Designation of origin: Italy
always say my bones are made of Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar runs through my veins’. The statement could have been uttered by any Italian person, but it was said by Massimo Bottura, the chef at Osteria Francescana (three Michelin stars), named the best on earth in 2016 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
The Italians’ devotion for food goes beyond the table and surpasses (or maybe just equals) their love of football, religion or politics. They boast the most international gastronomy on the planet and one with the widest cultural variety, from the Alps to the ‘heel of the boot’. Firmly rooted in the quality of the raw ingredients, the country has known how to reincarnate itself through the most innovative Italian dishes. Today, far from reviling it, chefs like Bottura or Massimiliano Alajmo reinvent ‘nonna’s cuisine’ and demand that local produce be given the place it deserves on the table.
Naples-style Neapolitan pizza
The designation of origin of Neapolitan pizza means that restaurants that claim they make the 'authentic' dish have to be decorated with a harlequin. The size of the packets of yeast, the pH of the dough or its maximum thickness (four mm) are strictly controlled. The ingredients - tomato, oil and cheese - must always be produced locally.
Just consider Modena balsamic vinegar, which for years was kept jealously hidden away in the attics and lofts of country homes. This is how it was in Acetaia del Cristo in 1849, although they no longer keep the vinegar to themselves. Erika, Daniele and Gilberto welcome anybody who wants to pay them a visit and they love showing off their 12-year-old ‘aceto tradizionale’, and their ‘extra-vecchio’, aged for a quarter of a century, as required by tradition.
‘Tutti a tavola’
Some of the most famous products are concentrated in the north of the country. ‘Parmiggiano-Reggiano’ has put Parma on the world cheese map and it is one of the most highly appreciated due to its intense flavour and culinary versatility. The cheese has played an important role in the development of the Reggio Emilia region, so much so that the Credito Emiliano bank accepts Parmesan cheese as surety guarantees for bank loans. A visit to some of the cooperatives where they are made, such as 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia, on the outskirts of Modena, will give you the chance to learn about the artisan production process.
Coffee is sacred
From Le Giubbe Rosse in Florence to the Torino, in Turin. From Caffè Florian in Venice to the Greco in Rome, where in summer you can change the ‘espresso’ for a ‘granita di caffè’. If anything unites the Italians, it’s the culture of coffee. Like Woody Allen once said in reference to its intensity, ‘The Italians drink their coffee with a knife and fork’.
Another ingredient that has contributed to promoting the gastronomy of the region –which has its own festival in September– is the ‘proscuitto’ of Parma. It is the undeniable star of the famous ‘salumerie’ or cured meats shops. One of the most popular such shops is Garibaldi which, apart from serving the iconic meat, also serves up full meals.
‘Everything you see I owe to spaghetti’ Sophia Loren once claimed, referring to her envied physique. Pasta is the most renowned and sought-after ingredient in the Italian recipe book, always cooked ‘al dente’, of course. It is accompanied by an endless list of ingredients that represent the personality of each region. In Reggio Emilia, they eat ‘tortellini’; in Venice they prefer ‘bigoli’, similar to spaghetti, but thicker; in Apulia they prepare the ear-shaped ‘orecchiette’… Each dish has to be served with a specific sauce and if you make a mistake here – ‘mamma mia!’ – the Italians will consider it to be a mortal sin. Each region also gives preference to ‘its own’ sauce: pesto in Genoa, carbonara in Rome, Amatriciana in Amatrice…Savouring some ‘tagliatelle’ accompanied by ‘ragù alla bolognese’ while you sit under one of the porticos in Bologna will always be a homage to your palate.
One in five of the restaurants in the world (that’s right, the world) are pizza restaurants, though the majority of them probably don’t distinguish a Pizza Romana from a Neapolitan. The pizza made in the Italian capital is thicker and crispier. Near Piazza Navona, Pizzeria da Baffetto (don’t let yourself be taken in by the humble appearance) makes the best in Rome. The people who queue for half-hour every day will testify to that.
The Neapolitan was the first and only pizza to possess the European designation of origin (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed). It is thinner and smoother, with high edges. If you want to find the ‘vera pizza napolitana’ you need to look for a pizza restaurant with a sign of a harlequin. L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele has the sign on the door and it’s impossible to get a table unless you book in advance. Everyone wants to try the Margherita and Marinara. The place opened in 1870 and since then five generations of pizza chefs have remained faithful to the original recipe.
If there’s enough time and there are matters to be discussed, after the Italians have finished eating their meal they stay sitting around the table and they bring out the ‘grappa’ and ‘limoncello’, a sweet, but strong, lemon liqueur. Both drinks help digest the abundant food that has quite probably been served and they add a sweet touch to the conversation, accompanied by an ‘espresso’ to banish any drowsiness. Conversations after meals can last for hours because the Italians dedicate as much time as they need to the social act of eating and talking. It’s no surprise they invented ‘slow food’, a modern-sounding concept, but one that has always existed in Italy.