The Vorrei Guide to Italian Food
The Italian Food Cupboard - The 20 Basic Ingredients.
Although there are enormous differences between the Italian regions and huge regional variations in cuisine, the ingredients in an Italian cupboard will probably be fairly consistent across the country.
Make sure you have most of these essentail ingredients in your cupboard and you’ll be ready to create many wonderful Italian dishes!
Extra virgin olive oil
The number one ingredient that characterises Italian cooking! Most Italians will have two types of olive oil in their cupboard, a basic one for frying or sautéing and the best extra virgin olive oil (organic if possible) that they can afford for adding to pasta sauces, for drizzling into soups, onto a risotto, grilled vegetables and of course for bruschetta and salads.
An absolutely essential staple – it’s perfectly acceptable to used tinned tomatoes in Italy but make sure that you choose simple whole peeled plum tomatoes ‘pomodori pelati’ as opposed to chopped or diced for a better flavour in everything from sauces to soup. The best varieties in Italy such as the San Marzano come from Campania – the volcanic soil gives an amazing flavour to all the produce grown there.
The basis of so many Italian dishes and the perfect comfort food. Make sure it’s durum wheat pasta and if possible bronze die cut, it will have so much more taste and better absorb the sauce and it’s flavour. Keep three types of pasta in stock – long, short and a tiny one for soup (a separate post dedicated to which pasta goes with which sauces and dishes will follow soon). Wholegrain and spelt pasta offer a healthy and tasty alternative to traditional white pasta.
Make sure you choose Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone nano if you want to make great risotto. These are all short-grained rice which release starch making them ideal for creamy risottos.
- Cannellini beans
Again tinned Cannellini beans are fine. These are an essential, satisfying and healthy ingredient often found in Italian cuisine. They are full of fibre, protein and antioxidant-rich flavonols. Cannellini are perfect to mix with pasta, in soups and salads or to make into a tasty dip.
- Bread crumbs
Whizz some up at home in a food processor or buy the ready prepared ones and add texture and flavour to loads of Italian dishes. Bread crumbs are ideal for breading cutlets or chicken, mozzarella or ricotta balls before frying or for mixing with parmesan and sprinkling on top of a delicious ‘sformato di patate’ (mashed potato dish), they are also found in some pasta dishes such as pasta with anchovies.
Used in everything from antipasti to pastas, olives are packed with cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fats, vitamin E and antioxidants. The small dark ones are generally used in cooking.
Capers or ‘capperi’ will add a natural richness and depth of flavour to all of your favourite sauces, soups, salads, stews, and rice and pasta dishes. The best Italian capers come from the island of Salina they are higher in polyphenols (the anti-oxidants that are said to prevent cancer, arteriosclerosis and slow down the ageing process) than other capers.
- Balsamic vinegar
The real balsamic vinegar (which are not artificially coloured and thickened) comes from Modena and is made from a selection of excellent musts and vintage wine and left to mature in vintage barrels, it’s perfect for dressing your salads, drizzling on raw vegetables and uncooked meats or fruit.
- Dried herbs and seasonings
- Caputo 00 Flour
This sweet aromatic herb is a staple for topping pastas and pizzas and of course for scattering liberally across your Caprese salad.
Many recipes use anchovies for a hit of flavour where the anchovies provide a subtle background flavour which isn’t always necessarily that fishy! Much loved by Italians from north to south, anchovies are often that secret ingredient that you just can’t put your finger on! Use them in numerous sauces, salads, in pasta or to create a delicious antipasto.
This highly flavourful aged hard cheese (most often used grated) adds a nutty flavour and lovely texture to Italian dishes, particularly pastas.
- Porcini mushrooms
Always buy dried porcini to keep in the cupboard, not only do they smell wonderful they can quickly be soaked and used to make a quick and tasty risotto or pasta dish. Good quality dried Porcini are not cheap. Look for the ones that come in fairly intact slices rather than lots of broken pieces.
- Onions and garlic
Both are essential ingredients especially for making the ‘soffritto’ the essential basis for most Italian savoury dishes. The soffritto is made up of different ingredients depending on what region you are in but either onion or garlic will almost always be used and sometimes together along with carrots and celery. The finely chopped ingredients are lightly sautéed in olive oil until nice and soft and then the main ingredient is cooked in the soffritto to absorb its flavour.
- Peperoncini – red chillies in any form!
These hot chilli peppers are added to most southern Italian specialties, including pasta sauces and pizza. Find them fresh, dried, powdered, preserved whole (eat them as an antipasto) or chopped in oil.
- Stock cubes
A guilty secret ingredient of many an Italian cook, these ‘dadi’ or stock cubes are often used to add some extra flavour to many dishes or to make a quick broth for risotto!
There are over 100 types of honey in Italy and it is a really popular ingredient enhancing the flavours of cheeses and sweetening desserts
Choose either the stronger and more intense buffalo mozzarella which is best in Caprese salads or the more milky flavoured ‘Fior di latte’ made with cow’s milk – great in lasagne, baked pasta dishes and on pizza
Wine is added for flavour to many Italian dishes. White wine to fish dishes, pasta ones and risotto, red wine to meat casseroles.
The 5 basic Italian recipes you need to know
Soffritto is the essential base to Italian sauces, many soups and stews, creates a flavour base for other ingredients. The basis of soffritto is a combination of three key ingredients usually onion, carrot and celery although these can differ from region to region.
The word Soffritto comes from the past participle of the verb soffriggere 'to fry lightly, to brown' and the vegetables should be gently cooked. It is best used fresh but it’s a good idea to make extra and freeze for next time.
2 parts onion
1 part carrot
1 part celery
Chop the three ingredients into tiny pieces
Saute in some olive oil for about 5 minutes until it softens and becomes golden in colour
Now you can cook your main ingredient in the soffritto to absorb its flavour.
- Easy Tomato Pasta Sauce
Ingredients for 2-4 people
400g tin of Vorrei’s Agrigenus San Marzano tomatoes
Half an onion
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
A few leaves of basil
Pinch of salt
Chop the onion into small pieces and saute’ gently in the extra virgin olive oil until it becomes clear in colour and nice and soft.
Add the tomatoes and a good pinch of salt. Break the tomatoes up a little with the wooden spoon.
Cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes.
Add the basil leaves a couple of minutes before the end.
Serve with spaghetti or short pasta such as penne, sprinkle with Parmesan.
Keep a bag of Arborio or Carnaroli rice in your cupboard, make sure you have some onions and some white wine & a vegetable stock cube and then add make risotto with anything you fancy – the technique is pretty much the same every time. From some frozen peas you found in the bottom of your freezer to porcini mushrooms.
Here is the basic technique
Make up some vegetable stock and keep it simmering in a pan.
Heat some olive oil in a large pan add the finely chopped onion, saute until soft.
Add the rice and stir until coated with the oil.
Add the white wine & stir well until it absorbs.
When the liquid is cooked off, you will add one ladle full of stock at a time, stir, stir, stir until the liquid is absorbed.
Add your main ingredient
Then add another ladle full of stock, stir until the rice absorbs the liquid and repeat with another ladle, keep doing this until the rice is cooked.
Keep on stirring – it can take a while for the liquid to absorb each time! Be patient and don’t leave the risotto!
If you run out of stock, use simmering water
- Tomato Bruschetta
The name ‘Bruschetta’ comes from the Italian word "bruscare," which means to roast over coals. In the event that you are not toasting the bread over an open fire (!) use anything that gets the bread a nice golden colour whether that’s a grill, toaster or griddle pan on the hob.
Slices of bread (Italian/sourdough) approx. 1.5cm thick
A couple of cloves of garlic (optional)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Chopped red and/or yellow tomatoes
Some fresh basil torn into pieces
Arrange the bread slices under the grill and toast for about 2 minutes or until toasted, turning once to get equal colour on both sides.
Remove the toasted bread from the oven. If using garlic, cut an end from a clove of garlic and lightly rub the cut edge of the clove over the surface of the bread.
Brush on enough olive oil to lightly cover the surface of the bread. Sprinkle very lightly with salt then top the toasted bread slices with the chopped tomato and basil mixture.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
- Caprese salad
This is an easy, simple and beautiful salad but it does require the best quality ingredients you can find!
Ingredients for two people
3 large ripe salad tomatoes (at room temperature)
At least 2 balls of the best Mozzarella di Bufala
Lots of large basil leaves (tear if you need to but don't chop!)
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Simply arrange the tomato and mozzarella slices on a plate, sprinkle with lots of basil, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Accompany with crusty bread.
How to cook pasta! Ten steps to pasta perfection
Perfect Italian pasta doesn’t stick together, it’s not soggy or lukewarm and you definitely shouldn’t add oil to it! Here are our ten tips for cooking pasta just like mamma makes it!
- Your pasta pan should be as large as possible and ideally nice and tall rather than wide.
- The pasta should always be cooked in LOTS of water! We suggest at least one litre for every portion of pasta (portion size is up to you but in most of our recipes we use 90g as an average portion size).
- The pasta water should be well salted. Coarse sea salt is best. Of course try not to exaggerate with the salt, we think about one flat tablespoon of salt per litre of water should be fine.
- Never add oil to the water. This will just make the pasta slippery and greasy so that the lovely sauce you make won’t cling to it!
- If possible use ‘bronze die cut pasta’ from the birth place of Italian pasta, Gragnano near Naples. Not only does it taste better and retain all of its goodness when cooked, but it absorbs the sauce with which it is served better too.
- Don’t put the pasta into the water until it’s boiling really well. The pasta will lower the temperature of the water and it will take longer to heat up again once you have added it.
- Once in the pan the pasta needs a delicate stir – otherwise it will definitely all stick together.
- Keep an eye on the cooking time. Set a timer for the amount of time suggested on the packet but TEST the pasta too towards the end, it should be al dente but not hard.
- When the pasta is ready it should be drained in a large colander and dressed with sauce immediately!! It must be served hot.
- Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano only! Remember no cheese on Italian pasta with any kind of fish!
Buon appetito! We hope your pasta is perfect every time! Let us know if you have any insider tips we missed from our list…
Pairing Pasta and Sauces
Unsure about the hundreds of different pasta shapes out there and about which shape of pasta goes with which sauce?
No one really knows how many different types of pasta there are in Italy. Some are unique to a particular region and are just ‘fatte in casa’ or homemade so can’t even be found in the local supermarkets. The names are often very entertaining and have a meaning – usually referring to the shape of the pasta. Combining a simple tomato sauce with ‘Priest stranglers’, ‘little ears’ or ‘little worms’ makes it so much more fun to eat!
Apart from making a pasta dish more interesting or more aesthetically pleasing to look at, the shape of pasta when complemented with a specific sauce can make a big difference to a recipe. it’s all to do with the relationship between texture of the pasta and the components of the sauce;
the various shapes of the pasta were designed to best serve the needs of the sauce.
Here’s our guide to which sauces go best with which pasta shapes and types:
Long pasta such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, spaghetti, vermicelli, pappardelle, linguine
These pair well with meat ragù; vegetable sauces including mushrooms, peppers, courgettes, aubergines, or artichokes; tomato sauces with oregano or basil; fish or seafood sauces including tuna, prawns, clams, mussels; white sauces including cheese sauces flavoured with spices, cream, ricotta; quick sauces such as truffle oils or shavings, garlic, oil and chilli, anchovies and capers, Linguine go particularly well with pesto.
Long tube pasta such as bucatini (a thicker spaghetti type pasta which is hollow) or ziti.
We suggest vegetable sauces; tomato sauces with peppers, mushrooms, olives or capers. Bucatini all’amatriciana is a famous Roman dish combining bucatini with Guanciale (Italian salt cured pork), tomatoes, pecorino and black pepper
Long egg pasta (tagliatelle or fettuccine)
Great with ‘Hunter’ sauces such as hare, wild boar, pheasant and duck as well as delicate sauces with cream and either ham, peas, walnuts, pine nuts, almonds or truffles.
Short tubular pasta such as maccheroni, rigatoni, pennette, penne, lumache and pipette
These go well with thick and chunky sauces such as beef, chicken, sausage, with added fresh or dried mushrooms; vegetable sauces with mushrooms, peppers, artichokes, aubergines, asparagus; sauces with beans or chick peas; tomato sauces such as ‘arrabiata’.
Ridged pastas provide even more texture for sauces to cling to.
Thicker tube short pastas such as rigatoni and penne are ideal for ‘pasta al forno’ or oven baked pasta dishes
Shaped pastas such as fusilli, conchiglie
These pair well with all kind of sauces but especially those with texture. Pieces of meat, vegetable or bean are captured in the crevices and twists of the pasta.
Flat pasta including lasagna and farfalle
We suggest creamy sauces including cream and parmesan, cream and salmon; vegetable and cheese sauces with ricotta, gorgonzola, spinach, asparagus; béchamel sauces; sauces made from blended vegetables such as pumpkin, mushrooms or spinach; sauces with porcini mushrooms.
Short or small pasta such as ditalini, mista corta, pipette, stelline.
Great with sauces with beans and pulses, peas or chick peas; excellent in soups.
An A-Z of Italian food and cookery terms
Aceto Balsamico: Balsamic vinegar
Acqua di cottura: Cooking water (from pasta usually)
Agrodolce: Sweet and sour.
Al Dente: How pasta should be cooked – literally which means "to the tooth," not hard but with a slight resistence when you bite into it.
Al Forno: In the oven.
Al vapore: Steamed.
Alla griglia: Grilled.
All'aglio e Olio: A dish with this name is made with garlic and oil. A famous, easy-to-make pasta dish is spaghetti all'aglio e olio.
Antipasto: A little something that is served before the meal, or as an appetizer.
Arborio rice : A short-grain, stubby type of rice from the Po Valley. With a higher startch content than most of rices, properly cooked Arborio rice is creamy but firm and chewy.
Arrabbiata: Angry/hot. Pasta all’arrabiata is a tomato sauce flavored with chilli.
Alla Bolognese: Bologna-style, a slow-cooked meat sauce with vegetables and tomato.
Bagnomaria: Bainmarie in French, a way of heating food gently over a pan of hot water.
Bocconcini - small balls of fresh mozzarella (means small nibble)
Brodo: Soup or broth.
Bruschetta: Toasted bread usually served with a topping of some sort as an antipasto.
Caperi: Edible flower buds of the caper bush, usually salted or conserved in olive oil
Caponata: A traditional Sicilian vegetable dish made with aubergine and tomato.
Alla Caprese: Capri-style, usually a salad made with tomato, basil, olive oil and mozzarella.
Contorno: A side dish of vegetables.
Crostata: A sweet tart usually made with jam or Nutella.
Crostini: A small bruschetta.
Dado: A stock cube.
Farro: Spelt, a grain used in soups and salads.
Frittata: An open omelette made in a pan and finished off under the grill.
Frutti di Mare: Seafood.
Gelato: ice cream.
Alla Genovese: In the style of Genova, which means "with basil, garlic and oil."
Gnocchi: Potato dumplings.
Grana Padana: A Hard cheese similar to Parmesan, cheaper & often used as a substitute
Marinara: A tomato sauce with garlic, olive oil and oregano.
Mozzarella di Bufala: Cheese made from the milk of water buffalo. Mozzarella is more commonly made from cow's milk and is known as ‘Fior di Latte’
Olio di Oliva: Olive oil.
Parmigiano Reggiano: Parmesan cheese.
Passata: A smooth puree of tomatoes
Pecorino: A hard sheep's milk cheese made in the area around Rome (called Pecorino Romano), as well as in Tuscany, Sardinia and Sicily.
Peperoncino: Spicy chilli pepper.
Porcini: A meaty mushroom used both fresh and dried in Italian cuisine.
Primo: The first course of a traditional Italian meal.
Alla Puttanesca: A tomato sauce flavored with capers and anchovies, and often with olives, garlic and chile flakes, as well.
q.b: Quanto basta, used in recipes to mean ‘as much as you need’ for salt, herbs etc
Ripieno: A stuffing or filling.
Secondo: Main course of a traditional Italian meal.
Soffritto: A mixture of chopped vegetables, usually onion, carrot and celery which forms the base of many Italian soups, sauces and stews.
Sott’olio: Vegetables preserved in a jar in olive oil, often eaten as an antipasto.
Tartufo: A truffle