Italy is made up of 20 different regions, each with its own culinary
traditions. And though the country is relatively small, the difference
in the food from one region to the next is extraordinary.
The cuisine in northern Italy tends to rely more on dairy products
such as butter, cream, and cow's milk cheeses because the land is
flatter and better suited to raising cattle. It's also one of the
more affluent parts of the country, which makes for richer food
with more expensive ingredients, such as Lombo di Maiale Coi Porri
(Pan-Roasted Pork Loin with Leeks). Northern Italy produces creamy
rich cheeses such as Mascarpone and Gorgonzola from Lombardy, Fontina
from Valle d'Aosta, and Taleggio from the Veneto. The region of
Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna, is known for its homemade
egg pasta and Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is considered by many to
be the king of Italian cheeses. It's also the region famous for
Prosciutto di Parma, as well as countless other exquisite sausages
and cured meats.
What sets one country's foods apart from those of its neighbors?
To a great degree, the difference is in the spicing - the ones most
frequently used and the combinations utilized with different foods.
We call these habits characterizing a nation's cuisine its "flavor
prints." In their way, they provide identification much like
fingerprints do for humans. In this series, developed in cooperation
with the American Spice Trade Association, Food Product Design explores
nations' flavor prints as a guide and inspiration for food product
America's first immigration waves from Italy came mostly from the
"toe" of the boot and Sicily, our stereotypical view of
"That's Italian!" is a mix of spaghetti, pizza, tomatoes,
garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper. But the food and flavor
prints of Northern Italy are quite a different story. There, the
emphasis changes from tomato-based sauces to creamier ones; from
spiciness to herbiness (even from the robust oregano to sweeter
basil); from omnipotent pasta to pasta plus such different starches
as rice, polenta and beans; from almost total reliance on olive
oil for cooking to using butter instead of, or with the oil. Only
garlic remains a constant.
So much for generalizations - they can be very tricky in Italy.
The north is really a collection of regions and cities that are
crammed with specialties and their own sets of flavor prints. Genoa
gave us the rich basil/garlic sauce called pesto, as well as ravioli;
Venice gave us garlicky scampi; Tuscany originated minestrone; Bologna
added lasagna and tortellini and the mortadella sausage we call
"baloney"; Parma became world-renowned for its hams and
Often the same food or dish will be spiced quite differently in
different areas of the same region: in Arezzo, for example, minestrone
is cooked with garlic and tomato; in Livorno, with sage and cloves;
in Genoa they add a dollop of pesto. While every Adriatic coastal
town has its favorite seafood stew, seasoned typically with garlic
and various herbs, Porto Recanati creates quite a different effect
with saffron. Similarly, rice is usually prepared quite simply with
butter and perhaps a little wine, but in Milan they also use saffron
to give it distinction (Risotto Milanese). In Tuscany the herbs
of choice are thyme, mint, basil and parsley (both flat and curly-leafed);
in Vienna they add tarragon to the bouquet (since this is the only
area in Italy that grows this licorice-flavored herb). While Venice's
scampi is sautéed in oil with garlic and parsley, nearby
Triest first marinates the shrimp in lemon juice and oil and then
includes such seeds as fennel, cumin and coriander with the garlic.
Salt cod is baked with onions and served with polenta in Vicenza;
in sister Venice, the fish is beaten with olive oil and a blend
of pepper, parsley and garlic until its creamy white.
In northernmost Italy, an Austrian influence appears. The visitor
wonders where he'd dining when the menu lists Goulash, Kugelhuph,
Schluzkrapfen and Apfelstrudel. That's Italian? Believe it or not,
it is in many border towns. In this region, caraway and dill creep
into the Italian spice shelf and the cinnamon, nutmeg and other
sweet spices get more frequent use. What makes it northern Italian?
Regional and municipal differences aside, there are flavor prints
that set the north apart from the rest of Italy and other parts
of the world as well.
They might be summed up as milder, more subtle seasoning with
greater reliance on herbs - basil, parsley, thyme, sage - and to
a lesser extent (than in the south), oregano; some use of cumin
and coriander seeds and black pepper are used, but with more restraint
than in the south. Garlic, on the other hand, probably is used as
much as in other parts of Italy. As for other flavors: greater use
of butter, less of olive oil; more dairy sauces, less tomato; more
use of lemon juice and wine vinegar in cooking; more evidence of
pine nuts, anchovies and capers.
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