Pasta, Riso e Polenta

The Italian Trinity

You know pasta. You know red sauce.

Maybe you know risotto and polenta.

But that’s just the beginning of the love affair with the carbohydrate you’ll find in Italy.

I knew I’d love Italy before I even got there. Everything I’d experienced — second-hand, from here in America — about that country and its people, history and art, and most of all, its food,
had me convinced.

And yet. For all the knowledge I’d supposed I had, when I actually went to Italy for the first time, what I ate there left me speechless with delight. I was especially dazed by the simplest things, like fresh fennel served as an appetizer, with only superb olive oil and coarse salt to dip it in — how could this be so good? How could everything be so good (the nettle risotto! The tiramisu!)? How could everything, simple or elaborate, taste so much like heaven?

And how, given that I had been an Italian-food-loving American my entire life, could I not have known this?

Because, until I got there, I thought there was such a thing as “Italian food.” And this, it turns out, is … wrong. Italy is a land of fiercely regional cuisines, and to homogenize them as “Italian” (as happens in most Italian-American restaurants, and certainly as I had previously done) is a dumbing-down and grave — if unintentional — culinary disrespect. Though in recent decades the regional cooking has traveled — for instance, you can get risotto, traditionally Northern, in the South of Italy nowadays — distinctions of preparation are kept, though with this proviso, which we Americans are truly just beginning to catch on to: What’s fresh? What’s local?

Now, my previous experience as an American eater who had not yet visited Italy was not just bastardized Italian-American food. My father, who for years wrote about wine and spirits for Playboy, would today be called a “foodie” (how he would have winced at the word!). Not for our family canned raviolis with an Italian chef’s name on the label, or fast-food pizzas delivered in beat-up cars bearing lit-up blue rectangles. Though we did occasionally eat out at two family-style, classic, old-school, red-sauce restaurants nearby: they were called Scappi’s and Manzi’s, and I am not making this up. Both specialized in huge portions, zitis drenched in red sauce and covered in enough melted cheese to sink a battleship, and good enough in their fashion — but, I vaguely knew, not “real” Italian food.

As I think about it now, and wonder how I knew this, I come back to two points.

The first was pasta, as it was cooked in our home (by my mother) and explained (by my father). It was always al dente: “It means, to the teeth!” my father would exclaim enthusiastically. “It means, not mushy, still with bite!” The pasta my mother made was only rarely done with red sauce and meatballs; it was more often elegant and simple, tossed either with Parmesan and freshly ground black pepper or garlic, olive oil and finely minced parsley. (The first, cacio e pepe, I enjoy to this day.) This, by the way, was an era when not many American homes even had a peppermill.

The second factor was the other Italian restaurants. These were in New York City, polestar of sophistication to the blander suburban planet where we lived. Of these, there were many such fine restaurants over the years, but the first and most vivid in my memory was the Isle of Capri. Intimate, white-tableclothed, its interior warm with brick and shades of rose and red — my father had told me about it for some time before he finally took me there. I was eight or nine. My expectations were high. “It’s different,” he told me. “It’s real Italian food.”

When I first tasted the Isle of Capri’s lasagna, I remember pausing, sitting still in my chair, almost quivering. What was this? Flavors and textures previously unknown to me exploded, then melted, in my mouth. Pale, ivory, subtle … instead of an in-your-face, tomato-based sauce, this lasagna was bathed in light and fragrance, creamy but not heavy or pasty; the most delicate incarnation of what the adult me knows is a béchamel. As for the pasta? It too was light, strangely slippery-silken in my mouth — fresh, I now know, rather than dried. And, shockingly, instead of ground beef or pork or chunks of sausage, the Isle of Capri’s lasagna had layers of chicken, or possibly turkey, completing its pale splendor. (With great joy I discovered, while researching this story, that the Isle of Capri is still open, owned and run by the Lamanna family, who started it in 1955. Jane Lamanna thinks the white lasagna I recall may have been done occasionally with poultry — “I wasn’t in the kitchen that often then, I was a teenager” — but suggests it might also have been veal.)

And yet. Even with this I was unprepared for how good the food was in its own native place, and how different it tasted from what I’d had in America. And, how much Italians (at least every Italian I met), cared about what they ate! How, fast food chains excepted, you couldn’t get a bad meal if you tried! I was just basically dazed with pleasure.

And, as I mentioned, I began to understand the country’s fierce regional culinary roots.

In any nation that is geographically diverse, food is going to vary from one region to another. But because Italy, a relatively small country (the U.S. is 32.5 times as large in square miles), is extreme in its astonishingly varied topography and weather, the culinary traditions are unusually, splendidly diverse. Forty percent mountainous, Italy runs north-south, with the North being Alpine and the South being sub-tropical. But that’s just the beginning of Italy’s geo-diversity. Besides two distinct mountain ranges and two active volcanoes (and the particular soil that surrounds them), there are areas that are arid and areas that are humid, areas that are flat and areas that are hilly, the richly arable land in the Po river valley, and the sea that surrounds much of that glorious, contradictory, peninsular country.

And this is leaving aside the other contributing factors — politics, governance (Italy was not a unified country until 1871), trade (all those coasts! All those seaports! All that influence!), neighbors (like Switzerland and Slovenia), and twin kitchen roots (the elevated foods of kings and courts, the down-home simplicity of ordinary people’s cooking).

Naturally, in such circumstances, you have not one national cuisine, but many.

For instance, you may think “olive oil” when you think “Italian,” but in the North, where it abuts Switzerland, it’s almost Heidi country, and the fat of the land is butter, while in the inland parts of Tuscany and landlocked Umbria, it’s frequently lard.

Nowhere is this more evident than when we examine the staple starches Italians love and, to this day, rely on. (And nobody, let it be said, but nobody, does a staple starch better, with more zest, variety and flat-out goodness, than the Italians.)

Southern, Northern and Central Italy: One might expect the three main staple grains of wheat (as in pasta), rice (as in risotto) and corn (as in polenta) to align neatly with these areas. Well, not so fast. Yes and no, as you’d expect from this deliciously contentious country. Within the broad embrace of these zones are 20 very particular regions. Look a little more closely and you’ll find constituencies where carbohydrates most Americans do not think of as particularly Italian are beloved (chestnuts, potatoes, buckwheat, barley, chickpeas). And consider the gnocchi, beloved in all of Italy; these little dumplings can be made from wheat or corn or potatoes.

It is true that in these comparatively well-off and interconnected contemporary days, inter-regional mingling is promiscuous; clearly, not just in Naples do Italians (and tourists) eat pizza alla Napoletana. Even while cooks and eaters like me revere the regional differences, those differences fade with travel, exposure to the Internet and prosperity. Polenta and risotto, once the more or less exclusive property of the North, can now be enjoyed throughout the country — indeed, throughout the world.

Still. Differences there were, and are, and I say, note them and celebrate them. And eat them. With hunger, with pleasure and, perhaps, with a little reverence.

Here, then, is an overview of the whats and wheres in the glorious forms of these staples, elevated as they are so beautifully, in Italy.

Northern Regions

Where: The top of Italy’s boot. To the north this mountainous area is bordered by France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, and to the south, by the sea … and the remainder of Italy. More provinces and more diversity are found here; and this is the coldest part of Italy.

Main Grain(s): Corn and rice, with potatoes, barley, chestnuts and buckwheat on backup. Wheat, though much more common now, was once less traditional in these parts. In contemporary times, the style tends towards the varieties we grind into all-purpose flour as opposed to the chewier, higher-protein, durum wheat types.

Specialties Made from It: Risotto. Polenta. Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the northeast, loves barley, including a risotto-like, savory barley porridge called orzotti. Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, abutting Austria, loves its buckwheat, including a short, flat buckwheat flour pasta, pizzoccheri (often layered with cabbage, potatoes, melted butter, sage and fontina cheese). Meanwhile, in Valle d’Aosta, influenced by Switzerland and France, potatoes, along with polenta, usually take the place of pasta or bread, and chestnuts are used in both savory and sweet dishes. Throughout this mountainous region, deeply hearty game and poultry stews are served over polenta. As one heads down towards Central Italy, pastas appear more frequently, typically fresh ones containing eggs and made from all-purpose flour.

Other Players: Expect a relative lack of tomatoes in the chillier North, plenty of cheese (even fondue, usually centered on fontina) and the addictive, oh-my-God goodness of white truffles.

Central Regions

Where: The middle part of Italy’s boot, where the country becomes peninsular, with the Ligurian and Mediterranean seas to the west and southwest, and the Adriatic to the east.

Main Grain(s): Wheat, with corn and rice playing more minor roles as backup. Chestnuts and potatoes do show up, however, and are beloved. And some parts of the central areas are devoted to the starchy but also proteinaceous bean; Tuscans in particular are sometimes known — not always flatteringly — as mangiafagioli, or bean eaters, by the rest of the country.

Specialties Made from It: Tuscan bread, considered by many to be the best in Italy, is generally unsalted. It may undergird soups, show up in salads (panzanella) and be toasted for appetizers (crostini). Pastas appear often — again, usually in fresh form, containing eggs and made from all-purpose flour, but sometimes are made from harder semole, or durum wheat, and different shapes are particular favorites in certain regions. It’s truly a heaven for starch lovers, with a Tuscan ravioli that’s plump and potato-stuffed, and the Tuscan specialty called pici, a thick, hand-rolled, spaghetti-like pasta. In Umbria, a similar pasta shape, thick though spaghetti-like, is found in strozzapreti ( priest chokers) or umbricelli (earthworms).

Southern Regions

Where: The ankle, foot and high heel of the boot of Italy, the South is where it’s warmer, drenched by ever more sun and sea, and there are islands: the autonomous region of Sicily, plus Capri, Ischia and Procida. Mountainous but with rich volcanic soil, every inch of land goes untilled.

Main Grain(s): Wheat; durum wheat is one of the area’s principal crops.

Specialties Made from It: Pasta, of course … and here the pasta is more likely to be dried, not fresh, and made with eggs and durum (semolina) wheat flour. This is the region from which the American-Italian bastardized red sauce came … but what a difference in fresher-than-fresh Italy. Not just the tomatoes, with that volcanic and sea-blown terroir, but the herbs, the artichokes, the olives and olive oil, the eggplant … all partner beautifully with pasta, as do fish and seafood from the omnipresent sea. Pizza originated in this part of the world, which is also cradle to savory, filled, yeasted doughs like calzone. And one can taste the millennia of trade and the foreign influences from North Africa and elsewhere here; sweet-hot flavors mark many savory dishes. Favored regional pasta shapes have their sway here, too: Puglia has its famous orecchiette (little ears), while Sicily boosts busiate, a long pasta hand-rolled into fusilli, shaped around a stick or a piece of wire.