Although smaller in size than the state of Texas, Italy is an extremely diverse country in climate, geography and history. Some Italian regions are mountainous and landlocked, others hug the sea, and some are full of hilly plains and pastures. When it comes to climate, southernmost regions will bask in the Mediterranean sun year round while their northern counterparts experience snow, fog, and harsh cold winds.
Even with their differences, Italian regions share in one philosophy: cook with fresh, simple ingredients and always rely on local produce. In fact, most Italian cooks only use four to eight ingredients per dish.
The south, known for its Mediterranean climate, is littered with coastline fishing villages and therefore a massive consumer of fresh seafood such as anchovies, tuna, sardines, and shellfish. Olive oils, tomatoes, capers, eggplants, and garlic are also staples in the southern diet. The north consumes more meat than the south. With excellent cattle to produce milk and meat, they fill hearty stews and pastas with beef, veal, and pork. They cook with unsalted butter over olive oil and use wine or broth as cooking liquid over tomatoes.
With that, Let's take a look at some of Italy’s Northern regions:
Tuscany, home to the city of Florence, is both hilly and mountainous with fertile countryside and generous coastline. Home to some of the most beautiful vineyards (and views) in the world, Florence has a cuisine similar to its topography: Clean, sobering, and soothingly simple. Though simple, Tuscan’s know how to develop rich flavor. They use rich flavors from game like wild boar, hare, and deer to stuff ravioli, or top risotto and Pappardelle pasta. Also lovers of soups and stews, those living on the coastline make them out of monkfish or mullet, while those inland use vegetables and legumes, all of which are served with unsalted bread and oil to mop up flavor.
Tuscany is also home to the Florentine Steak, or Bistecca alla Fiorentina, and served with pride throughout Florence. Cutting a Florentine steak is considered an art form in Tuscany. The minimum thickness of a Florentine Steak is 1.5 inches, with an ideal thickness of 2.5 inches. In most restaurants, the chef or server will bring the steak out to show a patron the cut before grilling. Just be prepared – Florentine Steaks are normally served quite rare, definitely a surprise to my sisters and me when we toured Italy!
Emilia Romagna, another region in the North, is home to the famous cities of Bologna, Parma, and Modena. With plains, hills, countryside, and the Po-River it has ideal farmland and known as the “Italian Food Basket”. Those in the region are known for their rich flavors and are especially skilled at making pasta by hand. Emilia Romagna is also the birthplace of Balsamic Vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico. Originating in the city of Modena and served since the Middle Ages, the vinegar is aged in wooden barrels until it acquires the complexity of rich wine. A special seal is always placed on the bottle to prove authenticity and show how long it has been aged, anywhere from two months to fifty years!
Because Emilia Romagna has roots as a nomadic society and had to preserve meats for centuries, it is now home to some of the worlds most prized cured pork. Salami, Pancetta, Coppa, and Prosciutto are served in abundance, and Prosciutto di Parma comes from the Emilia Romagna city of Parma.
Piedmont, home to the snowcapped mountains of Turin, has a diverse landscape ranging from the Alps to the Po Valley. Influenced by neighbor France, Piedmont boasts the most refined and progressive culinary culture in Italy. Home to the famous truffle mushroom, you will find white truffles showered over freshly made pasta, or rich truffle cream sauces served with risotto. Piedmont also boasts prized cattle, which produce meats that are then boiled to tender perfection. Chocolate in Piedmont is also considered some of the best in the country.
As for the Southern Regions:
Campania, one of Italy’s most visited southern regions, is home to Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and the infamous Mount Vesuvius. Although this volcano was not kind to Italy throughout history, the soil around Vesuvius has ensured Campania fertile land, where some of the tastiest produce in the world is grown. In fact, Campanian’s have been nicknamed “leaf eaters” throughout the country. Sun-kissed vegetables, herbs, and San-Marzano tomatoes grow year-round on this soil in the Mediterranean sun.
Naples is best known for Neapolitan pizza. Aspiring and Renowned Chefs alike will travel to Naples to see first-hand how to make it authentically. In addition to pizza, locals enjoy plentiful amounts of pasta and cheese, especially the prized Buffalo-Milk Mozzarella. Meat consumption is low, but bright and vibrant seafood including octopus, cuttlefish, salt cured cod, sardines, anchovies, and clams are culinary staples, often cooked in olive oil. With the perfect Mediterranean climate for growing olives, Campania produces and consumes some of the best quality olive oil in the world.
Our final Southern region is Sicily, the largest Island in the Mediterranean. Since it has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years, it is the result of Greek, Arab, Spanish, and French influences over centuries. The Arabs brought over saffron, rice and sugar, the Spaniards brought chocolate and turkey, and the Romans introduced the lavish goose.
Sicilians are known for their elaborate antipasti, exuberant pasta preparations, stuffed and skewered meats, and honey and almond based sweets for the table. They enjoy fresh vegetables such as eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, and serve grilled fish like tuna, sea bass, and swordfish. Sicilians also love their sweets, with renowned classics such as the cannoli and the almond paste cookies.