The call of la dolce vita brings millions of visitors to Italy each year, ready to explore the country’s rich art and history, the thriving wine and food culture, stunning scenery and more. Enjoying Italy is as much about the broad, bucket list items (glimpsing Venice on the horizon as you speed across the lagoon from the airport) as it is the smaller details (enjoying the hustlebustle of Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori with its stacks of fresh produce and flowers).
Italy is the source of a vast number of delectable ingredients that make cooking that much more pleasurable, and the results all the more delicious. Our editors spotlight some of their favorites below, from sauce essentials to cheeses.
Tomatoes are a cornerstone of Italian cuisine. And while nothing beats a fresh tomato in peak season, still warm from the sun, excellent Italian canned products can bring sunshine into your home year-round.
Tip: Look for the San Marzano DOP as well as non-DOP tomatoes with the San Marzano name. These long plum tomatoes have a sweet, lightly acidic flavor and meaty flesh, which retains its texture through the peeling and canning process.
800g (28.2 oz.)/ $8
400g (14.28 oz.)/$5
800g (28.2 oz.)/ $5
Italians rarely make fresh pasta themselves. Partly, it’s because of busy lives in an industrial society and the lost arts of making from scratch. More importantly, it’s not necessarily better than dried. Fresh pasta always includes eggs and is typically made from white flour; dried rarely includes eggs and is usually from the more flavorful semolina, which gives it its yellow color. Fresh pasta, which can be ethereal, cooks quickly and is delicate, making it appropriate to lighter sauces. Dried pasta is sturdier and can better stand up to heavier treatments. The best, even a couple of grocery store brands, have a rougher surface, ideal for grabbing the sauce.
MAKERS TO TRY:
Italian pasta shapes and dishes are seemingly infinite, despite the stringent guidelines about which get served with what sauce. One of the most prevalent categories is filled pastas, which add flavor and substance to the noodles. The shapes—ravioli and tortellini, for starters—are as numerous as their fillings, and each region has its own.
Pansotti, in Liguria, are potbellies with a stuffing of ricotta, greens and herbs, typically served with a walnut sauce.
Cappellacci are Emilia-Romagna’s little hats filled with butternut squash and served with aromatic butter and sage sauce.
Agnolotti del plin are special occasion meat-filled pastas typically sauced with butter and sage or broth.
Modenese Balsamic Vinegar
Viscous, sweet and tangy, these black droplets of pure flavor are the perfect finishing touch for many dishes. Forget all the cryptic colors, seals and coins, here’s how to quickly assess a bottle: The pinnacle product is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) and bears a red seal. Made from 100% grape must, it ages in a series of small barrels for at least 12 years. For all others, the ingredient list is the key. Many producers declassify high quality 100% grape must vinegar to avoid stringent rules such as bottle sizes. Vinegars that include only grape must and wine vinegar represent the next tier. Avoid versions with more than two ingredients.
Mozzarella di Bufala, Campania
For many, this is the epitome of fresh cheese, produced from the milk of local water buffalo within 60 hours of milking. Buffalo milk has higher fat than cow milk, yielding flavorful cheese with a texture that is at once creamy, pillowy and porous, enclosed in a thin white skin.
TIP: Bufala shines in simple preparations. Serve it sliced, at room temperature, with tomato, basil, salt, pepper and olive oil for a caprese salad. You can get express deliveries of these cheeses via igourmet.com or mercato.com.
There is no better cheese. Equals maybe, but none better. It’s firm and stands up to a grater but also melts in your mouth. It delivers a kaleidoscope of flavors, from sweet and bright to rich and meaty. Here’s what to look for when shopping.
Stamp of Approval: Look for the PDO stamp, which guarantees that the consortium’s rigorous standards have been met. Never buy pre-grated.
Age Statement: Origin and season can contribute to flavor and richness, but age is easiest to discern. Twenty-four months is standard, but rich, harder cheese up to 5 years old can be procured for a price.
Cattle Prods: Breed is a more recent distinction, with vacche rosse (red cows) and bruna Alpina (brown Swiss) garnering attention. The former is so confident in its distinction that it has its own consortium now.
Intensely flavored, purely seasonal and dead simple, Liguria’s pesto is one of the most iconic dishes in Italy. Knives are drawn over details such as toasting the nuts and the necessity of a mortar and pestle. But forget all of that and simply apply the “rule of twos,” below.
Tip: Put 2 cups washed, dried, stemmed basil leaves, 2 tablespoons pine nuts (warmed if you like), and 2 peeled cloves of garlic in a food processor. With the blade running, drizzle in about a half-cup of high quality olive oil. Stir in a half-cup of Parmigiano, taste, and adjust if needed.
Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani Truffles, USA, imports truffles from around the world but says Italy stands alone. “It is the only country that has all the truffle varieties, and it is one of very few places for the white truffle. They are so rare because there is really nothing you can do to make more,” he says. In 2021, scarcity drove the Tuber magnatum pico of Alba as high as $6,500 a pound. Below, Giordano offers some buying advice.
Time the Market: Freshly dug truffles perish in six to 10 days. Buy in season (Sept. 21 to Jan. 31 this past year), and enjoy within a day of arrival. If you must wait, store them wrapped in a paper towel and then refrigerated in an airtight jar.
Think Small: Because restaurants prefer larger truffles, they cost more per pound. “Size does not relate at all to quality,” says Giordano. “If you don’t care about it, you can save money buying several smaller ones.”
Take a sniff: When selecting in person, squeeze the truffle. It should be firm like a tennis ball, never spongy. The aroma should be appealingly earthy, with no ammonia notes.
Tuscan Olive Oil
Though olive oil is produced in most Italian regions, Tuscan oil is prized for its green color and peppery, vegetal flavors that perk up any salad. You can also drizzle it over soup, grilled meat or thick slices of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with sea salt. Look for extra-virgin Tuscan olive oil with IGP or PDO seals. Just about every wine estate owns an olive grove, and some even have their own mill to process the fruit. Matching the olive cultivar to terroir, managing picking dates and quick pressing are all crucial to the process.