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Classic Italian Recipes, Or: National Favorites

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Italian cooking is very difficult to pin down -- almost every city and town has its specialties, and there are regional trends too; the end result is a huge number of local cuisines rather than a single national cuisine. However, there are some dishes that you will find almost everywhere, and that are now standards among the many Italian communities scattered across the globe.
  1. Antipasti, or Appetizers
  2. Minestre e Zuppe: Soups
  3. Risotto
  4. Pasta: Spaghetti, Penne, and So On
  5. Baked and Stuffed Pasta
  6. Polenta
  1. Fish
  2. Meats: Beef and Veal
  3. Meats: Poultry, Lamb, Pork, and Game
  4. Italian Vegetables
  5. Chilled and Creamy Italian Desserts, And Fritters and Treats
  6. Italian Cakes, Pies, And Biscotti

Antipasti, or Appetizers

An Antipsto Misto

The word "antipasto" means "tidbit before the meal," (ante, before - pasto, meal) and Italian antipasti vary considerably from Region to Region. In some Regions, for example Piemonte, they play an extremely important role, and a meal wouldn't seem quite right without them. In others, for example Campania, there was no established tradition of serving antipasti -- according to Carola Francesconi, Neapolitans only began to enjoy them in the 20th century. And well they should, because antipasti are tasty.

Minestre e Zuppe: Soups

Tortellini in Broth

Italians have been making soups since the dawn of time, and though people often think of pasta as the classic Italian first course dish, I would argue that the honor should more properly fall to soups, because pasta is much more regional: Before modern commercial food distribution, dried durum wheat pasta was much more common in the south, while in the center-north people made fresh egg noodles and stuffed pasta, and in some parts of the north they didn't eat much pasta at all, preferring risotto or polenta instead. But everyone eats soup.

Risotto

Risotto ai Porcini, Simmering

Northern Italy has extensive wetlands that are superbly well suited to growing rice, and indeed North Italians have, developing a number of short-grained strains that are excellent for making risotto, because the grains give off starch as they cook, conferring a creamy texture to the dish. Among the Italian short-grained strains, the best for making risotto are Arborio, Vialone Nano, and Carnaroli. Here is a selection of classic risotti.

Pasta: Spaghetti, Penne, and So On

Spaghetti with Clams

Pasta is an almost infinitely variable universe, and wherever you go in Italy you will discover new sauces for it, even in the north where it was not as popular in the past as it is now. Amidst all this variety, however, there are some sauces you can be fairly certain of finding everywhere.

Baked and Stuffed Pasta

Christmas Lasagna

Baked pasta is a another universe to explore: There's tremendous variety, everything from quick (relatively) easy Ligurian pesto lasagna through winter comfort foods and onto the spectacular Neapolitan Carnival lasagna recipes that take hours and hours to prepare. Stuffed pasta is almost as variable; some of the fillings are meat-based and others have greens or cheese; some stuffed pasta is sauced, some goes into soups, and some is baked -- rich holiday foods at their finest.

Polenta

Polenta, Cooking in a Copper Paiolo

Polenta is cornmeal mush, and one might think it inconsequential. However, it became the staple food of the northern poor following the introduction of corn in the 1700s, and was also adopted by the wealthy, because it's an excellent accompaniment to stews and creamy dishes. Grilled, it can almost replace bread, and it does wonderful things when baked too. In short, tasty and versatile. Its one drawback is that it takes time and effort to make from scratch, and for this reason many Italians buy it already cooked.

Fish

Fresh Fish

Italy has thousands of miles of coastline, with all kinds of sea bottoms. As a result, the fish supply is rich and varied, and as you might expect, fish play a major role in the diet.

Meats: Beef and Veal

The Porterhouse Cut

Until relatively recently -- after the War -- few Italian families could afford to eat meat more than once or twice a week, and therefore meat-based dishes had a festive aura to them. In other words, these recipes would have been for Sunday Dinner or other festive occasions.

Meats: Poultry, Lamb, Pork, and Game

Boned Stuffed Chicken

One wouldn't think so today, when gazing at the meat counter of an Italian market, but chicken was once more expensive than beef, and a great delicacy. Those were, of course, free-range chickens, and if you can find true free-range chickens they are well worth the expense. The other meats Italians have always enjoyed are lamb, and of course pork; families raised pigs to transform them into cold cuts, but also enjoyed the fresh meat. Some recipes:

Italian Vegetables

Cavolo Nero, Black Leaf Kale

Vegetables have always played a major role in the Italian diet, and there are a great many traditional ways to prepare them. It would be impossible to list them all, but here is a selection:

Chilled and Creamy Italian Desserts, And Fritters and Treats

Panna Cotta

The oven is a late-comer to the Italian kitchen: People out in the country had them for baking bread, but city folk had bakers to meet the need, and cooked on the hearth at home. So most traditional home-made Italian desserts are puddings of one sort or another. The Other Option, lacking an oven, is to fry, and we finish up this section with fritters and treats:

Italian Cakes, Pies, And Biscotti

Cassata alla Siciliana: A Tasty Slice

The oven is a late-comer to the Italian kitchen: People out in the country had them for baking bread, but city folk had bakers to meet the need, and cooked on the hearth at home. Because of this, there aren't many traditional home-baked Italian cakes. Nor, for that matter, cookies. But we have some, and here's a selection:

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