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The Great Italian Menu
This is one in a series of articles describing how to find your way around menus for various cuisines.
The article does not intend to describe in detail many of the dishes to be encountered, but it does cover the stages of the meal and the types of dishes and main ingredients to be expected. I will leave typical Italian snacks such as Pizza for another article.
Let’s start at the beginning…
A meal should start with an aperitif: a small drink to “get the juices flowing”. This need not be alcoholic, but generally speaking the drink should have a “bite” and be more bitter than sweet. Examples include Campari and Soda, Dry Martini, Pastis and Gin and Tonic. Funnily, I think most people would not class a whisky as an aperitif, but rather an after-dinner drink.
Some schools of thought favour a glass of Champagne, and even a bowl of broth was once considered an aperitif – though most people would now class broth as a starter.
It is usual to have bread and Grisini (breadsticks). Italian bread is more elastic, and has a thicker, harder crust than English or French. It is perfect for dipping into a little dish of olive oil which is sometimes offered (or asked for!). Olives are commonly offered with the bread, and go well with the aperitif.
Usually Pizza-base style, sometimes offered with a topping of tomato puree, or cheese.
Eat while perusing the menu.
I’m a bit of a neophyte when it comes to wine, though I admit to favouring Italian style wines over most others. I personally like a really full bodied, powerful red wine, probably because I like full-flavoured meals in general. Italy provide so many excellent wines, with the D.O.C.G. classification being granted to: Albana di Romagna, Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brachetto d'Acqui, Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Chianti, Chianti Classico, Franciacorta, Gattinara, Ghemme, Montefalco Sagrantino, Moscato d'Asti, Taurasi, Torgiano Rosso Riserva, Vermentino di Gallura, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
My particular favourite is Amarone, a type of Valpollicella.
Antipasto – literally “before a meal”, and not, as I used to think, before the pasta course (Latin: Ante, before, Italian: Pasto, meal)
To my mind, the first course in many cuisines is a “scene setter”. It presents samples of the best, or most typical of the cuisine of the region. Usually more distinctly flavoured than the main courses, only small samples are needed.
Typically Italian starters:
Toasted bread, drizzled with hot olive oil, covered with pieces of fresh tomato. I recently had “Bruschetta Fegatini” which consisted of toast – made with Italian style bread – covered with chicken liver pieces sautéed with a hint of chilli (pepperoncino). Absolutely excellent for “starting your motor”!
Wafer thin slices of prime beef, served raw with a dressing of vinaigrette, or simply good olive oil and shavings of fresh Parmesan.
This uncooked, dry-cured ham is exquisite. Parma and San Danielle are the famous producing towns, though I have heard of “Culatello”, from Zibello, and a few other communities within Parma, which is said to be the epitome of Prosciutto. I’ll let you know if I ever come across it.
Salame, Bresaola, Pancetta, Mortadella. There are more types than you can shake a stick at. A selection is often on the menu as an antipasto.
Fagioli e Tonno
Cannelini beans and Tuna, olive oil, lemon juice, a little sliced onion, a touch of garlic, salt and pepper. Served cold. The use of tinned, pre-cooked beans and tuna should not deter you – there is not much a canner can do wrong with beans or tuna! The dish does rely, however, on really good olive oil, and fresh garlic and lemon.
Tomato and Mozzarella Salad
Slices of large, ripe, tasty tomato, interspersed with similarly sized slices of Mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with fresh basil leaves.
Make sure you get Buffalo, not Cow, Mozzarella. If you can’t tell the difference, keep trying, you’ll get there!
Soup, Pasta or Rice Dishes
These are considered starters, but lately, the despicable trend to rushing meals has relegated them to main courses!
Minestre, Minestrone, the “big soup”. Soup was originally only for the poor, and the clergy would “minister” to them by ladling it out of large cauldrons.
Spaghetti, Macaroni, Linguine, Gnocchi, Lasagne, Penne, Farfalle, Canneloni, all can be served with various sauces, often based on tomato, but could instead be based on basil and pine-nut kernels, cream and pancetta or even salmon and chillies!
Risotto, a northern Italian dish, creamy textured short-grain rice (such as Arborio) carefully prepared to absorb the flavours of the liquids used – broth, wine, butter, olive oil.(Go to Part Two: Main Courses, Desserts, Liqueurs)