Italian cuisine has long held an esteemed position in the international culinary world, comparable to that of French cuisine. Authentic Italian cooking differs from what Americans have come to identify as being Italian (The Olive Garden is a prime example). Italian food varies from region to region in Italy, but has characteristics that are able to conjoin regional variations under one umbrella, but distinguishes it from other Mediterranean cuisines.
Italian food is not the best option for the vegetarian, since meats play a significant role in the lunches and dinners of all Italian regions. Pork and sausage are key players in Italian cooking, particularly in the Basilicata, Marche and Umbria regions of Italy, and the northern region is known for its bacon. Sardinia meals commonly include suckling pig and wild boar. Further inland, mutton and lamb are popular meats. But it is the curing of meat that the Italians are famous for, and cured meats, called "salumi" in Italian, are a staple food nationwide. All meats--beef, goat, pork and veal--are found in cured form. Salted, smoked and air-dried, cured meats began as a method of conserving food, and has since developed techniques and flavours that have made cured meats a major component of Italian food. The salumi have two categories: those from a whole cut of meat, such as prosciutto or culatello, and those from ground, chopped, or minced meat that is compacted into cases, such as sausages and salami.
Pastas, Breads and Grains
Pastas and breads vary regionally in preparation and ingredients, but these foods make up the bulk of Italian meals. The Emilia-Romagna region is known as the pasta capital of northern Italy, where the same sweet flour is also used to produce rich breads. Lasagne, tortellini, and tagliatelle are familiar pastas that originated in Bologna. Heavier pastas are found in the region of Lazio. Risotto is not a pasta but a traditional rice dish that is a staple in the region of Lombardy. It is featured in Italian dishes nationwide. Breads and pastas are served in large portions during lunch and dinner in Italy, and the reputation of Italian cuisine being "heavy" can be attributed to these staple foods, in addition to the prevalence of rich creams and butter in the ingredients.
Fish & Seafood
The Americanized version of Italian food is usually absent of fish and seafood. However, situated right on the Mediterranean, Italians incorporate just as much seafood into their diet as the Greeks. Sardinian meals commonly include an abundance of shellfish, tuna, squid and other fish, as do the coastal meals of Marche. Oysters and mussels are prevalent side dishes in seaside towns. Freshwater fish are also found in the cuisine in regions such as Umbria, where eel, barbel, whitefish and freshwater perch are common components of Italian dishes.
Cheese is a pride of Italians just as much as it is for the French. Italy produces a multitude of different cheeses, which, like those in France, are named after the region or town in which they are produced, and many have earned the D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) legal label. The region of Campania is famous for producing mozzarella in a version that uses the milk of a water buffalo. Some of the Lombardy region's cheeses include Gorgonzola, taleggio, robiola and crescenza. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (from which "Parmesan" derived) is highly consumed and is produced in Reggio Emilia, Parma, Modena and Bologna.
Olive Oil & Herbs
Italian food includes olive oil and fresh herbs. Most regions produce olive oil, but the largest olive oil production is in Puglia. Leccino, Moraiolo, Frantoio and Pendolino olives are used to produce the olive oil in the Tuscany region. Parsley, sage, garlic and basil are a few of the herbs highly prevalent in Italian cooking. Saffron is also a favourite. Jewish, Arabic, French, Austrian, Greek and other historical and nearby influences are reflected in the use of herbs and spices in Italian cooking.
Nationwide, Italians place the highest priority on using fresh seasonal produce in Italian cuisine. The soil of Italy varies from the north to the south, and from mountainous, volcanic and coastal regions, thus affecting the quantities and types of crops grown. Tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli and spinach are produce staples. Eggplant, onions, asparagus, peas and beans are also ubiquitosly used in Italian cooking.
Other Italian Foods
Because it is so highly regional, authentic Italian food is difficult to summarise into a concise list. In addition to the common Italian foods listed above, polenta (made from cornmeal), nut varieties, citrus fruits, and chillies ("peperoncinis") are foods also common to an Italian kitchen. Butters, creams, cheeses, tomatoes, leeks and a long list of other ingredients contribute to the Italian love of sauces and soups. Desserts (cookies, cakes, strudels), espresso and wine are an important part of mealtime in Italy. Contrary to popular belief, Italy surpasses France as the largest producer of wine in the world.