Everyone loves Italian food. Fresh, seasonal and simple, few cuisines know how to make the most of incredible flavors with so few ingredients. So how do Italians do it? First, they buy high-quality ingredients – after all, you don’t need much! Second, they always make sure they have enough on hand for a beautiful home-cooked meal. Here are the most ubiquitous Italian food staples and what you can make with them.

Olive Oil

Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

It’s no secret that olive oil reigns supreme in Italian cooking. Whether it’s used to sauté fresh vegetables, enrich a pasta sauce or dress a salad, a high-quality extra virgin olive oil is a must in an Italian kitchen. Not only that, but many Italian kitchens will have different types and qualities of Italian-made olive oil based on the use. Whatever the use, olive oil is the foundation that Italian dishes are built upon.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce has gotten a bad rap in Italian-American cooking lately, but it’s still a staple here in Italy. Here it’s not the only way to dress a pasta and it doesn’t drench the pasta when it is used. A basic tomato sauce is considered just the start to a pasta sauce. It’s the base on which you build your flavors. Most are usually flavored with a soffritto of finely diced onion, carrots and celery. After, you can add meat, sausage, olives, fish – nearly anything – to create the pasta sauce of your dreams.

Dried Pasta

Photo by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Even when don’t have a single vegetable or any option of meat or fish, you can still have a full meal if you have some pasta. In Italy there are hundreds of different types of pasta, dry and fresh, but while the fresh pasta has an expiration date, dried pasta lasts years. Keep a variety of different pasta types so you’ll always have an option no matter what sauce you decide to make!

Onions

On that note, onions are a basis of flavoring here in Italy. Where in America garlic abounds, Italians tend toward the still-pungent but softer flavor of onions. Even if you don’t have carrots or celery to make a soffritto for a nice pasta sauce, a bit of diced onion will still spice things up. Onions flavor lentils, meat dishes and make a wonderful side dish to fish entrees. They also last for weeks in a dark, dry place, making them the perfect pantry food.

Basic herbs and spices

Photo by Konstantin Kolosov from Pixabay

Italians definitely prefer fresh herbs – some won’t even make certain dishes without them – but you can keep a stock of a few dried spices that will come in handy in a pinch. First, an Italian kitchen will have both fine salt and large sea salt. The first is used to season your dish, the latter is used to season the water to pasta or at most sparingly sprinkled over salmon or steak. Beyond that keep pepper, garlic and parsley in your pantry to cover your bases. Fresh is the only way to go with basil, sage and bay leaves, however.

Breadcrumbs

Often breadcrumbs are that just something you needed to raise your dish up a level. Slice vegetables and bake them under a mixture of olive oil, spices and breadcrumbs. Or else bulk up fish filets with breadcrumbs and parsley. With just an egg and some breadcrumbs you can make any slice of meat or fish impannato, breaded, to quickly fry it up and enjoy but that’s not where it ends in Italy. The land of the cucina povera, bread was never wasted here. Make stuffed tomatoes with a filling of herbs and breadcrumbs or take a cue from the Sicilians and add some breadcrumbs to your pasta to add some texture, such as in pasta con le sarde or

Eggs

Italians have a super varied diet and rarely eat the same thing over and over. Though they might have pasta every day, it’s never with the same vegetables or sauce or even the same type of pasta. And their protein rarely comes from the same source. It’s normal to vary between fish, meat, beans or cheese in the same week and eggs usually make the menu as well. Not only are eggs a solid source of protein during the week, like in a classic Italian frittata, but they also enrich savory tarts and can be used to make real Italian fresh pasta. Mix 100 grams of flour with 1 egg slowly to create the base of your fresh pasta then roll out to flatten and cut in whatever form you want. Cook until the pasta rises to the surface of the water and you’re good to go!

Olives

Olives are another pantry item that last for a long time and adds a kick of flavor to any dish. Make a super simple pasta with tomato sauce and black and green olives or grind up black olives along with almonds and ricotta to make a pesto siciliano. You can add olives to salad or bake fish on a bed of chopped tomatoes and olives (breadcrumbs are good here too) and of course, a bowl of olives is the perfect antipasto to pair with a glass of wine.

Wine

Whether you imbibe or not, wine is a staple in any Italian kitchen for its rich flavor and multi-use. It’s not uncommon to sfumare a dish with a splash of wine, then leave the rest of the bottle on the table to drink with dinner. Not only that, but there are many dishes that are specifically made with wine, like pasta al Barolo or risotto with Taleggio and Raboso, where the final flavor is that of the wine itself.  Cheers!

Can’t get enough of Italian food? Enjoy private tastings at hidden wineries and rustic-style feasts on our Food, Wine & the Rolling Hills trip in Tuscany and Umbria. Write us for more info!

Similar stories

8 of the Most Beautiful Churches in Florence

Reflecting on 2020, Looking to the New Year Ahead

How To Stay Healthy While Traveling

Wine in Italy is as ubiquitous as pizza, pasta or gelato – it’s a staple!  

Italians are proud of their wine and take it seriously, but they are far from pretentious. Wine in Italy isn’t for just the fancy, elegant or rich. It’s an everyman’s drink, good for any food you’re eating and found everywhere. Once upon a time a dash of marsala or other wine over a raw egg made for an abundant, caloric breakfast and even today many Italians wouldn’t think twice about a glass or two at a work lunch and it’s not uncommon to see Italians enjoying a mid-morning glass at their local bar. 

In Italy the wine is mostly, well, Italian. Italians prefer to drink their local wine and many restaurants don’t even offer options from outside of Italy. After all, they have plenty to choose from! 

Italy has an exceptionally high quality of wine, more than 400 grape varietals and produces more wine than any other country. That, together with its super open attitude to wine drinking makes Italy the perfect place to dive into the wine culture and try something new! Italians are proud of the history, quality and taste of their wine so if you’re planning on imbibing when in Italy it helps to know a thing or two before you go:  
 

Drinking Wine in Italy 

Whether its wine or beer or cocktails, Italians never drink without food. Even if it’s just a bowl of olives or a slice of cheese, you’ll never be served a drink without something to munch on. 

When you order a bottle of wine from a restaurant in Italy the process should be nearly the same as back home. The server will bring the bottle to the table unopened. He or she will open it in front of you and ask who wants to taste it (chi assaggia?) then pour a small amount in your glass to taste. This isn’t about deciding if you like the wine or not – you’ve already ordered it! – it’s simply a way to check that the wine hasn’t gone bad. Though it’s difficult if you don’t already have a background with wine, you know it’s gone bad if it tastes moldy or like cork or vinegar.  

You can also order wine by the glass and, if you order the house wine, you can usually order a ¼ liter (a little bit more than a glass) or a ½ liter, as opposed to an entire bottle. And don’t scoff – the house wine isn’t bad! The vino della casa is usually a local wine that pairs well with the restaurant’s food and can be the perfect place to start to learn about Italian wine.  

It’s customary in Italy to fill the glass halfway, rather than up to the brim. This way it’s easier to manage, gives everyone the chance to have a glass from the bottle and invites those that want more to drink up. Don’t expect servers to come and fill your glass up for you after you finish it (whether wine or water). In general, servers come only when called and are much more reserved than their American counterparts. 

DOC vs DOCG and What to Order 

Italy has various organizations and classifications to preserve and protect its food and agricultural products. Like Champagne in France, some wines are “protected”, allowing only those grown in a certain way from a certain grape in a certain region to be given the name of that wine.  

The two classifications you should be aware of when wine tasting in Italy is DOCG and DOC.  

DOCG is the highest designation of quality for Italian wines. DOCG stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin. The strictest classification, DOCG wines have to be made in DOCG-protected zones and follow stringent rules.  

The second classification is DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata or Denomination of Controlled Origin). These wines also have to be made in specific zones and have specific regulations to follow such as the production area, wine color, grape varieties, proportions and alcohol levels, as well as some questions of vinification and maturation techniques. 

This classification was the first created in Italy. The DOCG wines were created roughly two decades later to further differentiate the top Italian wines from an already quality stock. All of the defined limits listed above are present, but with even more stringent minimum and maximums allowed, as well as an in-depth analysis and tasting from the Ministry of Agriculture.  

The Brunello di Montalcino and the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, both from Tuscany, were the first wines to receive DOCG status in all of Italy followed closely by the Chianti from Tuscany and Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco.  

But these classifications aren’t the only measure of quality in Italian wines. The celebrated “Super Tuscans,” Tignanello, Sassacia, and Ornellaia wines, were originally thought of as table wines and had opted out of the DOC/DOCG process because they thought the stringent regulations hindered them from making the best wine possible. Since then, the classification IGT or Indicazione di Geografica Tipica has been added, which is designated for wine grown in a particular area without specifying the blend, such as the Super Tuscans.  

Not only that, but you can find delicious wines without any of these labels, proving that when in Italy, all wine is worth a try!  

Ready to taste the best of Italian wines? We can help! Visit wineries in Lucca, Florence, San Gimignano, Chianti, Pienza and Siena on our Essential Tuscany trip.

Similar stories

Discover the Dolomites: What to Know and Where to Go

How To Stay Healthy While Traveling

The Best Destinations to Celebrate the Holidays in Italy