As the holiday season is upon us, some may wonder how holiday traditions differ from one country to the next. In Italy, as in the United States, traditions vary from region to region and from one family to the next, but there are certain customs that are celebrated throughout the country.
Napoli. The home of pizza. Living here, its hard to resist eating pizza, well all the time. The goey mozzarella cheese, the soft yet wood fired crust, and the best red sauce you will ever have- these are the staples that make up a classic Neapolitan pizza.
- June’s newsletter looked at how to transport wine and olive oil.
- Here on the blog, we looked at my favorite meats and cheese to bring home.
- And this month’s newsletter talks about how to bring home meat and cheese under the new FDA rules.
Now let’s look at those little accents you can keep around your kitchen that make all of those other special picks pop: gourmet goodies for your pantry.
Salt is so crucial to Italian cuisine, from salting pasta before it cooks to salting meat to cure it into delectable culatello and prosciutto to salting a perfect tomato to further heighten its flavor. My favorite finishing salt is the Sicilian salt from Trapani.
But you can add some Italian salted flair to your food in many forms, especially with capers. A key ingredient in many southern Italian pasta sauces, you can’t make an authentic puttanesca with them. I love the capers from Pantelleria (pick up some of their famous passito while you’re there) as well as those from Salina and Lipari.
Flavors of Earth and Sea
Whenever you get the chance, pick up some dried porcini mushrooms, one of the most earthy-tasting ingredients available. Excellent in risottos, they impart the elusive “umami” flavor. Just check the bag to make sure all your mushrooms are porcini; vendors often put a layer of porcinis on top with lesser mushrooms underneath. The caps (top portion) should be very large, four to six inches in diameter.
Another hard-to-find-at-home risotto ingredient to grab if you can is nero di sepia, or cuttlefish ink. Just keep in mind restrictions for packing liquids. But to get the essence of the sea in one small, compact, non-liquid package, look for bottarga, dried fish roe. It has quite a smell, so be careful how you pack it. Grating a touch into your pasta will transform any dish from average to that inexplicable perfection you find rampantly in Italian cuisine.
Captured Essence of Italian Sun
Tomatoes ripened on the vine, bursting with juice and a brilliant, almost blood red hue are one of the greatest joys of eating in Italy. Unfortunately, you can’t really take them home, but the next best thing, sun-dried tomatoes, concentrates that intoxicating flavor even further. My favorites are the sun-dried tomatoes from Pachino, Sicily.
And if you’re checking a bag and have a little space to spare, it’s a shame not to tuck a little (or a large) bottle of olive oil in there, packed securely with some clothes. You’ll never find such beautiful unfiltered olive oil at home without paying the equivalent of an entrée at a top-notch restaurant. The best is the EVOO from Mandranova, with medium fruit and subtle flours, made from Sicilian nocellera olives.
Culatello, salami, prosciutto, oh my!
For meat and dairy lovers, Italy can come pretty close to heaven, especially if you go straight to the source and sample Italy's fine cured meats and aged cheese on the farms where they're made.
But if you're looking to recreate your experience at home, here are my picks for the best meats and cheese to bring back with you, with a few tips on how to do it.