Pane carasau This Sardinian flatbread is made with semolina, and it’s baked twice to achieve thin, crispy sheets. Enjoy it with Sardinian Pecorino, cured meats such as Breasola della Valtellina IGP and a glass of Aglianico del Vulture DOC from Basilicata in southern Italy.
Prosciutto di Norcia IGP You can recognize this ham by its distinctive pear shape and its coating of sugna, a mixture of lard, salt, pepper and flour. Only prosciutto made in Umbria’s Valnerina valley can legally be called Prosciutto di Norcia.
Finocchiona IGP Tuscan salami with wild fennel seeds, this should get a spot on your antipasti platter. Serve it with a low-salt bread, Italian cheeses, pickled vegetables and Chianti wine.
Cedrata An Italian staple since the fifties, this sweet yet tart soda is made from Calabrian citron, a fruit that looks like a lemon with a thick, bumpy rind. Sip it on its own, or use it in place of soda in an Aperol spritz.
Hazelnuts Piemonte IGP Harvested from the Langhe hills, these little nuts must meet exacting standards: they have to be almost perfectly round, with a shell that’s medium-thick, not too glossy and a specific light brown hue.
As any chef will tell you, the key to a spectacular ragù alla Bolognese or Caprese salad is buying the best straight-from-Italia San Marzano DOP tomatoes or mozzarella di bufala.
Authentic ingredients and Italian foods get their flavours from the places where the produce is grown and the techniques used to harvest or craft them. It’s no surprise, then, that other manufacturers try to pass off Italian-inspired products as authentic. But just because a product sports an Italian flag and an Italian-sounding name, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fake.
According to Toronto chef and restaurateur Massimo Capra, you can taste the difference when you eat genuine ingredients versus imitations.
A Made in Italy designation tells shoppers that these foods are produced, processed or prepared in Italy. “Italy has an enormous variety of foods and laws to protect it, because the people are strong-willed, and they demand the best,” Capra says.
Read packaging and labels. There are three indications that the product you’re buying is authentically Italian. Look for these words on the product or labels: “Made in Italy” should appear somewhere on the package; you should see the region indicated, so you know where the product comes from; and look for its certification DOP/PDO or IGP/PGI from the European Union.
Know the acronyms. Check for the designations DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta). In English, the acronyms are PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). DOP means the product was grown, processed and packaged in its region of origin. IGP relates to a specific geographic area and indicates that at least one stage of the production took place there. Both designations are governed by the European Union.
Out of the hundreds of superb Italian olive oils pressed each year, Filippo Bucchino, a sommelier with the National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters, recommends one he calls “pungent and bitter, with grassy notes.” His pick comes from the southern region of Puglia, where young growers are revitalizing old, often-abandoned groves and production methods to press the Coratina olive.
As an olive with high oleic acid and one of the highest levels of phenolic compounds, its oil is one of the healthiest and most shelf stable. To enjoy its bold flavours, Bucchino suggests following the “rules of harmony and contrast” by harmonizing its robust taste with aged goat cheese, bean soups, grilled meats and vegetables (think kale or black cabbage), raw artichokes and bitter greens. Or contrast it with a more delicate vegetable, like fennel.
Bucchino is so passionate about authentic olive oil that he got into the business. His Abandoned Grove extra-virgin olive oil (Adagio del Colle) is pressed from a blend of Frantoio, Leccino and Moraiolo olives, harvested from regenerated groves in the hills surrounding Florence, in Tuscany. “I travel there every year for the harvest, where I oversee production. We then fly it to North America within a couple of weeks of harvest, conserving its freshness.” The supply is limited, and connoisseurs can only buy online when it arrives in Canada, just in time for the holidays.
Italy may be better known for its wine, but it also boasts a proud brewing tradition. While Peroni and Moretti lagers are the most widely consumed Italian beers, the country is seeing a surge in craft brewing. Anthony Valitutti, managing director of Mondo Wines in Vaughan, Ont., and chef Gabriele Paganelli of Speducci Mercato in Toronto suggest these two fabulous food-and-beer pairings, classic Italian dishes with robust artisanal ales.
Wild Boar Strozzapreti. This rustic dish from Emilia-Romagna features chewy, hand-rolled pasta sauced with a wild boar ragout and topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Balance its richness with a slightly bitter, top-fermented, full-bodied, bottle-conditioned amber ale from Italy’s northeast, an hour’s drive from Venice.
Porchetta. Rome’s porchetta is a cultural treasure and has earned the status of prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (traditional agricultural food product). Paganelli’s porchetta sandwiches are a Speducci Mercatto favourite. He debones a whole hog, coats it in a mixture of spices from an old family recipe – pepper, cinnamon, rosemary, juniper, Sale Dolce di Cervia and his secret ingredient – then rolls and slow roasts it for 12 hours. It’s a heavy dish, so it needs a beer that can hold its own. Valitutti recommends a craft India pale ale from Umbria, whose herbaceous and citrus bitterness can cut through the fat, offering a palate cleanser between each bite.
When there’s a chill in the air and thoughts turn to the holidays, Toronto chef Rob Gentile turns to the cuisine of northern Italy.
“One of my favourite winter ingredients are chestnuts, either roasted on their own at holiday time or incorporated into recipes,” says Gentile, who owns several restaurants, including Buca Osteria & Bar. “In regions with cooler climates – Tuscany, Liguria and Piemonte – chestnut season starts in late autumn,” he explains. “Anything from the squash family is also amazing in winter. And of course – winter truffles.”
Truffles from northern Italy are at their peak in November, a favourite of Chef Rob Gentile.
In the Alba, Piemonte, Molise and Umbria regions, winter truffle season starts at the beginning of October and lasts until about Februray or March, he adds.
These earthy, sharp-tasting fungi are a given in omelettes and overtop pasta.
“Roma beans are also in season and are an essential ingredient in pasta fagioli, which I finish with shaved truffles,” says Gentile. Carrots, fennel and radicchio are added to recipes this time of year to brighten up nourishing starters and mains. The menu at Buca offers radicchio in Insalata di Tardivo – a salad of tardive radicchio, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, extra-virgin olive oil, rhubarb and balsamic vinegar. Late-harvested Radicchio Tardivo PGI is from Treviso. Chestnut gnocchi is another winter go-to inspired by seasonal ingredients.
“It’s a super-simple dish of gnocchi with roasted chestnuts, warm winter spices, cream, Taleggio cheese – a pungent, semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese of the Val Taleggio region – and shaved winter truffle,” says Gentile. “It’s such a perfect combo.”
In Italy, the late fall and winter also boast juicy fruit. Desserts with oranges, clementines (blood oranges from Sicily are especially synonymous with Christmas), persimmons and pomegranates (their jewel-toned seeds also add colour and a tart-sweet crunch to salads) are ideal enjoyed by the fire after a comforting, wintry meal.
Vancouver-based wine writer Michaela Morris's top four wines for your holiday menu
Type Soft, washed rish
Fine points This cow’s milk cheese is salted before ripening in high humidity for 25 – 50 days. It retains the sweetness of the milk, but wheels that mature longer develop a spicy note.
How to eat Stir it into polenta, spread it on bread with honey or marmalade, or eat it with fresh fruit to balance its saltiness. Try it with a fruity red wine, like Nero d’Avola.
Type Semi-soft with a sweet and delicate flavour
Fine points This sheep's milk is made from an ancient Sardinian breed raised in a natural environment, where they can graze on herbs such as heather and rosemary that grow wild in the plains.
How to eat Pairs well with full-bodied red wines and savoury dishes.
Type Hard, with aromas of butter, milk and straw
Fine points Bra duro is made using cow’s milk, and it’s ripened for six months. It has a compact texture with an intense, salty flavour.
How to eat Try it with acidic fruit (currants, grapefruit, blueberries) and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO. It works well with full-bodied Tuscan red wine.
Elevate your cooking by investing in the perfect Italian cheese for your holiday dishes
Massimo Bruno, founder of the Massimo Bruno Kitchen Studio in Toronto, says the right Italian cheese makes all the difference to a dish, whether you’re hosting a dinner party or preparing a simple comfort-food dish on a chilly winter evening.
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP Serve fresh bufala mozzarella at room temperature. It’s delicious in Caprese salad: cheese, tomatoes and a touch of Italian olive oil. You may want to add balsamic vinegar, but resist the temptation. “In Puglia, we say, ‘E’ come dare uno schiaffo a Cristo,’ which means adding balsamic to a Caprese is like giving a slap to Christ. You lose the buttery flavour of the milk in the mozzarella when you add balsamic vinegar.”
Fontina Valdostana DOP Italian Fontina is strong and flavourful, and it works well in a fonduta. Bruno soaks the cheese in milk at room temperature for a few hours to soften and meld the flavours, then he cooks it in the milk over low heat. For extra creaminess, he’ll add a beaten egg yolk at the end and fresh truffles or truffle oil to add richness.
Gorgonzola DOP Bruno’s a fan of gorgonzola in the winter and prefers the sweet and smooth variety. He recommends adding a little to risotto and topping it with pear and walnuts. “It’s a very comfy dish,” he says. “You can also make gnocchi with it, but it really gives risotto a wonderful, surprising flavour.”
Panettone, a sweet, buttery dome-shaped loaf, is traditionally enjoyed with a dessert wine such as Moscato d’Asti DOCG. Panforte is a delicious, chewy fruitcake from Siena that boasts a slightly peppery flavour and is infused with candied dried fruit. Torrone, a cream-coloured nougat scented with honey and orange, is typically speckled with toasted almonds. Hailing from Tuscany, Vin Santo del Chianti DOC – a softly sweet dessert wine with hints of orange zest and Earl Grey tea – is perfect for dipping biscotti.
Go forThe genuine pastas (try Pennette della Domenica) and jam made from figs from the Ligurian coast, all found in this shop owned by the Terroni group of restaurants. sudforno.ca
Go forThe cheeses! Choose from more than 300 varieties, including a Parmigiano-Reggiano aged for 36 months, Crotonese and fresh burrata. labaia.ca/en
Go forEight-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena, porcini, Arborio rice and an ice candy to satisfy your sweet tooth. labottega.ca
Go forHard-to-find products, and owner Fortunato Bruzzese’s expert advice on everything related to authentic ingredients. lgdf.ca