Eating in Italy

The Italians are probably the only nation who could turn a dish of humble butter beans into a gourmand's delight.

Anyone who has seen
The Godfather will remember Michael Corleone's wedding banquet. Food in Sicily is a ritual.

Anyone who has seen The Godfather will remember Michael Corleone's wedding banquet. Food in Sicily is a ritual. In fact, if you are keen to sample the culinary delights of Italy you could do far worse than start on the island medieval poets spoke of as an earthly paradise. The Greeks, Spaniards, Normans and Arabs have all left their trace and have contributed to the region's rich culinary heritage.

The dish you should not leave this earth without tasting is caponata: a sublime combination of vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, onion, capers) and olives in a rich tomato sauce, served cold or warm. Fresh swordfish ( pesce spada) and tuna ( tonno) are in plentiful supply, and are delicious grilled, stewed with olives and tomatoes, or as involtini (rolled up and stuffed). But the cuisine here is also based on more humble seafood, such as anchovies and sardines. Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines and wild fennel) is a classic dish.

Citrus groves are scattered around Italy's largest island, and spremuta di arancia, the freshly squeezed juice of the blood orange is sold at street kiosks and bars. Fruits are transformed into thirst-quenching sorbets and ice creams, but the traditional Sicilian desserts are a much more weighty affair. Cannoli are wafer cones stuffed with a mixture of ricotta cheese, sugar, essences and candied fruit. Order one to share between four, until you get used to the intense sweetness, and only then try the cassata.

On the mainland, the thing that strikes you about Italian cuisine as a whole is its diversity. Poverty, creativity and campanalismo (an exaggerated sense of rivalry between nearby towns and even adjacent neighbourhoods) have ensured that even small, little-known regions have mouthwatering specialities that you'll rarely find beyond their confines. Some of the best taste sensations are cucina povera (poor man's food), but what makes them shine is the quality of the raw materials. Tuscans were once disparagingly referred to as mangiafagioli (bean-eaters), but try the melt-in-your-mouth butter beans drizzled with olive oil and lemon, turned into hearty soups or served with pasta and you'll realise that their diet was no hardship.

Heading north, rice takes pride of place alongside pasta. Risottos in Veneto are creamier than their counterparts further west in the Po valley, where the rice is actually grown. Risi bisi is a classic Venetian dish, the fresh, spring peas giving the rice dish a delicate green hue and flavour. But the one they boast loudest about is fegato alla veneziana – liver and onions . Forget the truckstop café fry-up, these wafer-thin slices are tasty and light.

Talking of meat, the Fiorentina, the proud T-bone steak, is finding its way back into butchers' shops and on to restaurant tables now the BSE panic is waning. The best place to sample Parma ham is, not surprisingly, in the town where it is made. But it will be good at any restaurant where it is cut off the bone. Prosciutto di parma is only one of a host of hams and salamis that make the surrounding region a gourmet haven. Among them is the mythical culatello, which is the cheek of the pig's bottom and thus contains no muscle, just flesh and fat. It is cured for two years with very little salt and is rigorously vetted by the Consorzio del Culatello di Zibello. Worth a detour if you are in Tuscany in the town of Colonnata is the increasingly fashionable lardo di Colonnata. Slices of pork fat, cured with juniper berries and other herbs are pressed between slabs of marble and then served in thin slices on bread.

Parma's other delicacy is, of course, Parmesan cheese. The proper stuff matures for a minimum of two years and contains no preservatives or added colour. Restaurants will often have a big wheel open on the table for you to dig out a chunk with a special Parmesan knife.

Italy, of course, is synonomous with pasta and pizza, and in Naples, the city that gave us both, sweet, juicy tomatoes, olive oil and mozzarella cheese reign supreme. The quota of buffalo mozzarella on the market far exceeds the amount that could be produced from the number of registered buffalos, but don't let such details deter you. The real thing – a wobbly, milky, defenceless blob on your plate – is divine dressed only with a drop of olive oil, though it makes a smashing salad with tomato and basil. The buffaloes roam south of Rome towards Naples, and in a few areas of Puglia. The mozzarella can be bought from farms or local delis. Avoid refrigeration and eat within a day.

Whatever you do, don't miss sampling real pesto alla genovese. Pasta with pesto sauce will never be the same after you've tried pesto at its source. The basil that grows on the hills outside Genoa is bright green with tiny leaves and an intense aroma. You may get a whiff of it as you drive by. There are disputes over the traditional recipe – some add potato and beans, others use only pine nuts, and not walnuts.

To wash it all down, you need a great Italian wine and Veneto, Tuscany and Piedmont are the great wine-growing regions. They lagged behind the French in technique and marketing for decades, but they have now caught up with a vengeance. Among Tuscan wines, the DOC wines, Chianti in particular, have of late been outshone by the so-called Super Tuscans, whose producers have bucked tradition to create splendid wines such as the much sought-after Sassicaia. Brunello di Montalcino is another wine that Hollywood stars are ordering in bulk. Piedmont is the home of mighty reds like the Barolo – though the Nebbiolo grape is also the base for many other less demanding wines such as Barbera and Barbaresco. The Friuli, Venezia, Giulia and Veneto areas produce fine chardonnays and sauvignon blancs.

In these regions, there is a strong tradition of consumption, not just at the dinner table. Many bars serve wine by the glass with tasty snacks. After decades of producing grapes to be cut into northern wines to give them strength, the southern regions are now bottling their own wine. In Sicily, look out for the Planeta and Donnafugata label. In Puglia, brace yourself and try the intense Primitivo di Manduria, with 14-15 per cent alcohol content.

With all this mouthwatering fare, you might expect obesity to be something of an occupational hazard. However, although Italians may eat a five-course meal at lunch or dinner, they won't do it twice a day. And you won't see them snacking between meals. They're also keen on vegetables and salads to balance the high-energy fodder. Italians in general are phobic about butter; they consider cooking in it downright poisonous, and responsible for obesity in everywhere that is not Italy. They wouldn't dream of spreading it on fresh bread. The exception to this is the central Emilia-Romagna region. There's a reason why its capital Bologna is nicknamed la grassa (The Fat). Forget any stodgy lasagne experiences, and go to a local osteria to try the real thing made with ragu, a rich meat sauce which is also lavished over fettucine. Bologna is also justly proud of its tortellini in brodo, meat-filled pasta shapes in a tasty meat broth.

There are culinary blackspots, of course.

Calabria isn't famous for its restaurants although that's not to say that the Calabresi don't turn out good food. Their spicy salamis, hot pepper pastes and tangy cheeses are sublime – but the best produce rarely makes it to a restaurant. Rome and its surrounding region, Lazio, has long suffered a poor reputation which is largely unjustified. This is partly because until the unification of Italy the Popes demanded French food, while the ordinary citizens got by on vegetables and offal – still a mainstay of Roman cooking. Artichokes are one of the most loved vegetables, served stewed with mentuccia, a wild mint, or alla giudea, crunchily instant-fried at the restaurants in the Jewish ghetto.

Watch out for pepperoncino in Calabria. The region lives on them, and they vary in strength from straw yellow to cool green to fiery red. Blow-your-mouth-off pepperoncino spreads are sold under the title Viagra for their medicinal properties. Seafood lovers will be tempted by the sight of locals wolfing back mussels, baby octopus and sea urchins raw in Bari. Tempting though it is, just remind yourself that there was a cholera outbreak here in 1992. But nearby Taranto is a must, with vast mussel and clam farms. It is one of the few places in Italy where they breed oysters. The trattoria Gesu Cristo is highly recommended for a no-nonsense, no-questions seafood extravaganza.

If you want to plan your trip around a foodie event, there are a number to choose from. On 25 November, to celebrate the feast of St Catherine, the cave-aged cheeses are removed from their dark hiding place and (of course) tasted at Sogliano al Rubicone, Forli. These pungent cheeses can be bought at the Antiche Fosse, via Pascoli 4, Sogliano al Rubicone.

Vinitaly, the country's biggest wine fair, in Verona in April is an opportunity to sup the tried and tested, plus new entrants from Italian vineyards. In October Perugia hosts the Eurochocolate Fair; life-size chocolate statues line the streets, and there's ample choice for tasting. If you're strapped for cash or time, the Slow Food Salone del Gusto (Taste Fair) in Turin will allow you to eat your way around Italy without leaving the building. Held every two years (the next one is in 2002), it offers an overwhelming panorama of local produce, as well as tasting laboratories and seminars.

If you're travelling right now, Piemonte, which borders France, is hard to beat. It's grape harvest time, the funghi porcini mushrooms are just coming into season and the area boasts many good cheese producers. In the coming weeks, sniffer dogs trained from infancy and their owners will be roaming the forests near Alba, the undisputed truffle capital (see below). This earthy tuber with a heavenly aroma can cost £1,000 a kilo. Eating your way round Italy can be an expensive business.

If you want to learn to cook the Italian way, Tasting Places (020-7460 0077, www.tastingplaces.com) offers courses in five areas of Italy. A six-day course based in Fattoria Montelucci, a family-run estate near Arezzo in Tuscany costs £1,350 per person, excluding flights and based on two sharing. Italiatour (01883 621900, www.alitalia.it/italiatour), a specialist in Italian holidays can tailormake a trip for you, but also offers set cookery courses in Umbria. A seven-night trip, leaving on 14 October, costs £454 per person including classes, accommodation and flights. Inntravel (01653 628811, www.inntravel.co.uk) has recently introduced Italy's Green Heart to its selection. This seven-night independent walking trip staying in small inns offers the opportunity to try local specialities and dishes based around black truffles. The trip costs £594 per person, including half-board accommodation, flights and transfers. Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344, www.arblasterandclarke.com) offers gourmet tours including Gourmet Northern Italy, which runs from 5-10 November this year and includes tastings, vineyard tours and truffle-hunting with an expert. The cost of the trip is £1,249 per person based on two sharing and including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation and seven gastronomic meals with wine.

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