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The Great Italian Menu
Part Two(Back to Part One: Aperitifs and Starters)
Pesce - Fish
Seasonal, fresh, fish and seafood. Delicacies include Squid in its own ink, Octopus, Astice or Arragosta (Lobster).
Baccala – dried, salted fish, usually cod. Often served battered.
Carne - Meat
Offal - in particular liver, Tripe, Wild Boar, Preserved meats like Cacciatore sausage, Horse, Rabbit, Veal.
The steaks I’ve had, especially in Rome, tend to be a slightly different cut than found in England. Cooked “a la brace” (over charcoal) these were probably the tastiest steaks I’ve ever had.
Contorni – Vegetables and other side dishes
Besides “ordinary” vegetables: Potatoes, Cauliflower, Broccoli, and so on, the Italian menu features delights such as Artichokes (Carciofi), Aubergines (Melanzane), Zucchini (and their flowers), Peppers (Pepperoni), Fennel (Finnochio). Funghi (mushrooms) – Porcini are renowned, especially fresh. Truffles are just as much – even more – a part of Italian culinary folklore as French.
Traditionally served after the main course, perhaps to clear the palate for the rest of the meal.
My mother used to make a dish of green beans tossed in lemon juice and olive oil, or sometimes with vinaigrette and chopped onion. This was sometimes eaten with the meal as a side dish – but only if any survived long enough, with the diners emptying the dish before the main course proper was served!
Frutta - Fruit
Fresh fruit – possibly including dried fruit and nuts – served as a separate course, not as an alternative to the dessert.
Dolci - Sweets
Well-known offerings are “Torta della Nonna”, “Zuppa Inglese” and “Tiramisu”. If you get the chance, ask for a real Zabaglione – made with fresh egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine at the table in a large copper bowl. Do not be fobbed off with a frozen or pre-prepared zabaglione. (Note. Many establishments will not prepare this dish, citing health concerns about the use of raw eggs. Perhaps a wise precaution, but a real shame – they should get their eggs from a known, good, source.)
How about a “Cantucci” (little crisp almond based biscuits), to dip into your glass of “Vin Santo” (“Holy Wine” - a sweet dessert wine)?
I’m not sure whether cheese is a traditional, separate course in Italy. I only know that when I visit my family, cheese figures strongly – and not always at the same stage of the meal. As in any European country, there is an amazing diversity of cheeses, and there is bound to be a selection that will please you. If you think you don’t like Parmesan, based on your experience of the sawdust which is passed off as Parmesan in some restaurants and supermarkets, try it again fresh. Famous examples (from the more than 450 registered types) are: Dolcelatte, Pecorino, Gorgonzola, Mozzarella, Provolone, Ricotta.
In my experience, Italians always finish a meal with “something for the digestion”. This is usually one or more shots of liqueur(s). I have known this practice to be so good for the digestion that the meal has started up again, and another few courses consumed!
The most typically Italian digestif is probably a Sambuca. Customarily (in England anyway!), this is topped with a roasted coffee bean (Mosca, or “fly”) and lit, producing an almost invisible flame which has known to cause problems of the moustache-singeing type. I abhor the practice – a great deal of trouble was taken to get all that alcohol in there, then some dork wastes it. It’s not even as if the display was spectacular.
Grappa, the Italian equivalent of Brandy, is also common. However, my uncle, a Sardinian, reckons that grappa is “sub-standard”, being made from the dregs – skins and stems - remaining after winemaking. He insists that Aqua Vita, distilled from the juice of grapes – without dregs and stems - is far superior. Having samples of home-made grappa (home distillation is legal in Italy) I can only concur. Nevertheless, I have also had some exquisite Grappa.
There are numerous other Italian liqueurs – too many to mention, so try a different one each time.
A non-liquid digestif is “Spaghetti, Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino”: spaghetti served simply with a dressing of olive oil in which garlic and chillies have been fried. Perhaps a light topping of freshly grated Parmesan. I have on occasion declined a dessert course and asked for this dish, and to hell with convention!
Espresso, Cappuccino, Latte, Latte Macchiato (Hot milk with a dash of espresso), Caffe Macchiato (an espresso with a dash of hot milk), Freddo, Americano, Corretto (with a shot of liqueur), Ristretto (to be taken intravenously!) All require the use of really good beans, really well roasted, really well ground. Cappuccino is frowned upon any later than breakfast.