When Americans think about Italian food, what do they think of? Likely it's a pasta dish with tomato sauce.
But that is only one kind of Italian food. Italian cuisine is as different as New England fish and chips are from Cajun jambalaya. When dining in Italy, or even just your local trattoria, here are a few things to know. It’s hard to paint with broad fork strokes, but here goes!
Every region boasts its own traditions so a few distinctions emerge, particularly between northern and southern diets. Generally speaking, since northern Italy borders other nations, you can see the influence of its neighbors there (France, Germany and Switzerland) whereas in the south, bound only by the sea, you will find Mediterranean influences from Spain and Greece.
As in America, the differing climate and geography of Italy holds the key to both culinary and cultural differences. Because northern Italy is cooler with a shorter growing season, tomatoes are not their focus, so northern Italian sauces are based on cheese and butter. Think gnocchi and the irreplaceable Parmesan cheese.
Travel to the sun-drenched south with its warmer, drier climate, where staples like garlic, olives and tomatoes are grown in abundance. There in the south, sauces are tomato based with lots of vegetables. For example, Pasta alla Norma.
Meats also vary from north to south. Up north in Alto Adige you'll find the famed "speck" – cured, lightly smoked ham, sliced thin. Making your way down to Tuscany, you’ll find the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Florentine t-bone steak served with extra virgin olive oil and salt.
As for the south, spice plays an important role. One of the most beloved meats traditional of Calabria is 'nduja - a spicy, spreadable pork sausage Also, southern Italy is almost entirely maritime, so seafood features far more prominently there than in the north. Think anchovies, octopus and shrimp.
Regional pastas hold distinctions too. Busiate in Sicily, orecchiette in Puglia, mezzi paccheri in Campania, tagliatelle in Emilia Romagna, triofie in Liguria.
Venture further up north, and pasta itself becomesless important. You’ll find pizzoccheri, for example, in Lombardia but most of northern Italy offers other grains like risotto and polenta.
And at last for dessert, don’t forget about Italian favorites! Biscotti, babà rum and cannolis, with a cup of thick espresso or an after dinner liquor, all of which are common to all regions. Maybe your family only went to the local pizza joint, but with a little knowledge of Italy’s geography and culture, you can experience the whole gamut of wonderful Italian foods without traveling too far.