Moving on swiftly to part two of our Italian odyssey this week, we will be looking at the cuisine from the central regions- Umbria, Tuscany, Rome and beyond...
The cuisine of central Italy is very much dictated by the surrounding landscape which is dramatic, luscious and fruitful. As a rule, the food is much more hearty, filling and rustic in comparison to the south, with more liberal use of potent ingredients like game, offal, truffles and heavily salted Pecorino cheese.
Be that as it may, each region has a strong sense of their culinary identity, of which I have tried to pick the most notable and infamous native dishes for you to try and get your paws on here in Manchester.
The climate of Tuscany creates an area of land which is rich in forests, vineyards and farmland with nutritious soil. The diet of Tuscans is heavy on game meat, grains, legumes and root vegetables as well as beautifully ripe tomatoes, olive oil and peppers that are native to Italy as a whole.
The food in this region is rich and flavourful and most appropriately described as provincial. There are lots of vegetable-heavy soups with chickpeas, and other beans and the Tuscans are also partial to a bit of offal in the form of slow-cooked stews made with tripe…although eating stomach can often turn the stomach so to speak- so I don’t expect anyone to get excited about that.
Pappardelle pasta comes from this region, with is the thick ribbons of egg pasta we know and love as well as tagliatelle from the neighbouring La Marche region. As I said previously, Tuscan cuisine is heavy on game meat such as wild boar. If you expect boar to taste like pork- think again. It is like a strange love-child of pork and beef that I imagine only a mother could look at. The meat is robust and red with a distinct gamey flavour from their diet of foraging on the forest floors.
A typical Tuscan dish would be a slow-cooked wild-boar ragu cooked with local wine and fresh tomatoes stirred through homemade pasta. You can give a meal like this a try at Don Marco– look out for it on the menu, it is called Ragu Di Cinchiale Con Tagliatelle– so tuck your napkin into your collar and pig out.
There is no better place to start when it comes to Umbria other than truffles. Black truffles are native to this part of Italy and hunting them has been a tradition for centuries. Subsequently, truffles have been an intrinsic part of the cuisine of this region for just as long. The truffle is part of the fungi family and has a strong flavour that is garlicky with a strong musky, earthy element to their aroma.
They are rare and expensive, costing up to £4,000 a kilo, as they are impossible to farm and only available in the driest few weeks of autumn. Truffles have such intense flavour that it is best not to overcomplicate a dish which uses it- and the Umbrians don’t.
It is most commonly shaved on top of spaghetti and topped with a little Parmesan or the more local Pecorino. If you are looking for something even more indulgent, try the Ravioli Tartufo from San Carlo which consists of a decadent ravioli filled with Pecorino cheese & truffle, with a cream, Parmesan & truffle oil sauce and topped with fresh truffles. Truffle central.
Another typically Umbrian dish would be Porchetta. Traditionally speaking, this dish is made from a whole young pig which is filled with various herbs and spices and rolled up and tied with string before it is roasted on a spit over an extended period.
Nationale 7 down at Mackie Mayor does a mean Porchetta. They use pork belly which is a fantastic cut to use as the thick layer of fat on the outside just turns to pure crackling with a deliciously tender middle which is perfectly seasoned with herbs and enough garlic to ward off vampires until the end of time.
Sided with some roasted new potatoes and gremolata (green salsa with anchovies, parsley, lemon and lashings of olive oil), this dish will put your quintessentially British pork roast to shame.
This region is where Rome lives, and the Romans like their meat. This list would be incomplete without a mention of Spaghetti Carbonara. I swear everyone in the world has had a plate of this at least once in their lives, but nothing is quite like the ones you will find in Rome. Egg yolks, hard cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino, pancetta or guanciale (cured pork cheeks) and black pepper.
It is controversial, to say the least, to talk about the best carbonara in Manchester, but in my humble opinion, it would be from Salvis. They make their pasta in-house which always makes such a difference, and they import guanciale directly from Italy to make this as authentic as possible. Close your eyes as you stuff this in your gob, and you might well think you are sitting on the Spanish steps enjoying a little Roman sunshine.
Another dish which is native to Rome and the Lazio region would be Saltimbocca Alla Romana. This is made up of thin escallops of veal which are cooked quickly in butter, wine, Italian ham and with various herbs. I enjoy this dish from newly opened Cibo on Liverpool Street- the veal is always perfectly cooked and melt in the mouth and to be honest, anything swimming in butter gets an A in my books. Italians would side a dish like this with potatoes and Artichokes which are one of the most bountiful products to come out from this region.
In Lazio, you will find artichokes served three ways; entire globe artichokes deep fried (this is called ‘Jewish Style’),’Alla Romana’ which is stewed with mint, parsley and garlic, and finally ‘Vignarola’ with fava beans…and a nice Chianti. Look out for these on Italian menus in springtime.
Marche is on the East Coast of Italy and is one of the smaller regions and a total hidden gem. You will find it almost wholly tourist free which will give connoisseurs of food a real local experience. It is blessed by the bounty of mountainous farmland and most importantly, the sea. Its situation on the coast means that fish is an intrinsic part of the cuisine and diet.
Fritto Misto comes from this region, and in its purest form, this is Italy’s answer to fast food. You can go into any fish-mongers and pick out some little bits of shellfish –some squid, some octopus, some prawns- and they will toss it in a little seasoned flour and chuck it in a fryer. They will take it out of the hot oil and serve it in a cone or paper box for you to demolish.
I’m just waiting for a fishmonger or street food vendor here in Manchester to jump on this, but in the meantime head to Piccolino Gran Café and try theirs. It comes with battered asparagus and courgette which brings some welcome (albeit deep-fried) freshness and some garlic mayonnaise for dipping- I really can’t get enough of it.
Another fishy-dish that you will find all over the Marche region of Italy would be Zuppa di Pesce (fish stew/soup). This is a simple peasant dish which uses local assorted fish cooked with stock, white wine, tomatoes and garlic. This is indeed a dish which should not be overlooked and is often given a bit of a makeover in fancy restaurants with the addition of saffron like at Rosso.
Theirs comes with a large garlic crouton and an assortment of local, seasonal, fresh fish. It is a healthy alternative to most Italian dishes, which is more often than not carb heavy and makes an ideal choice for a quick, light lunch.