On a trip to Tuscany many years ago I fell in love. But as a traveler to Italy it’s easy to fall in love with the country. The rolling hills, the soft evening light, and the Cyprus trees are some of the most relaxing scenery around. The warmth and happiness of the people is infectious, and the food, oh the local food is like no other!
Although I couldn’t bring the scenery home I can still enjoy the tastes of Italy here. It’s quite possible to recreate many of the dishes using our local food or to dine in restaurants that make some delicious versions of Italian cuisine. Let’s get familiar with this global favorite and see what grabs you.
Italian food runs a wide gamut depending on the region. In the southern part of Italy local food includes the use of tomatoes, fresh or as a rich sauce, and olive oil is used almost exclusively for cooking. Fresh ingredients like olives, garlic, anchovies, and capers adorn pastas which are served daily. Meats of choice include lamb, salami, and veal, with peppers and eggplants often present.
In Northern Italy there is less reliance on pasta (though it’s still served) as risotto and polenta, which is made of corn, takes center stage. Butter or lard is used rather than olive oil and anything that grows or is caught in the region can wind up on the table, including rabbit, quail, or shellfish.
When you think if Italian food, it’s likely that the first thing that comes to mind is pasta. Pasta was rated by Oxfam* as the world’s number one favorite food and I can understand why. The versatility of the noodles means you can combine it with a wide variety of fresh ingredients to create a meal in a bowl. You also have a wide range of shapes and sizes of pasta that all work to provide varying degrees of bite and to hold sauces differently – what a great invention! Speaking of that – while Italy is often thought to be pasta’s country of origin, many believe it was first created in China and then brought to Italy by Marco Polo, or that Arabs brought the dish when they invaded the land, or that Greeks had a version of it first. Does it really matter, all we care about is that it exists!
Local food can be Italianized (I think I made up that word) by simply adding Italian seasonings.The most widely used are basil, oregano, parsley, thyme, and rosemary. I like to sprinkle rosemary on roasted potatoes, or chicken. Basil is delicious in pasta or on the traditional Caprese salad made with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and balsamic glaze. Lasagna and other pasta is also made glorious with oregano and thyme. All it takes is the use of these seasonings to give a hint of Italy to any dish you prepare.
OK cheese-lovers, what would a pizza be without fresh ingredients like mozzarella or parmigiano reggiano? Yes, cheese, which is known in Italy as “formaggio”, plays an important role in several dishes. Fresh mozzarella is made from cow’s milk and rolled into balls and stored in water or brine to preserve the bright white color and freshness. Parmesan cheese is aged anywhere from 3-36 months and is best when freshly shaved or shredded onto food. Gorgonzola is the Italian version of blue cheese and has a strong, tangy flavor that is fabulous on salads, atop Italian bread, sprinkled over pastas or made into a cream sauce.
Italian cuisine tends to be quite healthy food as fresh ingredients are used and there is no heavy frying going on. The focus is on fresh, locally-sourced, healthy food and reasonable portions. The diversity of ingredients allows for the home chef to create a variety of dishes with an Italian flair. Top your pastas and pizzas with what you love, serve meats and seafood with ample veggies and seasoning and you’re well on your way to an Italian taste sensation.
Make it local
To get the freshest ingredients and for an assortment of Italian staples visit a Whole Foods Market at Alpharetta Avalon, Buckhead, or Midtown. If you’re in Marietta visit Harry’s Farmers Market, or the Decatur Farmers Market for folks in that area. Or here’s a list of other farmer’s markets in the greater Atlanta area: http://edibleatlanta.com/farmers-market-directory/
Hopefully you’ll be inspired to create some new Italian inspired dishes and fall in love with one of the most popular cuisines around the world.
Don’t feel like cooking tonight? Atlanta Bread offers some Italian inspired dishes, including our new Heirloom Tomato Salad, Caesar Salad, Bella Chicken Sandwich, or Chicken Pesto Panini!