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This Week!
What in the world does "Orecchiette" mean?

.:. Italy is a small country, but it is wonderfully varied in terms of geographic layout and regional customs and cultures and history. This explains why every region varies so greatly in the ranges of tastes and specialties it offers to a gourmet palate.

.:. There is a general approach to cooking, but each region’s specialties are intimately related to its specific climatic, agricultural and social characteristics. You can choose a pasta dish from Piedmont or Val d’Aosta or Lombardy that is dressed with wild game sauce, or one of the innumerable versions of pasta sauce that is derived from fish and shell fish - they are typical of regions that are on the sea: of these Veneto cuisine is particularly, and justifiably, renowned. From the wholesome specialties created with ingredients grown in the serene, sunny fields of Emilia Romagna, we go to dishes whose flavors distinguish themselves for their violent impact, denoting a strongly assertive use of spices and seasoning typical of the South of Italy where flavors are not gradually mediated as they customarily are in the North.

.:. It may not come as a surprise to learn that in Italy, a country bounded mainly by the sea, fish is a staple, used either as an ingredient for sauces, or as a main dish. Fish soup (zuppa di pesce) is made from several types of fish and there are also many versions of it. Each region has its own name for it: brodetto, boreto or cacciucco among others.

Whatever kind of Italian meal you eat - in an Italian home or in a restaurant, in simple or sophisticated style - it is bound to include a primo, which really has no equivalent in the ‘starters’ served in other countries. The primo can be one of the many kinds of soups - with rice, pasta and vegetables among the possible ingredients - but much more often it is a risotto or pasta dish.

.:. Over the years pasta has become almost a symbol of Italian food. In a Billy Wilder film, Juliet Mills says that in Italy one could go on eating pasta without ever having the same dish twice - which is exactly what it is.

.:. The basic characteristic of risotto (distinguishing it from boiled rice of the type served with Chinese food) is that the rice is first simmered in olive oil (or butter, according to the Milanese tradition) with onion, and then cooked slowly with broth added slowly.

.:. It would take a whole cookery book to give a complete overview of all the different dishes you may come across. We shall just list some of the most common ways in which pasta is served.
Sugo al pomodoro is the common tomato sauce.
Ragù. Meat sauce, with onion, tomato, and other vegetables.
Pesto. Condiment typical of Liguria made with basil, pecorino cheese, pinoli, all of the above finely chopped and mixed with olive oil.
Amatriciana. Tomato, bacon, red hot pepper, olive oil, and pecorino cheese.
Carbonara. Bacon chips, olive oil, garlic, eggs, pecorino and Parmesan cheese.
Lasagne al forno. Pasticcio plate made of lasagne (a wide thin pasta leaf), ragù, cheese, and white sauce (béchamel).
Cannelloni ripieni. Small cylinders of pasta stuffed with meat, vegetables and cheese. Baked in the oven with white sauce (béchamel).
Orecchiette con cime di rape. Typical dish from Apulia, condiment of boiled turnip tops dressed with olive oil, garlic and tomato.
Spaghetti con cavolfiori are dressed with cauliflower, which has been saut‚ed in olive oil with a touch of garlic.
Ravioli is a very ancient dish that goes back to the 10th century AD and was created in the inland of Liguria. Ravioli are made from a rolled pasta dough, which can be filled either with meat, ham, cheese and spices or, the magro version, with vegetables and cheese. Several of the aforementioned sauces are also appropriate for ravioli dishes.

Italian cuisine does not stop with a primo piatto It offers such an array of gastronomic choices that it becomes difficult to classify them. The secondo is usually coupled with a contorno, a separate plate of either raw or cooked vegetables.

.:. Polenta. Corn-meal mush, a typically Northern Italian dish, has crossed the national borders to obtain international notoriety and fame. The corn-meal is mixed with either milk or water or both, and cooked until it acquires the proper density and firmness. It can be dressed with various condiments: sausage and tomato, codfish, cheese, mushrooms, game etc.

.:. Carni arrosto. There are many other ways of roasting meat, besides roast-beef, which is commonly cooked in Italy in original and creative ways. The various ways of roasting meats such as: beef, pork, veal, turkey, and chicken, go from the filetto in crosta, fillet rolled in puff-pastry, to the more traditional method with butter, oil, aromatic herbs and onion. Brasato, braised rump of beef, can also be considered a variant of roast, slightly stronger in flavor and cooked with a number of different vegetables.

.:. Carni lesse. A typical Northern Italian dish, mixed boiled meat can be made with several cuts - beef, pork, calf’s head, spiced pork sausage, veal - which come served with various kinds of sauce: green sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup, mostarda. (Do not assume that ‘mostarda’ means mustard. Italian mostarda is made of fruit in a special sweet & sour combination and is generally used as a condiment for lesso in Piedmont and Lombardy.)

.:. Vitello tonnato. Boiled veal, sliced and covered with a sauce of blended tuna fish, anchovies, capers, lemon and mayonnaise.

.:. Cacciagione. There is a long standing tradition for cooking game in Italy. Roasted, or with olives, vinegar and capers, or in salmì (cooked with vegetables, herbs and wine), or in fricassea (with lemon and eggs) and so on...

.:. Funghi. If you are in Milan during autumn, do not let the chance of eating mushrooms pass you by. During the fall season you find mushrooms in most restaurants and they are cooked in every variant you can dream of. You can try the insalata di ovoli (Caesar’s mushroom), or porcini crudi (raw boletus), or grilled boletus caps, or funghi trifolati (with parsley and garlic), or you can eat mushrooms as a seasoning for pasta and risotto dishes.

.:. Tartufi. Fall is the ideal season for truffles as well; the only set-back is their exorbitant price; they taste great when grated over risotto or some pasta specialties.

.:. Mozzarella in carrozza. Neapolitan dish. Mozzarella is wrapped between two slices of a sandwich loaf, then dipped in eggs, milk, flour. Finally it is deep fried in olive oil, and served piping hot with a sprinkle of salt.

.:. Melanzane alla parmigiana. A pasticcio of eggplant slices alternated with mozzarella, grated Parmesan cheese and tomato sauce, baked in the oven.

.:. Verdure ripiene. Tomatoes, peppers (red or green) and zucchini (courgettes) can be considered a contorno, but may also be cooked with many other ingredients. Peppers and zucchini can be ‘emptied’, then stuffed with meat, eggs, cheese, and baked in the oven. Tomatoes in the summer are often served in cut halves which are filled with tuna fish, capers, anchovies, and mayonnaise.

.:. Pizza. What can we possibly tell you about a dish that may be the most famous and perhaps the most popular in the world? It originated in Naples. In Italy, do not take pizza for granted; some places make better pizza than others!

.:. Frutti di mare. Muscles, coquilles Saint Jacques, sea truffles, date mussels are served as hors d’oeuvres or in pasta and risotto sauces.
.:. Calamari, seppie, totani, polipi. Cuttlefish and octopus are boiled, grilled or stewed with tomato and parsley, or as a condiment for the primo.
.:. Fritto misto. Squid and small shrimps fried in oil.
.:. Gamberi alla griglia. Crayfish are cut length-wise and grilled.
.:. Aragosta. Lobster is expensive in Italy. It is usually boiled, and served with light sauces, frequently mayonnaise.
.:. Sogliola. Sole can be fried as well as boiled. Fried it is sprinkled with flour and cooked with butter and white wine.

.:. You have so many varieties of fish to choose from that you may find it baffling to pick one from among: dentex (dentice, a kind of sea bream), gilthead (orata), white bream, sea bass, mullet (triglia), hake, St. Peter’s fish, trout (trota). Each one of these fishes has its own special way of being prepared to be feasted on. Most of them are roasted, almost all can be grilled. Some can be prepared al cartoccio (wrapped in tin foil with oil, garlic, parsley, or with mushrooms, and cooked in the oven).

.:. Merluzzo. Codfish can also be called stoccafisso or baccalà, according to how it was preserved. It is often cooked as a stew to be eaten with polenta, but it may also be cooked in wine or milk.

.:. Crème caramel. Milk, eggs, sugar, caramel sugar, vanilla powder, all of the above cooked in the oven.
.:. Budini. Custard puddings flavored with chocolate, vanilla, strawberries... and so on. Served cold.
.:. Torte (cakes). Here a baker’s fantasy can run wild. To mention just a few: crostata alla frutta (made from short pastry covered with crema pasticciera and decorated with fresh fruit and gelatin), torte al cioccolato (cakes with chocolate or rum filling) and pastiera napoletana (with ricotta, a kind of cottage cheese).

[Mario Panzeri]


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