clam sauce. Short pastas, especially those with a concave shape or with holes in them, tend to go well with chunky sauces, such as chiocciole con salsiccia, piselli e ricotta. Spoon or soup pasta, as the name implies, go well with soups and soup-like dishes eaten with a spoon, like pasta e piselli. In any event, in each recipe you will find on this blog, the appropriate pasta shape is indicated. Beware: the names of pasta shapes can vary across regions, like bucatini, which are called perciatelli in Naples.
- Fresh Pasta (Pasta fresca aka pasta all’uovo): This is the pasta you may at home with flour and eggs. And I say at home because store-bought fresh pasta, even at finer places, are usually not very good. Mostly the problem is that they use durum wheat flour, which makes the pasta uncharacteristically chewy. The other problem is that the pasta is almost invariably rolled out too thick, while the best fresh egg pasta is silkily smooth and thin. However, you can find some imported dried egg pastas in stores, usually fettuccine or pappardelle, that are quite good in a pinch. But it is actually quite easy to make fresh egg pasta at home, so I encourage you to give it a try! Generally speaking, oil based and ‘rustic’ sauces from southern Italy go with pasta secca, and delicate, cream- or butter-based sauces from the North go with pasta fresca. But there are many exceptions to the rule. Carbonara, for example, is typically made with spaghetti, but can also be made with short pasta like penne or rigatoni, or even with fettuccine. Moreover, not all paste fresche are made with eggs or with soft flour, especially in the south. For example, the typical Puglian pasta called orecchiette is made with durum flour and water.
- Rice (Riso): While traditionally pasta ruled the roost in the south of Italy, rice was the typical staple of the north, the main ingredient for primi piatti, more specifically, of course, for making risotto. There are three main types of Italian rice: (1) arborio, which is best known outside Italy and usually the least expensive; (2) vialone nano, from the Veneto, and my personal favorite, especially in Venetian-style risotto, and (3) carnaroli, from Lombardia and considered by many to be the ‘king’ of risotto rices; it is also the most expensive of the three. All of these rices have particular properties that make them particularly suitable for making risotto: they stand up to constant stirring and release their starch to give a lovely creamy consistency to the dish. More generic, less expensive short rices are generally used in Italy for soups and salads, but these are not often to be found elsewhere.
Long-grain rice is generally not used in Italian cooking, but can be used as a substitute without much fuss in soups or in salads. They will not do for making risotto, however, as no amount of stirring will produce the creaminess that is characteristic of the dish—long grain rice will rather turn to mush if it is stirred too long or too often. But Italian cooks outside Italy sometimes turn to, believe it or not, converted rice (eg Uncle Ben’s) as a substitute. In fact, converted rice is sometimes used even in Italy itself as an easy alternative in tavole calde (a kind of fast food joint) and other modest eating places, especially when it is made en masseand needs to be kept warm. Use it if you need to, but it will not be the same as a true risotto made from one of the three classic types of rice.
- Polenta. Polenta is simply cornmeal, but there are various types of polenta flour you should use according to the region and dish you are making, as well as your personal taste. The most common type of polenta flour is called bramata, a medium-coarse, yellow cornmeal. It is used for rustic polenta dishes and is well suited for chilling and grilling or baking. It is the kind most often found both inside and (especially) outside Italy. You can use it as a kind of ‘all purpose’ polenta flour. For a finer texture, which results in a softer, more refined polenta, use the kind of polenta known as fioretto, which is very finely ground. In parts of northern Italy, particularly in the Veneto, a finely ground white cornmeal called polenta bianca is quite commonly used to accompany local dishes like baccalà alla vicentina. A rather unusual, but delicious polenta is made with a mixture of buckwheat and cornmeal, called polenta taragna, both very coarsely ground. It is very typical of the Valtellina—the Alpine area of Lombardia which is home to the buckwheat pasta known as pizzoccheri—and also eaten a further to the south, in the areas around Brescia and Bergamo. Rather than a sauce, copious amounts of cheese and butter are usually added just before serving this kind of polenta. For a tutorial on making polenta, see this post.
- Flour. An essential part of the pantry if you want to make your own pasta or pizza at home, but also used to thicken soups and sauces (especially bechamel) and in breading. Flour is, of course, the basis of most baked goods, including bread, although most Italian cooks will leave the baking to bakers, who are still a common feature in Italian life. For making pasta and pizza, the best flour is the “OO” type, which is more finely ground than ordinary flour used for baking. “OO” can be hard to find, but all-purpose flour works quite well for both purposes. See posts on making fresh pasta and home-style pizza for some tips on using flour.
- Bread (Pane). Finally, though not exactly a pantry item, I should mention bread. Not only is bread present at each and every Italian meal, there to accompany the food and, especially to sop up juices (an operation known in Italian as ‘fare la scarpetta’ or making the little show) but bread is also used in cooking, most particularly in Tuscany, where it is used in many soups as well as in the famous bread salad known as panzanella. Finding the right kind of bread—with a nice crust and firm crumb—is very difficult in the US. The so called ‘Italian bread’ you will often find in supermarkets, made in the shape of a swollen baguette and sprinkled with sesame seeds, is a joke. Even freshly baked ‘artisan’ breads tend to be too soft, or the crumb too fine. Frankly, I am still searching for a good alternative, but so far the most promising seems to be the ciambatta style breads.