Italy is a big country to take on when you're talking about food. The culinary traditions from one end to the other are about as diverse as can be; with the heart-warming rustic stews of Tuscany compared to the sunny Puglian penchant for raw fish.
We are going to begin this odyssey with the south of Italy- a traditionally poor region of Europe with a rich history and diverse edible repertoire. The southern areas are hands down the best producers of olive oil in the world, and there will be gallons of it in every dish.
The diet of this part of the world relies heavily on fish from the rocky Mediterranean coasts as well as the production of dairy products in the form of fantastic cheeses. As a whole, the area could be categorised with the ingredients of aubergine, garlic, olive oil and cured meats, but each region varies significantly regarding their local delicacies. Below is just a few of them. I’ve tried to keep things simple with two per region, but know that I could have gone on for pages and pages.
Where else to start other than with pizza. People have known and loved pizza over here in the UK for what seems like millennia, but the Neapolitan style has seen a recent resurgence in popularity in the last year or so. Pizza Napoletana is unique for being doughy, with a thick charred crust. Neapolitan pizza ovens are so hot, the pies cook in less than three minutes and are perfectly risen, crisp and swimming in foir de latte buffalo mozzarella.
I am a big Neapolitan pizza girl, in fact, one of the best meals I have ever was one I enjoyed while I sat on a stone wall and had cost me just six euros. It just goes to show you that good food doesn’t have to break the bank. You can get some pretty fantastic pizzas here in Manchester which are almost as good as the real thing- obviously, Rudy’s in Ancoats is a winner, but also Honest Crust at Mackie Mayor/ Altrincham Market, Tre Ciccio and PLY in the NQ
It is hard to narrow down to just two delicacies from Campania, and in retrospect, I could have written a stand-alone piece on food from this region. It was a tough choice, but I want to share the heaven that is Sfogliatelle– try saying that after one too many Campari Sodas.
You might know them better as that ridiculously tricky technical challenge set by Prue Leith on GBBO- but they are basically a Christmas tree shape made up of layers and layers of delicate pastry. They are then filled with a sugar paste or sweetened cream which is often flavoured with pistachio, lemon or vanilla.
As you bite in, they just explode with buttery goodness and with a satisfying crunch which leads to a smooth sweet centre. Pair them with a strong Italian coffee, and you have afternoon perfection right there. You can get them from Salvis Deli in the Corn Exchange- and I am told they are shipped over directly from Naples.
Puglia is the region of Southern Italy that runs along the rocky Amalfi coast. The land here is fertile and plentiful, so the cuisine here is somewhat unique to the south. I have eaten so many fantastic things in this part of Italy- from fava bean puree to sea urchins to the delicious ‘tette delle Monache’ (which literally translate to ‘nuns tit’- so I hope that brightened your day).
The pasta that originates from Puglia is called Orecchiette which means ‘little ears’ – an apt description considering their shape- round with a little dip in the middle and with a slightly wrinkled effect to the outside. Italians will simply toss these little shells in olive oil and parmesan or even with a little homemade pesto- but the possibilities are endless.
Over at Carluccio’s, you can tuck into a big bowl of Orecchiette al Cavolfiore which is tossed in a cauliflower sauce with kale, chilli and turmeric which gives a fantastic colour worthy of a painters palette.
Burratta, Mozarella’s looser, juicier, sexier cousin, comes from this region too. You will see this crop up on menus all over the city, but I reckon simplicity is key. I suggest heading over to The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury and buying some from the lovely people there.
They ship it over directly from Southern Italy, and all you have to do is season it with plenty of salt and pepper and drizzle with some good quality extra virgin olive oil (preferably from Puglia) with a fresh tomato salad for a fantastic dinner party centrepiece.
This region is situated in the South West of Italy and occupies the toe of the boot up towards the arch of the foot. This sun-soaked region is full of rugged mountains, historic villages and dramatic coastline. Italians who live in Calabria favour spice and little hot chillies in much of their cuisine.
The sausage Nduja comes from this part of Italy, which is more fashionable right now than oversized iPhones and French Bulldogs combined. It has a strong, heavily spiced, almost smoky flavour which is comparable to chorizo, but with a soft texture which makes it spreadable. Sure, you can find it on pizza or stirred into sauces, but Calabrians will enjoy Nudja in its purest form just spread on some freshly baked bread.
If you head to Pasta Factory, you can try it as a starter with added Gorgonzola DOP which gives it even more flavour. I’m telling you now it is an experience and a half.
Another dish worth mentioning is Parmigiana di Melenzane– which isn’t unique to this region but to Southern Italy as a whole. However, the best one I have ever eaten was from this part of Italy. It takes hours to make it properly with thin slices of aubergine grilled to perfection and then layered with fresh tomato ragu, parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
This is vegetarian food at its best, and this dish can be eaten on the side to meat or fish or entirely on its own with some bread for dipping. I like the Melenzane from Don Giovanni which you can order as a starter or a main…or both, because it really is that moreish.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean sea, and the oddly shaped, triangular football the Italian boot is kicking into oblivion. The island is most famous for its lemons, its seafood and its cannoli’s which are brandy snap like pastries rolled into tubes and filled with sweetened cream.
One of the most famous (and delicious) Sicilian street foods would be Arancine which are balls of risotto, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. They translate to ‘little oranges’ from the deep colour they turn after frying and are most commonly filled with ragu. They are hot and full of melted cheese with a crispy outer shell, and in true Italian style, as carb heavy as we want them to be. My favourite Arancine this side of Palermo would be from Proove in West Didsbury– the flavours change daily so you can come back for more every day of the week.
As Sicily is an island, they are appropriately obsessed with seafood. They are particularly well versed with swordfish- which is robust and meaty. It isn’t often you see it on a menu here in the UK, but if you head to Don Marco, you can enjoy it in the traditional style with grilled tomatoes, aubergines, garlic, onion and plenty of olive oil. Look out for it on the menu- it is called Pesce Spada Siciliana.