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The New Italian Pantry

Think you know Italian food? Think again. An expert celebrates the ingredients that are about to change the way we cook.

There's a new look these days in my American Italian pantry--that is, the storeroom off my Maine kitchen where I keep the Italian stuff. It isn't something you'd notice at first glance, however. Indeed, many of the items on the shelves--the pastas, the olive oils, the polenta and dried beans and mushrooms--look just like the ones I've been using for the past 30 years, ever since Italian food first began to appear on my Yankee table. But come a little closer: you'll see a wide variety of ingredients recently brought to America by a small group of adventurous importers and distributors. These foragers (my preferred name for them) scour the remotest corners of the Italian countryside, tracking down top-quality artisanal producers and persuading them to sell to a voracious and increasingly discriminating U.S. market. Because what's changing the American Italian pantry is not so much the foods themselves (which, Italian cooks would have us believe, were ordained for human consumption by the college of cardinals if not by God himself) as the rising demand for quality and a different understanding of what quality means.

While researching the latest Italian ingredients to be imported to America, for instance, I came across more than 50 truly exceptional extra-virgin olive oils from all over Italy, none of which were previously known to me--even though I live in Tuscany half the year. I discovered exquisite tiny lentils from Castelluccio in Umbria; dark, unctuous fig molasses from Calabria with a startling fruity flavor; coarse-ground polenta flecked with buckwheat, from Lombardy; cheeses of every type; beans and grains; sauces and condiments; plus crisp sea salts, pungent salted tuna roe and exquisite lemon and orange marmalades from places scattered across southern Italy.

A remarkable number of items in the new American Italian pantry are, in fact, from the southern Italian regions of Apulia, Calabria, Campania, Sicily and Sardinia--areas that were not esteemed by Americans in the past. Only a few years ago, extra-virgin olive oil from the south was dismissed as unworthy; now, some of the most acclaimed oils come from farms in Apulia and Sicily. "We're definitely taking more interest in the south," says Ari Weinzweig, founder of Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which imports several Apulian oils, including one that is certified organic.

When I asked importer Paul Ferrari of San Francisco's A. G. Ferrari to tell me about his favorite southern Italian finds, I could feel the excitement through his cell phone as he recited a litany that began with Mario DeGiorgio's thick, rustic Contrada Monsignore pasta and wild honeysuckle honey (miele di sulla) from Sicily and ended with sun-dried oregano, salt-packed capers and Zibibbo grape syrup from the windy isle of Pantelleria, which is midway between Sicily and Tunisia. That sweet, tangy syrup, he told me, is perfect in a Zibibbo Kir Royale.

More than anything else, what distinguishes products like these is a sense of terroir, the particularity of a specific place that gives an ingredient a flavor all its own. The importance of terroir has been reinforced by the European Commission's efforts to extend protected status to many regional and artisanal foods. At the same time, the international organization Slow Food, which was founded in Italy, has been the core of a movement to preserve and recognize the value of traditional methods.

Americans have become an appreciative audience for traditionally made foods and, indeed, many artisanal ingredients are more widely available in America than they are in Italy. It's not hard to figure out why. From the fall of the Roman Empire until a little over a century ago, Italy was deeply divided and is still not completely unified. Regional cooking styles are as tenacious as regional dialects. A Tuscan cook is as unmoved by Apulian olive oil as a Sicilian is at the prospect of tomatoes from anywhere north of Rome. This regional chauvinism is as much a source of frustration as it is a delight.

Americans, on the other hand, are unprejudiced in their enthusiasm for anything Italian. And that enthusiasm keeps growing. "Americans are opening up to all of Italy, not just the old Rome-Florence-Venice axis," Paul Ferrari told me. "They're traveling more, eating different things and wanting the same quality when they get back home."

Rolando Beramendi, the founder of Manicaretti Imports, in Oakland, California, strives to introduce new high-quality foods to the States. "Six years ago," he told me, "we started promoting olio nuovo--just-pressed olive oil that's airfreighted from Italy, which means it costs two and a half times more than oils shipped by regular freight. We sold five cases. Last year, we shipped 350 cases and we sold out. Sometimes I think we could sell an estate's entire annual production as olio nuovo." Another product for which demand has increased dramatically, Beramendi says, is farro, soft emmer wheat that's sold as whole or cracked berries or ground into flour: "Ten years ago you couldn't find it; now every top chef is using it."

Artisanal pasta is also a hot commodity, especially the kind made by Benedetto Cavallieri in Apulia and Carlo Latini in the Marches. They work with farmers who grow hard durum wheat to their specifications, and they use old-fashioned bronze dies to extrude the pasta before drying it slowly. The dies give the pasta a rough texture that helps sauces cling, while low-temperature drying preserves the flavor of the wheat. It used to be impossible to find pasta like this unless you lived in Italy next door to an artisan. But in America, I can choose from over a dozen brands.

With all these marvelous products on pantry shelves, it's easier than ever to produce a superlative meal. The recipes that follow stay pretty close to tradition: buckwheat-accented polenta with croutons and cheese, bean soup with farro, strozzapreti with tomato-pancetta sauce. But I'm not afraid to use any of the new Italian ingredients in decidedly non-Italian preparations. I might deglaze a pan of pork ribs with sweet Malvasia vinegar from Apulia, or drizzle Calabrian fig molasses over grilled Maine scallops. For a first course, I'll take a tip from San Francisco restaurateur Carlo Middione (Vivande Ristorante) and roast sun-dried figs wrapped in prosciutto, then serve them with fruity Sicilian olive oil and thick chestnut honey from the Alpine foothills. These aren't combinations you'd find on a Piedmont farmhouse table--they're totally new in style even though the ingredients are 100 percent Italian.

Published January 2000
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