For Italians, eating is not just something to do for sustenance three times a day. Food is an essential ingredient of the Italian spirit, practically an art form in a culture that knows a lot about art. Even when Italy was a poor nation, it was said that poor Italians ate better than rich Germans or English or Americans.
Italians pay careful attention to the basics in both shopping and preparation. They know, for instance, which region produces the best onions or choicest peppers and when is the prime time of year to order porcini mushrooms, asparagus, truffles, or wild boar. If they're dining out, Italians expect the same care and pride they put into home cooking -- and they get it. There are a lot of wonderful places to eat in Italy, from fancy ristoranti to more humble, homey trattorie and neighborhood joints called osterie.
Prima colazione (breakfast) is treated lightly -- a cappuccino and cornetto (croissant with a light sugar glaze) at the corner bar. There are exceptions: Many hotels, tired of hearing foreign guests grouse about the paltry morning offerings of this "continentale" breakfast, have taken to serving sumptuous buffets like those offered in the United States and north of the Alps, complete with ham, cheese, and sometimes eggs.
At the big meal of the day -- be it pranzo (lunch) or cena (dinner) -- portions on a plate may be smaller than visitors are accustomed to, but a traditional meal gets you four full courses: antipasto, primo, secondo, and contorno. The antipasto (appetizer) is often a platter of salumi (cold cuts), bruschette, or crostini (toasted or grilled bread topped with pâté or tomatoes) and/or vegetables prepared in oil or vinegar, or perhaps prosciutto and melon. Next is the primo (first course), which may be a zuppa or miestra (soup), pasta, risotto (arborio rice boiled to be thick and sticky, usually studded with some vegetables), or polenta (a cornmeal mush, often mixed with mushrooms or a dollop of meat ragù). The secondo (second course) is usually meat, fish, seafood, chicken, or game. To accompany it, you order a contorno (side dish) of vegetables or a salad. Traditionally, you won't find a pile of veggies next to your meat on the plate as in most American restaurants; however, a recent trend in Italian restaurants (especially ones that indulge in a more creative menu) is to include a side dish carefully chosen to complement your main course. At the end of the meal, dig into a dolce (dessert) -- fruit, gelato (ice cream), tiramisu (sweetened, creamy mascarpone cheese atop espresso-soaked lady fingers), or formaggio (cheese) are traditionally offered.
Meals are usually accompanied by wine and a bottle of mineral water (con gas or senza gas/fizzy or still), and followed by an espresso. (One sure way to alienate an Italian waiter is to order cappuccino after dinner -- it's usually drunk only in the morning.) Espresso is often followed by grappa, a fiery digestivo liqueur made from what's left over after the winemaking process.
Traditionally, a ristorante (restaurant) is a bit formal and more expensive than a family-run trattoria or osteria, but the names are used almost interchangeably these days (trendy, expensive eateries often call themselves osterie, and little local joints may aggrandize themselves with the term ristorante).
To save money and grab a meal with Italians on their lunch break, pop in to a tavola calda (literally "hot table"), a kind of tiny cafeteria where a selection of prepared hot dishes is sold by weight. A rosticceria is a tavola calda with roasting chickens in the window. Increasingly, trendy enoteche (wine bars) usually offer ample platters of cheese and mixed salumi (cured meats) such as salami, prosciutto (salt-cured ham hock), lardo (salt-cured pork fat aged on marble slabs), and mortadella (bologna); most also offer a hot dish or two.
Any bar (a combo bar and cafe, where you go for your morning cappuccino, after-school ice cream, and evening aperitif) will also sell panini (sandwiches on a roll), tramezzini (giant tea sandwiches on sliced bread with the crusts cut off), and piadine (flatbread sandwiches).
Aside from pizza, pasta is probably Italy's best-known export. It comes in two basic forms: pastasciutta (dry pasta), the kind most of us buy at the grocery store, and pasta fresca (fresh pasta) or pasta fatto a mano (handmade), the kind that most self-respecting establishments in Italy, even those of the most humble ilk, will probably serve.
Pastasciutta comes in long strands, including spaghetti, linguine, and trenette; and in tubular maccheroni (macaroni) forms such as penne (pointed pasta quills) or rigatoni (fluted tubes), to name only a few. Pasta fresca is made in broad sheets and then cut into shapes used in lasagna, cannelloni, and the stuffed pastas tortelloni and ravioli, or into noodles ranging from wide pappardelle to narrow fettuccine. If you sense that this isn't even a dent in the world of pasta, you're right: There are more than 600 pasta shapes in Italy.
Coffee All Day Long
Italians drink caffè (coffee) throughout the day, but only a little at a time and often while standing in a bar -- remember that a "bar" in Italy is the place to go for your daily caffeine buzz. There's usually liquor available too, but it's the caffè that draws the customers.
Five types of coffee are popular in Italy. Plain old caffè is straight espresso in a demitasse, saturated with sugar and downed in one gulp. Espresso from a machine (as opposed to that made in the stove-top kettles most Italians use at home) is prepared by forcing steam through the tightly packed grounds, and despite popular perception, it actually contains less caffeine than typical American drip coffee; it's the rich taste that makes espresso seem so strong. Cappuccino is espresso mixed with hot milk and an overlay of foamy steamed milk, usually sipped for breakfast with a pastry and never as an after-dinner drink. "Stained" caffè macchiato is espresso with a wee drop of steamed milk, while latte macchiato is the reverse, a glass of hot milk "stained" with a shot of espresso. Caffè coretto is espresso "corrected" with a shot of liquor. Caffè hag is decaf. Most Italians hold in disdain the murky watered-down coffee that percolates in offices and kitchens across America, so if you want a big mug like the stuff at home, you'll have to order caffè americano.
Italy's Regional Cuisines
Each Italian region has had thousands of years to develop its own culinary practices -- and its own distinctive wines -- and each still proudly sticks by its native dishes. What most Americans think of as Italian dishes is what Italian emigrants brought with them to the U.S., but the majority of those came from southern Italy, which is why when we think "Italian," we think of olive oil, pasta with tomato sauce, garlic, and pizza. Generally, though, northern Italian cooking uses a lot more cream and butter in sauces, in addition to tomatoes. Also, pasta is not necessarily the first course of choice up north, often substituted by risotto or polenta.
Venice & the Veneto -- Venice gained fame and fortune as the spice market of the world beginning in the 12th century (when Marco Polo visited the Orient), which may help account for the amazing ways local chefs dress up the scampi, crab, squid, and other creatures they pluck from the Adriatic. The Venetians also have raised that humble combination of liver and onions (fegato alla veneziana) to an irresistible level of haute cuisine, and have done the same with risi e bisi (rice and peas).
The Dolomites -- Dolomiti food is mountain food: rib-sticking and hearty, largely influenced by Austrian cuisine. Look for speck ham, canederli bread dumplings in thick broths, Wiener schnitzel, and grostl (hash made of veal, onions, and potatoes).
The Friuli -- Alpine cuisine runs from the Tirolese influences of the Dolomites to Venetian specialties to Slovenian cuisine. They toss sauerkraut in their minestrone and call it jota, and serve up platters of everything from San Daniele prosciutto (the most delicate, expensive, and delicious in all of Italy) to brovada (a peasant dish of sausage, turnips, and grape skins).
Lombardy -- Like other northern regions, Lombardy favors butter over olive oil and seems not to be overly concerned with cholesterol. A specialty is osso buco, sliced veal sautéed with the bone and marrow. A fine starter for any meal is the region's vegetable soup with rice and bacon, minestrone alla milanese, or a risotto made from arborio rice that grows on the region's low-lying plains and is often served in place of pasta. Panettone, the region's most popular dessert, is a local version of fruit cake that arrived from Vienna courtesy of Lombardy's 19th-century Austrian rulers. Austria also exported to Lombardy the breaded veal scallop of Wiener schnitzel, in Italy called cotoletta alla Milanese. Remember, too, that Lombardy is blessed with the Italian lakes, and trout and perch find their way into ravioli and other pasta dishes as well as simply sautéed as a secondo.
Piedmont & Valle d'Aosta -- As befits these regions of cold winters, meat roasts and hearty soups are served, often accompanied by thick slabs of polenta. Piedmont is blessed with strong-flavored white truffles (the lovely town of Alba is Italy's truffle center), and they're used in a favorite local dish, fonduta, a fonduelike cheese dip mixed with milk and eggs. Piedmont is also home to Gorgonzola cheese.
Liguria -- This is the homeland of the seafarers of Genoa, who brought back from the New World many cooking ingredients now taken for granted. What, for instance, would Italian cooking be without tomatoes, potatoes, or peppers? The sea-skirted region is also famous for its seafood, including a shellfish soup called zuppa di datteri, and for pesto, a pasta sauce of ground basil, pine nuts, and olive oil. To the world of bread, Liguria has contributed focaccia -- flat, delicious, and often topped with herbs or, when eaten as a snack, with cheese and vegetables.
Italy, with the right kind of terrain and the perfect amounts of sun and rainfall, happens to be ideal for growing grapes. Centuries ago, the Etruscans had a hearty wine industry, and the ancient Greeks bolstered it by transplanting their vine cuttings to Italy's southlands. And it was Italy, under the Romans, that first introduced the vine and its possibilities to France and Germany. Today Italy exports more wine to the rest of the world than any other country does. But there's plenty left at home from which to choose; more than 2,000 wines are produced in Italy.
Each region has different growing conditions, and so each has its own special wines. Piedmont is the north's premier wine region, known for its heavy reds, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Grignolino, as well as sparkling white Asti Spumanti. With these vineyards so close at hand, coastal Liguria hasn't developed many notable wines of its own, save the white of Cinque Terre. The Veneto specializes in Valpolicella and Bardolino reds and, among whites, pinot grigio and Soave. The Trentino adds Tirolese varieties such as Traminer to cabernet, local wines such as Vernatsch, and pinot grigio, bianco, and nero. The Friuli masters the pinot grapes and cabernets as well, though local traditional wines Tocai, Verduzzo, and Malvasia are more unusual. Lombardy is not particularly known for its wines, though the area around Bergamo produces perfectly fine merlot, cabernet, pinot bianco, and pinto grigio, in addition to local Valcalepio; west of Brescia, they bottle an excellent sparkling dry white wine called Franciacorta that, while not as famous as Asti, was the first to gain DOCG status.
Grappa, made from the skins, seeds, vines, and other remnants at the bottom of the pressing barrel, is a fiery digestivo drunk at the end of a meal to help you "digest" those large Italian repasts.
An amaro is a bitter liqueur drunk in midafternoon or before or after a meal.
Italian Wine Classifications -- In 1963, Italy's wine was codified into two classifications: table wine and DOC. DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines are merely those a government board guarantees have come from an official wine-producing area and meet the standard for carrying a certain name on the label. A vino di tavola (table wine) classification merely means a bottle doesn't fit the preestablished standards and is no reflection of the wine's quality.
In 1980, a new category was added. DOCG (the G stands for Garantita -- guaranteed) is granted to wines with a certain subjective high quality. Traditionally, DOCG labels were merely the highest-profile wines that lobbied for the status (getting DOC and especially DOCG vastly improves reputations and, therefore, sales, though the costs of annually putting the wine up for testing are high).
When the appellation was introduced, only five prestigious wines qualified as DOCG: Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Today, there are dozens.
The wines have a few extra hoops to jump through to retain their Garantita status. The vineyards need to practice specific growing methods and cannot exceed a certain yield of fruit every year. The wines are subject to chemical analysis by government agencies. And to qualify in the first place, a wine must have held DOC status for at least 5 years.
Though vino di tavola usually connotes a humble, simple, quaffable house wine from some indeterminate local producer (perhaps a local farmer's cooperative or even the restaurant owner's brother-in-law), in the 1980s and 1990s, this "table wine" classification was also co-opted by wine estates that wanted to experiment with grape mixtures and tinker with foreign varietals to create nontraditional but mighty wines. The problem is that these could never be called DOC or DOCG, which by law must follow strict formula guidelines. When many respectable producers started mixing varietals with French grapes, such as merlot, cabernet, and chardonnay, to produce wines that, though complex and of high quality, don't fall into the conservative DOC/DOCG system, such a wine could then, by law, only be called a "lowly" vino di tavola.
These highbred "table wines" became known melodramatically as supervini. There's no guarantee of quality with these experimental wines, but most self-respecting producers would never have put on the market a failure or something undrinkable.
In 1992, a new classification called IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) was established, indicating that the wine is "typical of a geographic place." This class has been used both to cover some regional wines that are quite good yet are not famous enough (or lack a PR budget that's big enough) to go for DOC/DOCG status and also as a home for those supervini -- a "geographic place" can be as small as one vineyard, so that vineyard's supervino can be called an IGT.
For that matter, there's no real guarantee that what you're drinking in a DOCG wine is exactly what it's supposed to be. The practice of misrepresenting on the label the contents in a bottle of wine is as old as the labels themselves, which dates to the Romans. Take the most recent high-profile case, the so-called Brunellopoli scandal (a nod to the "Tangentopoli" political bribing scandal of the 1980s).
In 2008, Italian investigators began looking into reports that some producers of the famed Tuscan wine were sneaking in varietals other than the Sangiovese required by law -- most shockingly, that some grapes were actually trucked up from Southern regions where land and therefore grapes are generally cheaper. This investigation had all the trimmings and trappings of a high-profile murder case, with police cordoning off wine cellars and carting off thousands of bottles of evidence from the crime scene. (Keep in mind that this sort of chicanery is not limited to Italy. In 1994, a number of California growers paid millions in fines for taking cheap grapes and laying a thin layer of Zinfandel on top and selling it as zin. The Franzia brothers referred to this process as "blessing the load.")
Such hallowed names as Antinori, Banfi, and Frescobaldi churned up their PR machines when their estates were implicated but at the same time hatched plans to sell the wines under a different name to bring in at least some sort of revenue. About this time, the U.S. announced a plan for an import embargo on any bottle that could not be guaranteed as 100% Sangiovese. Ironically, some suggested that the reason other varietals were being used in the first place was to cater to more tender American tastes. In the end, only a few bottles of Banfi were deemed to have some suspect characteristics, and no producer was actually convicted of fraud and sent to jail for the recommended 6 years.
The practical upshot of all this: DOC and DOCG wines represent the best of traditional wine formulas. IGT wines are unique wines from even smaller specific areas or single vintners and make up one of the fastest-growing categories among the better wines. Vino da tavola is now just used for what it was originally intended to mean: simple, hearty, tasty table wines that go well with any meal but probably won't send wine snobs into ecstasies of flowery poetic description.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.