Anna Adriano explains that there is far more to Italian cuisine than we assume.
When we think of Italian cuisine, there are three things that immediately come to mind. I bet you are already thinking of them. Undeniably, they are simple, yet diverse items of Italian gastronomy which are found in every corner of Italy. From porticos to piazzas, cities to the sea, there are no limits to discovering these delicious staple Italian culinary inventions. But there is more to Italian food than pizza, pasta and gelato.
I have always been exposed to Italian food culture from a young age and one thing I learnt is that Italian food traditions differ incredibly from region to region. Local cuisines represent nuances in Italy’s social and political history. From the Roman Empire, through its fragmented body of states, to its unification, an assortment of sweet and savoury dishes emerged.
The traditional dolci of the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy) provide a sweet and sensory insight into regional food traditions, looking beyond the famed national gelato. The word dolci covers an expanse of delicacies from biscotti to pasticcini (biscuits to pastries) and even the words themselves sound almost edible. Each region boasts its own dolci and each dolce (individual delicacy) is truly a microcosm of regional Italian food. I spent a splendid six weeks travelling around the South of Italy last summer to experience such traditional delights.
Lecce, a Baroque city in the Puglia region of Italy forming Italy’s ‘heel’, sees its city walls and its people sweltering in the dry summer months. To overcome this heat, the inhabitants of the city, and those of the surrounding Salento coastal areas, add to their coffee two ingenious ingredients, ice and almond milk, creating its celebrated caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla. Not the typical almond milk that has taken the world by storm, but a condensed, sugary, almond syrup. At breakfast it is often served with a pasticciotto, a plump and delicious glossy pastry filled with custard. You can almost hear the sound of Baroque Italian opera music in every sip and bite, making the Salento breakfast simply a lifestyle.
With Naples, we think of pizza, and rightly so. Neapolitan pizzas topped with rich and velvety mozzarella are far from average, but the city and the region in which it is situated, Campania, have much more to offer from their kitchens and bakeries. Naples is where I discovered the sfogliatella, queen of all Italian pastries. Sfogliatelle sit at the top of the hierarchy of dolci due to the sheer diversity of them, not to mention the skill involved in their making. The original sfogliatelle are where ricotta and pastry meet to create textured pleasure in every bite. The creamy filling is cut through by a crunchy, leafy shell. You can also find them filled with chocolate and a variety of other flavours. If you are brave enough though, go for a rum babà, an iconic symbol of Neapolitan dolci, literally soaked through to the core and dripping in liquor. Rum babà are sometimes served with cream to balance the alcoholic bite. Either option allows you to explore some of Naples’ gastronomic genius inventions in the dolci department.
Sicily is the land of arancini (fried balls of rice with savoury fillings) but most importantly, the land of dolci. Each and every individual Sicilian city and town will have their own exquisite and specific dolce but the nature of the region renders its dolci very different to the ones found in mainland Italy. If you have a sweet tooth or cannot resist overeating gelato, then Sicily is seriously the place to indulge in your dolci dreams. From lemons to pistachio to chocolate, you can never be deprived of fragrant flavours in Sicily. Breakfast in the summer consists of a granita and a brioche. Breakfast granite are not the typical cups of crushed ice, saturated with a fruity syrup, but are a thick blend of fresh fruit and the finest ice. Accompanied by a brioche, the Sicilian breakfast leaves you cooled down, full yet craving more. It would be wrong to include Sicilian dolci and not mention cannoli, and if you visit Sicily, you will find they hold very strong views about how cannoli should be served. A cannolo is a fried-pipe shaped pastry, filled with ricotta and a multitude of other fillings (pistachio, chocolate shavings and more). But if you see a cannolo already full, then you are in the wrong place. Sicilians say that the best cannoli are the ones where you buy the outer shell, and they fill it fresh on the spot for you.
Without overlooking the importance and the deliciousness of the gelato, I urge you, if you visit Italy, to immerse yourself in the dolci world by visiting Italy’s infinite pasticcerie (patisseries) and savouring every bite.