Italian food derives most of its magic from the great abundance, quality and freshness of its locally sourced ingredients. The seas surrounding Italy are home to a rich and varied selection of fish and seafood; the coastal plains and river valleys are filled with orchards, groves and fields of vegetables, pulses, cereals and nuts; the mountains and hillsides are covered in vines and forests; and large flocks and herds are pastured throughout the country. There are also considerable amounts of game and, in the more remote regions, wild boar still roam free.
Italian cuisine can be difficult to define, as recipes, tastes, ingredients and cooking styles vary enormously from region to region, even though some dishes are now prepared throughout the length and breadth of the country. One thing that most people will agree on though is that it is one of the richest and most delicious cuisines in the world. Travelling through Italy can take the form of an unbroken gastronomic odyssey, as each successive region provides signature dishes that strive to out-do those of its neighbours and rivals.
Italian wines provide something for every occasion and in every form, from delicate whites through robust reds to wonderful dry or sweet sparkling wines, and from simple table wines to some of the most expensive and sought after appellations in Europe. Historically famous wine-producing areas, such as Tuscany, are firmly on the oenophiles’ map, but previously unknown regions such as Sicily are starting to contend for their rightful place and are therefore some of the most interesting places to sample and purchase wines at the moment.
Many wineries throughout Italy have opened themselves up to public inspection, and it is now possible to visit them, see the production process at first hand, sample the wines, and enjoy a wonderful meal in beautiful surroundings.
Although it is probably the most famous liquid export, wine is not the only alcoholic drink of note in Italy, and another abundant fruit crop, lemons, provides the basis for one of the most celebrated liquors in Italy: Limoncello. When mass-produced it varies from sweet to sour (with many, many grades between) and packs a generous but palate-cleansing punch. When home-made it is invariably tart, and extremely strong, but absolutely delicious. The most famous production areas are clustered in the South: Sicily, the Amalfi Coast and the Sorrento region being by far the best places to find the good home-made version.
If you are in the North of Italy, then you must try at least one glass of Grappa: a strong distilled grape spirit that has almost as many different variants as wine itself, and makes for a very pleasant and warming way to finish an evening meal.
Italy also produces a number of beers that are very palatable, such as the internationally famous Peroni or Castello, but the locally-brewed pale lagers (such as Moretti or Messina) are generally slightly more flavoursome and well worth savouring on a hot summer’s day.
The huge citrus crop means that it is possible to get freshly squeezed orange juice for much of the year in most of Italy, but other fresh fruit juices are strangely hard to come by. There is, however, a wide variety of fruit syrups or cordials on offer, many of which are locally produced, all of them worth sampling. The best place to do so is in the pavement Kiosks or local bars that dot the towns and cities, where a huge range will be on offer, served up for consumption while leaning on the bar or (if you don’t mind paying a little extra) at a table.
The almond harvest is not much smaller than the citrus crop in Southern Italy, and one soft drink that really must be tried if you are south of Rome is Latte di Mandorla (almond milk). A nice cool alternative to coffee or tea, and served regularly in summer (and throughout the year in some parts, e.g. Sicily). It is often mass-produced, but some bars still make their own – if you are lucky enough to find one that does, make sure to try it!
In terms of sodas, all the normal western drinks are widely available in Italy, but there are a few companies (such as San Pellegrino) that produce local variants of the ubiquitous colas and lemonades, alongside some specifically Italian sodas, such as Chinotto (similar to cola, but with a bittersweet taste).
Almost all foods in Italy are a local speciality. Each province, city, town, village and household proudly claims that its cuisine is the best, and that its recipes are the definitive version. Caponata (an absolutely delicious Sicilian cooked vegetable salad) is a great example: everyone has their own favourite recipe for it, and although the word is present on menus throughout the island, the dish that will be served varies tremendously from place to place (and is always worth trying!).
This variety extends from complicated and involved dishes that take many hours of preparation right down to the water and bread that accompanies a meal, and makes a trip across even a small part of the country an ever-changing gastronomic delight.
No single item on a menu ever deserves to be ignored, but restaurant menus can be discussed at length with the waiter, who will often be eager to explain the cooking process and resulting texture and flavour of the individual items (as well as which wine would best accompany it).
Although there is a great profusion of meat and animal-products in Italian cookery, even the most dedicated Vegetarian will always find something delicious to tuck into, but it is always wise to clearly specify in advance that you cannot eat cold, sliced meats (e.g. ham), otherwise you might be in for a surprise: many Italians understand “meat” to be large hunks of red-meat, and are often quite genuinely surprised to discover that someone can take offence to the presence of a little ham in a dish, when it is only intended to add flavour and texture.