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.