Fresh Italian cheeses or lattecini such as mozzarella di bufala and burrata are at their best when just a few days (preferably a few hours) old, while the best parmesan will be aged a few years. Valvona and Crolla's Cravero Parmigiano Reggiano for example was made in 2001. Web-based Italian retailer Esperya sells Zabo Parmigiano Reggiano at two-and-a-half years old, and Montorsi "extra mature" aged at least two years. And as part of its "Wednesday Fresh" offer, Esperya delivers fresh buffalo mozzarella made Monday and despatched from Italy on Wednesday to arrive on your doorstep Thursday.
Do not think that fresh pasta is, by definition, better than dried, particularly when it comes to supermarket brands. Good quality dried pasta is superior to mediocre fresh pasta. It's also better value for money, and the correct choice for sauces of the cooked tomato family. The rule: don't bother buying fresh pasta unless you are doing so from first-rate suppliers such as Manicomio, Speck and Carluccio's. The best mass-produced Italian brand of fresh pasta is Rana, available in independent delicatessens.
Hams and salami
The intense meaty flavours of some artisan-produced salume can be off-putting to those unused to it, so gauge your guest list before buying. Brits increasingly have access to specialist Italian varieties made from rare breeds of pork and beef, and other animals such as boar, venison and goose, via gourmet suppliers such as Savoria. Pre-sliced packs of Italian meats from the supermarket can pass muster if you open the packet, separate the slices and leave them at room temperature for 30-45 minutes before serving.
You may have heard that arborio is the proper rice for making risotto and, true, unlike basmati or regular long-grain, it is a plump-grained, stock-absorbing risotto rice. However Italian epicures would think it third choice, favouring instead the Vialone Nano or Carnaroli varieties.
A lot of guff is talked about olive oil. It is not possible to generalise that Tuscan oil (or the oil of any other region) is "the best". Oils vary from company to company, and from year to year. Extra virgin blends have the advantage of consistency and are okay for cooking. Single estate varieties are enjoyably inconsistent, fun to explore and good retailers will let you sample before buying. The most important thing is, whatever brand you choose, to keep it well out of the light. Buying oil packed in dark glass bottles or cans will help.
Standards of bottled marinated vegetables vary tremendously. It's disappointing to open a jar of artichokes to find they have not been grilled or roasted, that they were stored in brine, or that the oil is not olive but bland vegetable oil. Seggiano is premium-priced but is an excellent organic and artisan-produced brand available from many independent retailers around the UK.
Canned and bottled truffles are a waste of money, while dried porcini (or ceps) are better value than they may seem. If you're going to buy truffles, go the whole hog and buy fresh ones in season from an upmarket specialist. Dried porcini keep for ages in the cupboard, ready to use as required, and have an intense flavour that elevates the humblest sauces, soups and stews. Try to ensure the mushrooms in the pack are as clean as possible - small pieces are okay, grit and grass are best avoided. Chefs are divided in their views on the culinary value of truffle oil. For some dishes a truffle-flavoured cheese or butter added just before serving will give better results.
www.carluccios.com, Tel: 020 7580 3050.
Limited mail order service. At 8 Market Place, London W1. Other London branches, and in Bicester, Bluewater, Kingston, St Albans, Tunbridge Wells and Windsor.
Tel: 020 7348 2072.At 7 Swains Lane, London N6.
www.esperya.com, Tel: +39 071 759 2274.
The Fine Cheese Company
www.finecheese.co.uk, Tel: 01225 448748. Mail order service available. At 29 & 31 Walcot Street, Bath.
www.lafromagerie.co.uk, Tel: 020 7935 0341.
Mail order service. Branches at 2-4 Moxon Street, London W1 and 30 Highbury Park, N5.
Harvey Nichols Foodmarket
www.harveynichols.com, Tel: 0870 873 3833.
At 109-125 Knightsbridge, London SW1, and in Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds. (Birmingham branch has wine shop only.)
Tel 020 7730 3366.
85 Duke of York Square, King's Road, London SW3.
www.savoria.co.uk, Tel: 0870 242 1823.
www.speck-deli.co.uk, Tel: 020 7486 4872.
At 6 Thayer St, London W1 and 2 Holland Park Terrace, Portland Road, London W11.
Valvona and Crolla
www.valvonacrolla.com, Tel: 0131 556 6066. Mail order service available. At 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh, Scotland.Reuse content