The first step to making Italian food that people will rave about: the right ingredients. Luckily, they're all easily found in your grocery store. Take this top-10 shopping list and get ready to mangia!
1. GRATING CHEESES
Why pick just one? Keep a few different cheeses on hand for different dishes. Parmigiano- reggiano, made from cow's milk and aged for at least 10 months, has a complex salty-nutty flavor that pairs well with everything. Grana padano (a tad less expensive) is similarly nutty but has a milkier taste. Pecorino-romano is a sharp, salty sheep's-milk cheese that's perfect for zesty, hearty sauces.
Rare is the Italian fridge that doesn't stock a ball of this soft, fresh cow's-milk cheese, used for everything from pizza to panini. You can find it in plastic wrap or brine-filled containers in the deli section. Its flavor and texture are best in uncooked appetizers; when it comes to super- melty dishes like lasagna, go for the low-moisture mozzarella sold shredded or in blocks.
3. BALSAMIC VINEGAR
There's the real deal: the rich, thick, sweet-tart aged syrup from Modena labeled "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale" and sold in specialty stores. Then there's what most people (even in Italy) use: inexpensive versions that don't have to meet the same strict standards. They're thinner and tangier -- great for salad dressings or sauces.
Extra-virgin olive oil has a strong, fruity aroma and taste. It is essential to cooking in Italy: The country consumes one-fifth of the olive oil produced globally. In order to qualify as "extra-virgin," minimal heat and no chemicals are used to extract the oil from the olives. The oil must also be low in acidity and pass a basic taste test mandated by the International Olive Council.
Also known as Italian bacon, this raw, salt- cured pork crisps up like its American counterpart, but because it's not smoked, it has a more subtle flavor. Order it in a chunk from the deli counter so you can slice and use it as needed.