Published on: 2 April 2013 | Last updated: 9 June 2014
Machine-made dried pasta has swept the board - although you can still find a bewildering variety of forms and names (the Encyclopaedia of Pasta has identified 310 forms with 1300 names). Wikipedia has a long list with plenty of pictures.
Pasta is usually made with durum wheat, but you can come across pasta made with potatoes, or with buckwheat flour (pizzoccheri). While there are still plenty of varieties of dried pasta its probably among fresh pasta that the more traditional forms continue:
- in Puglia orecchiette made with the thumb - they also have a variant of lasagne nsagna made by twisting the sheet pasta round the finger;
- in many parts of central and southern italy pasta was cut by passing it through a frame with steel wires - which became known as the chitarra (pronounced kittara) because of its resemblance to a guitar. So you’ll find pasta alla chitarra which is pretty much like square spaghetti - served with tomato sauce;
- in the Veneto they have bigoli which are big thick hand-made spaghetti (in Toscana the same thing is called pici);
- cusunziei are a speciality of the Ladin valleys of the Dolomites. They are mezzelune (half moons) filled with rape rosse - literally ‘red turnips’ they are like beetroot but have a more delicate flavour (think raspberries rather than blackberries);
- tortelli especially filled with zucca (squash) are the signature dish of Emilia-Romagna.
The main strongholds for rice production in Italy are (or at least were) Piemonte, and the south of Verona between the Po and the Adige rivers. The places you’ll find the best risotto are in its traditional heartlands. Risotto is pretty labour-intensive, which I suspect is the main reason why you don’t see it very widely, and, sadly for solo travellers, when you do it often has a minimum of two portions. The classic risotto is the risotto alla milanese cooked with saffron, but the other great risottos. In the Mantova area the risotto alla pilota, made with sausages, is a traditional speciality . Other variants I’ve come across include:
- risotto with squash (zucca);
- risotto with pear and taleggio cheese;
- risotto with ‘zola’ (gorgonzola) and radicchio;
- risotto with fillets of perch (persico);
- squid ink (nero di seppia) this can be made with rice or with black rice which, strictly speaking, isn’t rice at all;
- risotto ai funghi
- riso (rice) and bisi is traditional dish in parts of the Veneto in early summer.
In the south you can find rice with chick peas (cecchi). And of course Arancini which are balls of rice filled with peas or rice or mozzarella. These are a Sicilian speciality but thought to have been introduced to Sicilia by the Arabs.
Lentils and grains
Farro (spelt is a type of wheat is widely used in soups and salads in Umbria, Le Marche and Abruzzo. Further north, its place is taken by orzo (barley).
Lentils are a proud local speciality grown in the high plains of the Apennines of Abruzzo and Umbria. You don’t see them very often on restaurant menus although they are an essential part of dinners on New Year’s Eve (Capodanno) - lentils are believed to be a sign of money and good financial fortune.