20 Reasons to Embrace Italy
Because cannoli are the new cupcakes. They're just as portable, customizable and fun to eat -- and a lot more surprising. Folks like Stuffed Artisan Cannolis in NYC and Holy Cannoli in Portland, OR, are having fun with this classic Italian treat.
Because you can make your own ricotta. If you can turn on a burner and open a carton of milk, you can make ricotta that's way creamier than what you find at the supermarket. You can use it in your lasagna, but it's so delicious that you may just want to drizzle it with EVOO, sprinkle it with salt and eat it with a spoon!
Because nutella is the best thing since peanut butter. Thank you, Pietro Ferrero, for whirling chocolate and hazelnuts into this addictive spread in northwestern Italy in the 1940s.
Because we still get excited about meatballs. And we're not the only ones! Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman, co-owners of the Meatball Shops in New York City and Brooklyn, helped turn the mini food into a massive trend. They've rolled up dozens of delicious combos, from spicy pork and classic beef to the sweet-and-savory lamb version here.
5. White-Wine Spritzer
Because the Italians can make even a white-wine spritzer cool. Make like a Venetian and sip on the most refreshing cocktail on the planet -- a spritz. The classic drink is made with a bitter liqueur (Campari or Aperol), prosecco and a splash of seltzer. In our tests (tough day at the office!), we liked a shot of orange-flavored seltzer -- or better yet, good old orange soda! Cin-cin!
Because Italian-American cooking is getting more Italian. Italians are the original locavores, prizing ingredients from close to home and the dishes they inspire. And American chefs are close behind. The six shown here make "Italian food" a meaningless phrase by cooking in the styles of specific cities and regions. Read on to pick a pasta dinner for tonight by Italian region!
"It took a while for me to understand and respect the simplicity of this dish (literally, pasta with cheese and pepper), which is a staple at Roman trattorias."
Justin Smillie executive chef atIl Buco Alimentari & Vineria in New York City
"There's a reason Neapolitans are known as 'leaf eaters.' Cabbage and other greens are beloved in Campania. Chiles, garlic and provolone piccante are also common regional ingredients."
Andrew Feinberg chef/owner of Franny's in Brooklyn, NY
"There are so many mushrooms in Piedmont in the fall! There's even a sagra del fungo (mushroom festival) every autumn in the province of Torino with music, mushroom tastings and mushroom foraging."
Tony Mantuano chef/partner of Spiaggia in Chicago
"This dish reminds me of my grandmother, who was from Introdacqua, a little town in Abruzzi. The food there is very rustic and influenced by the Adriatic Sea -- it tastes unbelievable."
Ken Vedrinski chef/owner of Trattoria Lucca and Coda del Pesce, both in Charleston, SC
"Kale is relatively new to the American table, but it has a long history in Italy, particularly in Tuscany. It's a revered fall vegetable there, where the first frost tenderizes and sweetens it."
Cathy Whims chef/co-owner of Nostrana in Portland, OR
"The eggplant, tomato, cheese and basil -- it all screams Sicily and warm Mediterranean weather."
-Sara Jenkins chef/owner of Porsena and Porchetta, both in New York City
Just because of Eataly. When the ginormous Italian superstore opened in New York in 2010, the maze of aisles, kiosks and restaurants changed the way we thought about food shopping. A glass of vino while perusing produce? Sì, per favore! With even more U.S. openings coming next year (Chicago, you're next!), traditional Italian foods like mortadella, the affordable Italian cold cut that's a blend of seasoned pork and pistacios, will have to make an appearance on your shopping list.
8. The Mediterranean Diet
Because the Mediterranean diet is even better than you thought. Italian food's extreme deliciousness is reason enough to become a devotee, but it also makes for one of the healthiest ways to eat. Adopting the nutrient-packed Mediterranean diet -- more olive oil, nuts, fruits and veggies, fish and beans; less saturated fat, meat and dairy -- can score you a ticket to head-to-toe health.
Because you can get great gelato at the grocery store Now that artisanal producers everywhere have caught on to the Italian technique of slow-churning that results in a denser, creamier -- and more flavorful -- dessert, the freezer case is looking more and more like a gelateria!
Because American-made prosciutto is a delicious bargain! With Italian dry-cured ham costing close to $30 per pound, nicely priced (and fantastically flavorful) American brands -- like Volpi of St. Louis, MO, La Quercia of Norwalk, IA and Olli Salumeria of Mechanicsville, VA -- give the imported stuff some serious competition.
Because you don't have to go out for a great espresso. Drink your coffee like a true Italian with an easy-to-use $20 espresso pot. This iconic little brewer serves up top-notch shots of espresso in about five minutes right on your stovetop -- so you get to stay in your PJs. Here's how to do it at home:
- Pour some water into the base.
- Pack the filter loosely with finely ground coffee (about the texture of table salt). Tightly packed coffee may cause too much pressure to build up, which could lead to an eruption.
- Put the pot on a stove burner and wait for the water to boil, which forces it up through the coffee grounds and into the little pot!
12. Italian Markets
Because Italian markets are all in the family. These Italian food shops have been run by their founding families for at least a century and -- much like a nice Nebbiolo -- have only gotten better with age.
Because Chianti is cool again. If you haven't had a sip of Chianti since Hannibal Lecter famously chased his fava beans with some, it's time to come back. Chianti is a wine built for food: Its high acidity and fruity cherry flavor make it a great match for just about anything from a simple pasta with marinara to a juicy steak. And, yes, it's good with fava beans.
Try our picks -- all $10 or less!
Because you can make pizza on your stovetop (really!). You don't need a pizza stone -- or even an oven -- to make our new favorite pizza. Inspired by the deep-fried pizza montanara, a specialty in Naples that's become popular in New York City, this pan-fried pie has a crisp crust that's soft and tender on the inside. Plus, it cooks in just five minutes!
15. Italian Grannies
Yes, really. Because Italian grannies give the best cooking advice. What's Nonna's secret to a great Sunday sauce, the tomato-based classic? Find out for yourself: Cook a batch of our base recipe -- then tweak it with some tried-and-true tips from real Italian grandmas.
16. Italian Heros
Because Italian heros are an art form! You can't go wrong with piles of cheese and cured meats on an oversize roll. But just one ingenious twist can turn a simple sub into the stuff of legend.
Because there's always a great new Italian cookbook to learn from. In Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich ($35, Knopf ) the famed Italian cooking teacher, restaurateur and TV host has compiled her essential tips and techniques in one volume. This 304-page handbook is soon to become a sauce-splattered classic. We also recommend Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy by Francine Segan ($35, Stewart Tabori & Change) and Classico E Moderno: Essential Italian Cooking by Michael White ($50, Ballantine).
Because the pastabilities are endless! Try pastas made with grains like farro, brown rice and spelt to add whole-grain goodness to your next meal.
Because balsamic makes everything better. We drizzle it over meats, shower it on our salads and spike our sauces with it. But with more choices than ever before, shopping for balsamic can make your head spin. To be sure you're getting true Italian balsamic, check the label for these three things:
- The right name. Look for "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena." This lets you know the vinegar has been made according to Italian guidelines, which include aging the vinegar in wood for at least 60 days and making sure it has the required 6 percent acidity.
- The right ingredients. The label should list grape must (the cooked skins and juice of grapes) and wine vinegar. Don't worry if you also see caramel color. Some producers use it and it's permitted by Italian guidelines. If you see only "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" on the ingredients list, that means you're getting just those two or three ingredients.
- The right location. The Protected Geographical Indication (IGP) seal ensures that the vinegar was produced, at least in part, in Modena. Balsamic vinegar can be made anywhere, but the authentic stuff comes from this small Italian city.
20. Going Back!
Because you can go back to the motherland for inspiration -- and amazing food -- on the cheap. Read on for our must-know tips.
Traveling between November and March is a great way to avoid crowds and save on flights (Kayak.com reports an 18 percent difference between high- and low-season fares to Italy). And flying into less touristy cities like Milan or Pisa versus, say, Rome may shave off extra bucks. "You'll see a great city you might not otherwise, and Italy's train system is so good, you're never more than a few hours away from your final destination," says Mark Drusch, chief supplier relations officer for CheapOair.com. He also suggests checking fares between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. EST, when KLM, Lufthansa and other European lines are updating (and sometimes discounting) their inventory.
Aperitivo, a complimentary pre-meal feast of cheeses, salumi and olives served at wine bars, began in northern Italy and has been spreading south. Now, you can save big throughout the country by ordering a glass of vino and filling up on the excellent eats that come with your drink. Try Rome's Enoteca Ferrara, Milan's Roialto and Florence's Kitsch.
Not just for backpackers anymore, some Italian hostels have gone boutique, boasting sleek, private digs (in addition to shared) and even saunas and pools. Check out Sicily's LoLHostel (from $32, lolhostel.com) or Florence's PLUS (from $21, plushostels.com/plusflorence).
Now that you're an expert on everything Italian, take a peek at Rachael's annual trip to Tuscany, Italy!