Eat your way from top to toe with these Italian specialties
Italian food is wildly popular throughout the world, but spaghetti and pizza make up only a tiny fraction of the thousands of sweet and savory dishes a visitor to Italy might wish to sample. The country acknowledges the value of its culinary traditions highly enough to grant certain products protection and safeguarding by legal means.
Regulations provide Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status to 138 products and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status to 83 types of foodstuffs. The rules set forth the geographical boundaries and methodologies by which these products may be produced. Mozzarella and Neapolitan pizza fall into a category unto themselves, that of Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG).
While horse meatballs and offal aren’t likely to appeal to many American palates, there’s much good eating to be had on today’s north-to-south culinary journey.
PolesineThis historical region, which corresponds to today’s Rovereto in Trentino-South Tirol, is known for its Mais Biancoperla, a specific type of corn used in the making of polenta, a boiled cornmeal dish that serves as the starchy base for countless savory ingredients. Widely cultivated up until World War II, this variety of white corn was displaced by less demanding yellow varieties, but is now making a comeback. River fish, sausages, braised meats and cheese are typically served alongside this finest and most delicate of all types of polenta.
ModenaAceto Balsamico di Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia are types of balsamic vinegar known for their zest and silky-smooth texture. They are made from the must of certain types of grapes, which is aged in a series of barrels over the course of many years. The resulting product is a fabulous accompaniment to strawberries, risotto and even gelato. To learn more and do some sampling, head to the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Spilambergo. An optimal time to visit the region is September, when producers open their doors to visitors. Other products of the fertile Emilia-Romagna region worth sampling include Parmesan cheese, mortadella and Lambrusco wine.
Reggio CalabriaBergamot is the knobby yellow or lime-green citrus fruit that lends its flavor to Earl Grey tea, along with icy sorbet desserts. Traditionally an ingredient in the making of perfume, today it is also prized as a health product, with some studies linking it to lower cholesterol and protection against heart disease. Today, some 90% of the world’s crop hails from this region of southern Italy. While the origin of this fruit is shrouded in mystery, some trace its appearance to Christopher Columbus, who is thought to have brought it from the Canary Islands. When driving through the toe of Italy’s boot, look for groves of this aromatic fruit in coastal areas, and pick up Bergamot-infused honey and liqueurs.
Bronte, SicilyThis village on the slopes of Mt. Etna is known for its green gold, the pistachio. Grown locally on the volcanic mountain’s lava soils since the arrival of the Arabs centuries back, pistachios figure prominently in the local cuisine, and are found in ice creams, sauces, creams and decadent desserts. For the taste of something unique, reach for arancini, breaded and deep-fried rice balls stuffed with various fillings, among them a creamy pistachio sauce.