Virtuoso Life - November/December 2016 - 92
I KNEW WHAT WAS COMING
before the waiter opened his mouth to speak. At the table next to
mine in a small osteria on the Italian Riviera, a Dutch family had
just tried to order a favorite Italian dish for their young son: spaghetti Bolognese.
"Signori, no," the waiter implored, his hands pressed together as in
prayer. "Siete in Liguria!"
You're in Liguria!
Everyone got the message: In Italy, you eat what's local. And in Liguria, a crescent-shaped province hugging the Mediterranean, that
means bright-green pesto, lemon-doused anchovies, or fresh mussels pulled from the sea. Try ordering anything "Bolognese" here
and you just might be offered directions to Bologna, mere hours
away in the neighboring region of Emilia-Romagna.
This scene illustrates the extent to which culinary differences exist across Italy. The country may be famous for its pizza and pasta,
its espresso and gelato and tiramisu, but with 20 regions spanning a
vast area from the snowcapped Alps to the sunbaked southern heel,
Italy is home to a range of cuisines as diverse as its geography.
What's on the menu can vary greatly from north to south, from
province to province, even from town to neighboring town. These
regional traditions evolved over centuries, shaped by everything
from the terrain to politics to the economic situation. For proof,
look at the more prosperous north, where rich dishes with butter and meat are typical. In the sunny but disadvantaged south,
however, tomatoes and eggplants, often grown in a backyard garden, are common staples. The only constants that can be traced
across the Italian peninsula are the simplicity of the recipes and
the ingenuity of the cooks, who transform leftover pork bits into
tasty cured sausages or turn nothing but water and flour into an
endless variety of pasta shapes.
Today, vacationing Italians make a point to seek out the prodotto
tipico (typical local product), whether that happens to be risotto in
Milan or paper-thin slices of buttery lardo in the Tuscan hamlet of
Colonnata. The Slow Food movement, a grassroots organization
founded in the Piedmont region, has spent nearly 30 years working
to spotlight hyperlocal culinary specialties, helping travelers discover deep-seated traditions instead of contributing to the globalization of gastronomy. Although an unusual, hand-pressed chickpea
pasta might cost more than a hamburger, the approach has caught
V I RT U O S O L I F E
on. In Italy, the annual Slow Food guide, Osterie d'Italia, has become
Italians' go-to guidebook, and restaurants included among the carefully chosen listings proudly display the Slow Food seal of approval:
a sticker depicting a snail.
So instead of traveling to Italy for "Italian food" - there's really no
such thing, anyway - do as the Italians do and focus on finding (and
tasting) what's regional, local, and tipico. From Veneto in the north to
Sicily in the south, here are six regions' specialties to get you started.