Of all the reasons to visit Italy (and there are dozens), food tops the list for a huge number of tourists – particularly ones from America. We all think we’ve had an authentic Italian experience down at our local restaurant, but the truth is that eating food directly from the source is can be a culinary awakening.
But what actually is Italian food? Once you get past the obvious pasta dishes and pizza, what exactly comprises the cuisine we all say we know and love? Those are tough questions to answer, because while the people of Italy have been there for centuries, the country itself was only unified recently. Today, Italy is a country rich in people and culture – but on a regional level more than a national one. And that is what has made its food choices so specific, local and finely-honed. It also means that depending on where you are in Italy, you can have a whole new food experience.
“Italy is so blessed with geography and great weather,” says Gary Portuesi, whose company Authentic Italy is one of several capitalizing on this regional experience. “Its position in the Mediterranean and its incredible climate allows most of the regions to have 12-month growing seasons, coupled with the fact that it’s surrounded by water. That, and the fact that it unified very late – for centuries everyone had a piece of it, and invaders brought a piece of their culture with them. So exploration, plus conquest brought many interesting ingredients.”
A foodie himself, Portuesi’s family hails from Sicily and he strives to help visitors have true regional experiences throughout the country. His company books customized insider experiences around the country that include cooking classes, tastings, local guides and restaurant recommendations. He shared with us some of the most popular regions to visit for food around the country, and provided surprising insight into a wide diversity of food many of us might not think of as “Italian.”
Known for: Wine, citrus fruits, eggplants, cactus pears, rice balls, a sweet/sour combination with Arabic derivation
Food sources: Being so far south, Sicily has Spanish and Arabic influence on its cooking most people don’t expect. “When I told my father that the Spanish had brought cactus pears to Sicily, from Mexico, he was shocked,” says Portuesi. “It’s like the Irish learning that potatoes come from the new world.” (Remember, tomatoes only made it to Italy after Europeans settled in America.)
Portuesi says currently Michelin-starred restaurants in the region are mixing street food (like rice balls) with refined cooking; he’ll bring tour groups and visitors to his home and providing a family style meal. “There are such artistry and geekiness and technique and creativity down there,” he says.
Known for: Dried meats and cheeses like salumi, parmigiana, prosciutto
Food sources: Opposite in many ways to Sicily, Emilia-Romagna is north of Florence and Tuscany and features a rugged coastline with flat plains and fertile soil. The area is home to what Portuesi says is the best restaurant in all of Italy, Osteria Francescana, located in Modena. “The food is rich and refined and delicious,” he says of the region. “Areas like nearby Parma give you all the iconic ingredients.” On his tours, he offers private street tours, walking tours of markets and visits to parmigiana factories.
Known for: Olive oil, vegetables
Food sources: “This is one of the great undiscovered regions,” says Portuesi, “though it’s starting to gain traction.” He notes that the fertile soil makes Puglia the heart of olive oil production in the country (about 40 percent of the entire olive oil crop comes from the region). “I’ve never seen so many olive trees, so big, in one place,” he says. “I visited olive tree growths that pre-date the Romans; they live for centuries.” Note: horsemeat is eaten in this region and is considered a delicacy. “Most people would freak out, but it’s historical!” he says. Instead, you may prefer the classic dish of orecchiette with broccoli rabe.
Known for: Grain, flour, seafood, limoncello, mozzarella
Food sources: Centered around Naples and the Amalfi coast, Campania is “where pizza was born,” says Portuesi. It’s the home to the legendary San Marzano tomatoes, and is the capital of mozzarella-making. “Put all of those things together, and wow,” he adds. Early pizza recipes go back as far as the 16th century, and did not include tomatoes; over the centuries those recipes expanded to include margarita (with tomatoes). But don’t miss the seafood, which often comes with a tomato broth.
Feature photo credit: HomeAway
Slideshow photo credit: Authentic Italy