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It has been a while since I have been back to Italy. As my family starts to plan for our trip next June, I am reminded of just how wonderful the food is. Please enjoy this article from our friend Margie Longano Miklas originally printed in the August 2014 issue.
Mention Italy and one of the first things anyone talks about is the food. Italians certainly pride themselves in this single most important aspect of their culture, and each region in Italy is known for its own specialty meals. While it would take a book such as the 928-page cookbook, “La Cucina - The Regional Cooking of Italy,” to thoroughly discuss each of these regional cuisines, a few favorites immediately come to my mind.
Last year, when I traveled to the non-touristy area of Puglia in the "heel" of Italy, I tasted orechiette buckwheat pasta for the first time. I found it to be surprisingly delicious. The Pugliese are known for their rustic style of cooking and are gaining quite a following as their meals are prepared as simple, fresh, and wholesome. Since durum wheat grows in abundance here, this whole wheat type of pasta is prevalent. Eggs were at one time considered a luxury, so the pasta is made without eggs.
Another of my favorite foods of this region is taralli, a little snack served alongside bread. This crunchy tortellini-shaped snack is a mix between a cracker and a pretzel. Although you may find them in other regions of Italy, Puglia is the place where they originated.
The creamiest of cheeses, burrata, is also a Puglia specialty, so don't miss it when you are here. Unlike mozzarella and buffalo mozzarella; burrata is very "liquidy" and creamy with a distinct taste, sort of like a rind with a liquid center. Try it and you will never forget it.
While Rome is the capital of Italy and most tourists are keen on experiencing the monuments and landmarks, the Eternal City also prides itself on its specialty dishes. Without question, two of the time-honored dishes specific to Rome are pasta alla carbonara and cacio e pepe. As many times as I have visited Rome, it was not until last year that I tasted cacio e pepe for the first time, and now it has become my favorite pasta dish. I have even learned to make it at home, although it does not compare to what I savored at Roma Sparita in Trastevere. Their signature dish is served in a shell made from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Recommended restaurants for carbonara in Rome include Da Danilo in the Esquilino area, Da Enzo in Trastevere, Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio, and Da Sergio in Campo dei Fiori. These recommendations are courtesy of Eating Italy Food Tours.
Pesce crudo, or raw fish, is a favorite in the Italian coastal cities, due to the continuous availability of the freshest fish. Since Sicily is an island, fish is a specialty, and none is more popular than pesce crudo. Fishermen used to season some of their catch with salt, olive oil, and lemon, and eat it for lunch. Now pesce crudo is in high demand at many Sicilian restaurants.
Although there is no limit to the pairings, Catania's Osteria Ristorante Antica Sicilia features "beccafico" sardines, which are rolled sardines filled with garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley, pine nuts, and sultanas. On the other side of Sicily, at Bye Bye Blues Risotorante in Mondello, near Palermo, a raw fish combination with black salt is served. Another appetizer featured is carpaccio of red prawns, calamari and mayonnaise salad with bottarga (salted mullet roe).
One of the best-known traditions here is cicchetti, snacks served in hors-d'oeuvre sizes in bars throughout the city. A fun experience is known as the cicchetti crawl, or the Venetian crawl, which involves traveling from one bar to the next to sample some cicchetti and wash it down with a glass or two of vino. Local Venetian workers make a habit of this, and the food selection can include deep fried mozzarella cheese, various types of crostini, olives, and all forms of seafood and pesce crudo. They vary from one bàcaro to the next, and the best places are usually found in the small alleys away from the crowds.
Some of these bàcari date back to the 15th century and are truly a place to immerse you into the Venetian culture. One of the most famous in Venice is Ca’ d’Oro/Alla Vedova in the Canareggio sestiere (neighborhood). The prices are inexpensive and here you can even find polpette, meatballs made of pork.
Be adventurous the next time you are in Italy and opt for the regional specialty. The chefs will be honored and you will never be disappointed.