Simple, earthy, at once wholesome and sensual, as sophisticated in its purity as the most complex cuisine, as inspired in its aesthetics as the art and architecture of its culture, Italian cooking strikes a chord that resonates today as it did in the Medici courts.
Its enduring appeal can be traced to an ancient principle: respect for the essence of the thing itself — nothing more, nothing less.
Like Michelangelo freeing the prisoners that dwelt within the stone — innate, organic — an Italian chef seems intuitively to seek out the crux of the thing he is about to cook and flatter it, subtly, with the purest of complements. To lay a translucent sheet of prosciutto — earthy, gamey, faintly redolent of brine — across the juicy pulchritude of a melon wedge is a stroke of insight into the nature of two ingredients as profound as the imaginings of Galileo.
Simplicity is Key
Considering the pizzas, lasagnas, and red-drenched spaghetti that still pass for Italian food abroad (despite a wave of enlightenment that revived “Northern” techniques in the 1980s), it’s no surprise that visitors to Italy are often struck by the austerity of the true Italian dishes put before them. The pasta is only lightly accented, not drowning in an industrial ladle-full of strong, soupy sauce.
Shunning the complexities of heavy French sauces and avoiding the elaborate farce, Italian cuisine — having unloaded the aspirations of alta cucina onto its northern neighbors when Catherine de’ Medici moved (chefs and all) to Paris — stands alone, proud, purist, unaffected.
The Italians’ pride comes in part from a confidence in their raw ingredients, an earthiness that informs the appreciation of every citizen-connoisseur, from the roughest peasant in workers’ blue to the vintner in shoulder-tied cashmere: They are in touch with land and sea. In the country, your host can tell you the source of every ingredient on the table, from the neighbor’s potted goose to the porcini gathered in the beech grove yesterday.
So Many Regions, So Little Time
The spectrum of Italian regional cooking is as broadly varied as Italy’s terrain, and cuisine and countryside are intimately allied. Emerging into sunlight from the Great St. Bernard pass into the Valle d’Aosta, the Piedmont, the hills of Lombardy, you’ll find wood-lined alpine trattorias offering rib-sticking gnocchi and air-dried beef, bubbling pots of bagna cauda (hot dipping sauce of olive oil and garlic), slabs of polenta, hearty walnut torta (cake).
The pearl-spotted rice of Arborio, in the Po Valley, fuels an extraordinary array of risottos in Milan, where chefs shun olive oil in favor of the region’s rich butter. Descend to Alba and savor the earthy perfume of truffles, the muscular Barolo wines. Cross over into Liguria and the cuisine changes as abruptly as the landscape: Wild herbs, greens, and ground nuts flavor a panoply of sauces (consider the famous pesto, flavored with a “riviera” basil rarely found elsewhere), served as condiments to meat as often as over pasta.
The succulent pink pork of a Parma ham, the golden butterfat in a Reggiano cheese were nurtured on the same fertile soil of Emilia-Romagna, both the culinary and agricultural heart of Italy, while the bistecca of Tuscany comes from Chianina beef, pampered on local prairie grass and slaughtered at a tender age. Head south for sun-plumped eggplant, and quasi-tropical artichokes — in Rome, fried in delicate batter; in Calabria, stuffed with meat and sharp Pecorino from its hillside sheep herds. The chickpeas in Sicilian dishes remind you you’re nearly in North Africa.
And, of course, on this slender leg of land you are never far from the sea, and the harvest of its frutti di mare graces nearly every region — but none more than the islands and tide-washed shores of the south.
Careening in your rental car down the western coast, clinging to the waterfront through sea-shanty villages that cantilever over the roaring surf, you feel a morning lag: Your breakfast of latte macchiato and sugary cornetto has worn away. A real espresso would hit the spot; you hurtle down a web of switchbacks and pull into a seaside inn. You sip aromatic coffee and watch the waves. An hour passes in reverie — an aperitif, perhaps? Another hour over the Martini rosso, and you give in to the impulse, adjourning to the dining room. The odor of wood smoke drifts from the kitchen. A nutty risotto with a blush of tomato precedes a vast platter — austere, unembellished — of smoke-grilled fish, still sizzling, lightly brushed with oil, and glittering with rock salt. At the table beside yours, when the platter arrives, the woman rises and fillets the fish dexterously, serving her husband and sons.
Take Human Bites
There’s a wholesomeness in the way Italians eat that is charming and contagious. If American foodies pick and kvetch and French gastronomes worship, Italians plunge into their meal with frank joy, earnest appreciation, and ebullient conversation. Yet they do not overindulge: portions are light, the drinking gentle, late suppers spartan with concern for digestion uppermost. It’s as if the voice of Mamma still whispers moderation in their ear. They may, on the other hand, take disproportionate pleasure in watching guests eat, in surrounding them with congenial company, in pouncing on the bill. (This wholesome spirit even carries into the very bars: Unlike the dark, louche atmosphere of Anglo lounges and pubs, in Italy you’ll drink your amaro in a fluorescent-lit coffee bar without a whiff of sin in the air.)
Yet for all their straightforwardness, Italians are utterly at ease with their heritage, steeped from birth in the art and architecture that surrounds them. Without a hint of the grandiose, they’ll construct a still life of figs and Bosc pears worthy of Caravaggio; a butcher will drape iridescent pheasants and quail, heads dangling, with the panache of a couturier. Consider the artless beauty of ruby-raw beef on an emerald bed of arugula, named for the preferred colors of the Venetian painter Carpaccio; pure white porcelain on damask; a mosaic of olives and pimientos in blown glass; a flash of folkloric pottery on a polished plank of oak.
In fact, it must be said: A large part of the pleasure of Italian dining is dining in Italy. We have all eaten in Italian restaurants elsewhere. The food can be superb, the ingredients authentic, the pottery and linens imported by hand. Yet who can conjure the blood-red ocher crumbling to gold on a Roman wall, the indigo and pastel hues of fishing boats rocking in a marina, the snow flurry of sugar papers on a café floor? These impart the essence that — as much as the basil on your bruschetta — flavors your Italian dining experience.