For the last few weeks, I have been wrapped in the sensual pleasures of Italy – traveling north to south, starting in Milan and ending in Sicily. My focus? Italian cuisine, of course. In my opinion, Italian food is the star of taste and flavors, what the experts call “organoleptic value” or the properties of taste, odor, color and texture in food. Each region, town, or city has a signature product or dish that has been passed down from generation to generation. In the north, there are the creamy sauces with butter and sage, and in the south, tomato sauces heavy with extra virgin olive oil. I want to share these rich culinary experiences with you, so….
Allow me to take you on a brief food tour of Italy- north to south:
First stop: Milan, a perfect mix of time-honored and contemporary.
I am not much of a shopper, but when I walked down the mosaic marble floor of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall in Milan, I experienced lust for a Louis Vuitton handbag. The mall is lined with window-shopping pleasures such as Prada, Gucci, and Versace, displaying the in-vogue fashion under the spectacular blue glass domed ceiling built between 1865 and 1877.
This dichotomy of old and new is also at play in the Milanese cuisine. Modern eateries like the Panini Durini sandwich shop prides itself in blending classic and innovative. It is filled with millennials grabbing a quick panino and caffe macchiato while chatting and looking at their smartphones. They serve fun food innovations, smoothies and Caprese salad with golgi berries, that highlight the trend for food, nutrition, and sustainabilty.
Milan is known for its commerce and big business. It makes sense that its signature dish, Risotto alla Milanese, contains saffron, one of the most oppulent and expensive spices.
A connection between Milan and Naples goes back to the 15th century. It is a complex history including Italian wars and an arranged marriage between a Napolese duchess and the son of a Milanese ruler. The blend of these two cities and their cuisines is represented by one of my favorite restaurants in Milan- La Picola Napoli. I had such fun talking to Mimmo, the owner. In my limited Italian and his broken English, we managed to have a lively conversation about his life story. His family opened a pizza restaurant in Naples, and he started working there at age 14. Years later, he opened his own restaurant in Milan where he serves traditional dishes based on recipes from his family’s restaurant in Naples.
Next stop – Tuscany
Welcome to the “Fume di Vino,” river of wine at your table. When I think of Tuscany, I imagine never ending fields of sunflowers and dishes made with zucchini blossoms. Tuscany has its own signature flavors and dishes. Sauces are simple often made with just butter and sage.
What are the Tuscan basics?
The three aromatic vegetables – onion, carrot and celery, are used as a base for many of the Tuscan sauces. Dishes are flavored with capers, anchovies, pine nuts, dry white wine, garlic, rosemary, and sage. Pecorino (sheep) cheese, olives, and truffles provide the distinctive flavors of the region.
The flavors and textures of Tuscan food are simple, light, just like the sunflowers, growing freely in verdant soil, appreciated for their simple beauty.
Venice – fish markets and canals
Venice produce and fish markets are at the core of the local cuisine. Every morning, starting at 7:00 am, locals head to the Rialto Market for fresh fish and produce. You will find robust eggplants, numerous varieties of chili peppers, and plump red tomatoes to create a sauce for tonight’s pasta dish. Endless varieties of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans caught early in the morning are available for a very affordable price. I was happy to learn that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) requires that all species are labeled with its region of origin. For example, the sardines found at the market come from the Adriatic and Ionian zones. In the following video, you will get a glimpse of early morning at Rialto Fish Market. Note that prices are by the kilo.
In my opinion, the cookies alone are worth a trip to Venice. They come in all sorts of shapes and flavors and have long and interesting histories. My favorite, the Bussola, created on Burano Island, is round or S-shaped. It is sweet and lemony and just sturdy enough to be dipped into sweet wine for dessert. Venetian state archives from the 1500’s record that nuns living in the convent of Maffio (adjacent to Burano) were overindulging on Bussola and had to reduce the amount of money spent on them. I can understand their dilemma.
Finally, chaotic Sicily
Arriving in Sicily is nothing short of entering a different world. Driving is chaotic; stop signs, stop lights or even center lines are rare. If you do happen to come across a stop sign, it is generally ignored. Street markets are boisterous and helter-skelter. In comparison to the rest of Italy, everything seems more intense and heightened, including the cuisine. Sicily was invaded numerous times over the centuries, and each civilization left its mark on the fare. The Greeks brought olives, cheeses and the supreme queen of Sicilian cooking, the aubergine (eggplant). The Arabs introduced sugar cane, rice and citrus fruits. Etna, the still-active volcano, provides verdant soil for prickly pear cactus and Bronte pistachios. From the street food to the cannoli, Sicilian food is full of stimulating pleasures.
Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Sicily. She was sought after by a Roman prefect, but because she was a Christian and dedicated to God, she rejected his advances and was persecuted, a common fate for Christians during Roman times. Suffice it to say that a part of her female anatomy was violently removed, and to pay homage to her suffering, a dessert was created: Minni di Sant Aita – The Breasts of Saint Agatha:
Pasta alla Norma is another traditional dish in Sicily. It incorporates eggplant, tomatoes, and pasta into a delectable first course.
Thank you for taking my tour of Italian flavors, north to south. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but a good jumping off point for our studies of Italian food. Stay tuned for recipes for the above dishes, and you can bring a bit of Italy into your home.