How To Cook Like an Italian
Everyone cooks Italian food. You boil up a box of spaghetti, open a jar of Prego, sprinkle shaky cheese on top, and that’s cooking “Italian.” Right?
Not to any cook in Italy.
My favorite places are Italian home kitchens. I’ve stood the heat and watched home cooks in Rome, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Amalfi, Lombardia, and Umbria. And even though I’m Italian-American, I still had plenty to learn.
Italians give processed foods the evil eye. They are serious about using ingredients that are readily available, in season, and from the local region. They shop for lunch and dinner on the same day they eat that lunch and dinner. Everything fresh.
You might even call them conservative cooks. Recipes are simple. Ingredients shine. And there’s not a lot of experimentation. Kitchen tools are often just a paring knife and cutting board (rolling pin in the closet).
They’re thrifty, too. Italians don’t waste anything. Day-old bread turns into soup, salad, or gnocchi. Animal brains and stomach linings are eaten. Pig cheeks are cured. And quantities are human-sized, not the “abbondanza” that Italian-American restaurants promote as authentic.
Here are some rules Italian cooks live by:
Don’t put oil in the pasta water.
This just makes it harder for sauce to cling to pasta. When the water comes to a boil, add salt — make it taste like the ocean — then pasta. Stir with a fork, making sure the pasta stays separated until it comes back to the boil.
Italian tomato sauce doesn’t have to cook for hours.
Sauté minced onion and/or garlic in olive oil, add a splash of wine, a can or carton of crushed or strained tomatoes, salt & pepper, and simmer 15 minutes. Done.
Salad dressing doesn’t come in a jar.
Italians use just two ingredients to dress a salad: Olive oil and vinegar or olive oil and lemon.
Say no to cheese on spaghetti and clam sauce.
Cheese is a no-no on seafood dishes. Instead, sauté some breadcrumbs in olive oil and use that as a topping.
Contrary to popular belief, Fettuccine Alfredo has no cream in it.
A creamy consistency is created from the brisk tossing of hot pasta, butter, grated parmigiano, and pasta water.
Pasta water is your friend.
Always reserve a cup before draining. It’s salty, starchy and a great way to moisten your sauces.
Don’t put garlic in everything.
This might be the biggest Italian myth. Using garlic does not transform dishes into Italian feasts; Italians are frugal with their garlic.
Have a little sauce with your pasta; not a little pasta with your sauce.
You don’t need a swimming pool’s worth of sauce in your bowl; just a nice coating for the pasta.
My best friend in Rome — an American who married an Italian— told me a basic “cheese” caveat of Roman cooking. For a pasta dish with onion and basil, use parmigiano; for a dish with garlic and hot crushed pepper, use pecorino. Pecorino can stand up to the forte (strong) flavors of garlic and hot spice. Parmigiano enhances the dolce (sweetness) of onion and basil.
Some Italian food rules beg the question, why? Like why is cappuccino only for the mornings and not the evenings? And how come salad comes at the end of the meal? And why must I stir the risotto in only one direction?
I don’t know all the answers, but I don’t question the wisdom. I just do it. After all, I want to cook like an Italian.
You can find great products for Italian cooking right here in Nashville:
Lazzaroli Pasta for fresh-made ravioli, pasta & mozzarella and more, including salumi shipped in from Mario Batali’s dad’s shop in Seattle.
K&S International Markets where you can always find Italian fava beans.
Publix goes Italian for POMI tomatoes in a carton, CENTO brand San Marzano tomatoes; dried porcini mushrooms; surprisingly good prosciutto and pancetta from Boar’s Head.
Trader Joe’s for the President’s Reserve EVOO, 4-pack medium-sized fresh artichokes, and $1 packs of Italian imported pasta.
Coco’s Italian Market, Corrieri’s Formaggeria & Whole Foods for Italian cheeses such as parmigiano, taleggio, pecorino, ricotta salata, and more.
T.J.Maxx has a food department always brimming with specialty Italian olive oils, vinegars and seasonings, all at discount prices.