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enjoy our Northern Italian CuisineNorthern Italian Cuisine

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 designers.

enjoy our Northern Italian CuisineBecause 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 Parmesan cheese.

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.enjoy our Northern Italian Cuisine

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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