A Guide to Italian Cuisine
Like many Americans, I have an inexplicable infatuation with Italian cuisine. Maybe it is the sophisticated blend of spices, or the balance of robust meat sauce and creamy ricotta; or maybe it is the freshness of the ingredients, the way it makes me feel like I am expensive, like I should be sipping an oaky glass of wine– whatever the cause, the obsession is very real, and it is here to stay. Many of my favorite Italian foods come packaged in difficult to pronounce words with slightly obscure meanings, and so I’ve decided to create a handy, dandy, Guide to Italian cuisine.
Pesto- thick, paste-like sauce is made from basil, pine nuts, crushed garlic, Parmesan, and cheese made from sheep’s milk. Because of the cheeses, the sauce is rich and hearty, but basil prevails as the boldest flavor and balances out the richness perfectly. The result is creamy, green, and divine.
Carbonara: if your palette is easily overwhelmed by heavy foods and sauces, Carbonara is not for you. It is a pale yellow, creamy sauce comprised of egg, cheeses, and pancetta.
Alfredo: What is there to say? Cheese, cheese, and more cheese. Usually subtle seasonings to enhance flavor, but besides that– cheese. Generally served with fettuccine, but also a perfect companion for breadsticks.
Amatriciana: made from cured pork, tomatoes and the salty pecorina cheese, this sauce was created in a small town and cannot be found on many large Italian menus. It is a delicious way to mix up your boring spaghetti-with-marinara habit, without delving into the heavy, white sauces you are so nauseated by.
Arrabiata: literally meaning “angry” sauce in Italian, this spicy sauce will have you snapping your fingers for a water refill. It is made with garlic, red chili peppers, tomatoes, olive oil, and sometimes onions.
Bolognese: a bit more complicated than its sauce-sisters, the Bolognese involves some preparation. First, prepare a diced mixture of carrots, celery, and onions. These will add a refreshing texture to sauce. Second, finely mince a mixture of meats to your liking– recommended are beef and pork. These first two steps should be combined with tomato concentrate and a small amount of wine, and slow cooked.
Vodka sauce: my personal favorite! This thick sauce is pinkish in color. It is made from a combination of vodka, tomato sauce, Italian herbs, and heavy cream, and is traditionally accompanied by penne pasta.
Although my mouth is watering from writing about sauces, woman cannot live on sauce alone! Let’s add some pasta to the mix, and then we’ll really be cooking. Below are the pasta types that I most commonly encountered while traveling through Italy, ranging from ribbed, to ribbon cut, to flat and wide. Which pasta/sauce combination will you choose?
Penne- small tubes of pasta covered in fine ridges. Rather than being filled with a soft, Italian cheese such as ricotta, the hollow tubes and their ridges are specifically designed to catch as much sauce as possible, and maximize flavor.
Linguine- this is spaghetti, only, imagine someone hot-ironing it flat. Why? We will never know.
Fettuccine- 6.5 mm wide ribbon cut pasta. Frequently served with Alfredo sauce.
Spaghetti- the original Italian pasta. Thin, cylindrical, very difficult to convince to stay on a fork– we are all familiar with this classic. It is, in my opinion, best when served with piping hot meatballs and a half-alfredo, half-meat sauce.
Bucatini- this pasta is very similar to spaghetti, only thicker, and with a continuous hole running down the center. Try using it as a straw…?
Capellini- most commonly known as “angel hair”, this pasta is extremely long and fine.
Fusilli- thick, corkscrew pieces of pasta. Fusilli operates similarly to the ridged pastas (penne and ziti) when it comes to trapping sauce in each bite.
Cannelloni- a popular dish in the United States, this pasta is rolled thin and shaped into a tube, then pumped full of a creamy Italian cheese, most likely ricotta.
Macaroni- the hollow C-shaped noodles that we all came to love when we were kids. Smothered in oozing cheese.
Trofie- this pasta comes in short, twisted pieces.
Gnocchi- these little dumplings are made from flour, cheese, egg, and sometimes breadcrumbs. They are delicious when served with pesto. Probably the most tender of the homemade Italian pastas, the dough can also be kneaded with ricotta or spinach for flavoring.
Ziti: tubes of pasta with ridging similar to penne, only cut in longer pieces.
Lasagna- wide pasta with scalloped edges that is often used in a popular dish, layered with meat sauce and melted cheeses.
Tagliatelle- a thinner version of the fettuccine noodle.
Not surprisingly, many of the above pasta tastes identical. The dough is made from the same simple ingredients– the same flour and spices. What is it about the diversity of pasta choices that intrigues us? Why do we pick a favorite, while there are some that we never try?