Stock your kitchen pantry with these essential Italian ingredients.
Anchovy fillets — brined, salt cured and packed in oil or salt — can be eaten whole, or chopped or puréed and added to Caesar salads and puttanesca sauces. Anchovy paste, which is sold in tubes, is a great substitute for whole or rolled, canned fillets. The paste is made from ground anchovy fillets mixed with salt and often sugar. It is saltier and more pungent than the fillets.
Marinated artichoke hearts have been roasted and dressed with seasoned oil, or oil and vinegar, giving them a tangy flavor. They’re great for salads and antipasti. Artichokes canned in water are great deep-fried (carciofi alla giudia), braised Roman-style (carciofi alla Romana), used as toppings for pizzas, and tossed with pasta or risotto. Drain the can and squeeze the liquid out of the artichokes so you don’t add excess water to whatever you’re cooking.
Wherever wine is made, so too is vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar is a regional specialty from the Northern Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. This dark, sweet, “true” balsamic is made with specific grapes and according to strict government guidelines, and it’s aged for 12 years. Most Italian balsamic and wine vinegars are fine for cooking. Reserve more expensive traditional balsamic vinegar to use as a dressing or condiment.
You can make homemade bread crumbs, but canned breadcrumbs work in a pinch to add crunchy texture and flavor to eggplant, veal and chicken parms.
Whole and crushed peeled tomatoes, canned in their juices, are great for Southern Italian-style tangy tomato sauces, and a simple sauté of whole tomatoes, olive oil, minimal garlic and basil yields pasta al pomodoro e basilico. Certified San Marzano tomatoes come from the Sarno valley near Vesuvius. They have been awarded PDO (protected designation of origin) status. Denser tomato paste is more concentrated and adds almost a meaty flavor to dishes. Tomato paste is usually made with plum tomatoes, which have thick, meaty flesh, fewer seeds, less juice and thicker skins.
Premium tuna packed in olive oil is a common pasta topping and a key ingredient in the Northern Italian veal dish vitello tonnato.
Salty, pickled capers are the secret to chicken piccata. Puttanesca is a robust Neapolitan sauce made with a combination of anchovies, olives, garlic, capers and crushed red pepper. The saltiness of the anchovies and olives is a great contrast to the sweetness of the tomatoes.
CRUSHED OR DRIED RED PEPPERS
Fiery Italian red peppers add heat to sauces. Marinara is simply olive oil, ripe tomatoes, garlic, dried red chili pepper, and dried oregano or fresh basil. This Southern Italian staple sauce can be paired with almost any shape of pasta. Arrabbiata sauce is a spicy tomato sauce made with hot red chili peppers or chili flakes. Arrabbiata translates to “angry” in Italian; the name of the sauce refers to the spiciness of the peppers.
DRIED HERBS & SEASONINGS
Basil, bay leaf, crushed red pepper, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme are common ingredients in Italian cooking. Dried herbs have a much stronger flavor than fresh. Substitute one teaspoon of dry herbs for three teaspoons of fresh.
Pasta is available in a multitude of shapes and sizes. Store unopened in a cool dry area. Once opened, transfer to an airtight container. Long thin spaghetti and wider, fatter linguini are best for tomato sauce and red gravy. Use a stubby shaped pasta, with holes, ridges or cups, for heavier sauces. Corkscrew-shaped fusilli, spirali, butterfly- or bowtie-shaped farfalle, conchiglie and ear-shaped orecchiette also work for heavier sauces, and are great for pasta salads.
Corn has been produced in Italy for hundreds of years — try it grilled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese. Gnocchi can be made with cornmeal as easily as it is with semolina flour, but it’s polenta, a fundamental of Northern Italian cuisine, we most associate with corn. This grits-like porridge is made from coarsely ground or medium-textured yellow cornmeal.
Beans and lentils are grown throughout Italy and are as essential to Italian cuisine as pasta. Tuscan white beans are made with large, creamy, mild, white cannellini beans. Minestrone, that great Northern Italian comfort food, is made with a variety of beans. And borlotti beans are central to pasta e fagioli.
Extra virgin olive oil from the first press of olives is the most full-bodied and flavorful. It is the best choice for salad dressing. Pure olive oil, which is milder than extra virgin, is great for cooking.
Olives are distinguished by variety (Castelvetrano, Kalamata, Gaeta, etc.), the region where they are grown, when they are picked and how they are cured. Color indicates ripeness. The darker the olive, the longer it was on the tree. All olives start out green. They ripen to light brown, then reddish-brown or purplish-brown, and eventually black. Olives are never eaten raw because they’re too bitter for that. A curing process is used to tenderize them and add flavor. That’s also what gives olives their saltiness. Typically, the longer olives are cured, the more multilayered their flavors are.
These hot, sweet, deep red chili peppers are used in rustic Southern Italian dishes.
Arborio and Carnaroli varieties are used in risotto, a traditional Northern Italian dish. They are wider than American rice, short- to medium-grain, and have high amylopectin (starch) content, so they maintain their structure through constant stirring. Arborio is the most commonly used risotto rice, though Carnaroli, the “King of Italian rices,” has a higher starch profile. Medium-grain American rice can be substituted for risotto, but it does not expand as much, so adjust recipes accordingly.
This pale yellow flour, produced from durum wheat, is used to make pasta and gnocchi. We also carry authentic “00,” or doppio zero, flour, which is used for pizza dough and pasta.