THE ESSENTIAL PANTRY - Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market - Marcella Hazan, Victor Hazan

Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market - Marcella Hazan, Victor Hazan (2016)


La Dispensa Essenziale



La Pasta Compera


Spaghettoni, spaghetti, spaghettini

On a book tour, the food editor of the local newspaper remarked, hoping to demonstrate her devotion to the best in Italian cuisine, “I only ever use fresh pasta.”

“You don’t know what you are missing,” I replied.

The one useful notion that someone cooking pasta the Italian way ought to hold on to has also been the most difficult to grasp for most of the people I speak to, food writers included. Fresh pasta, so inappropriately described, for it can be dry and months old, is not superior to boxed pasta. It is merely different.

There are two broad groups of pasta; one is made from flour and eggs, the other from flour and water. The first, in its finest version, is made at home from hand-kneaded dough opened up into a flat sheet with a long, narrow, hardwood pasta roller. The sheets are cut either into noodles of various widths or into small square, round, triangular, or half-moon sections that one will fold and close around a nugget of meat, cheese, and/or vegetable stuffing to make filled pasta dumplings. There are also shapes of homemade pasta, such as orecchiette, trofie, cavatelli, and busiate, produced entirely by hand, pinching, poking, turning, or squeezing dough.

The other pasta group is an industrial product. A dough of hard wheat flour—semolina—and water is kneaded mech­anically and forced through dies that will squeeze it into one of scores of different shapes, from spaghetti to ­rigatoni to strozzapreti to small soup pasta. After it is dried hard, it is boxed and shipped to stores.

Pasta rolled out at home from egg dough and factory-­made extruded pasta absorb different sauces. Please stop to think about that. It is extremely important, because it opens up access to the vast range of Italian pasta dishes. There are sauces that are far more enjoyable on factory-made rather than homemade pasta and that work better with one shape rather than another. When matched to its most ­appropriate sauces, the flavors of store-bought, factory-made boxed pasta are fully as remarkable and satisfying as those of the homemade variety.

Take spaghetti, for example. A perfect match for it is the simple tomato sauce that I make with butter and an onion. It is my family’s comfort dish. Spaghetti goes so well with vegetable sauces such as eggplant and ricotta, fried zucchini with garlic and basil, caramelized onions, sauces that it can curl around or those that it can cling to, such as carbonara. Meat sauce, however, sits awkwardly on those long, narrow strands, notwithstanding the British elevation of spaghetti Bolognese—spag bol—to national dish status.

Spaghettini—thin spaghetti—is a shape that, for reasons impenetrable to me, is impossible to find except online and occasionally in a few stores that focus on Italian specialties. It’s a great pity, because it is the perfect vehicle for clam sauce and other seafood sauces and for any sauce based on olive oil. Olive oil sauces, which provide the perfect coating for the smooth surfaces of spaghettini, are an awkward choice for the absorbent, porous texture of homemade egg pasta, which longs instead for butter and cream.

Another factory-made shape, bucatini, the hollow spaghetti, has forever been wedded to amatriciana sauce. Penne, shells, fusilli, all short tube or concave shapes, are drawn to sauces whose morsels they can pull inside them, sauces such as those with sausages, with mushrooms, with cut-up asparagus, with bell peppers. Large tubes like rigatoni have the ideal shape for holding meat sauce and for enduring baking in an oven.

Not all boxed factory pasta is of equally wonderful quality. The shelves of every supermarket I have ever walked into are piled high with mediocre brands. How much difference can there be between one box of penne and another? A lot! There are many decisions that the artisan must make in the process of transforming milled grain into pasta in a box, and each decision represents a variable in quality, in taste, in texture, in cooking time, in the capacity to absorb sauce. The first decision is about where to source the wheat, which must, by tradition and by law, be hard wheat, also known as semolina or durum wheat. That first decision has a huge influence on the consistency and individual character of a pasta brand. Some producers exert control by growing their own wheat, others, through the contracts they stipulate with growers in Italy or abroad. Martelli’s pasta, than which there is none better, is made from the North American grain they have used for decades.

The remaining steps in the aim for quality essentially consist of slowing things down: in slow, lengthy kneading; in slow extrusion of the dough through bronze dies that impart a rough, sauce-thirsty texture on the surface of the spaghetti, penne, rigatoni, fusilli, every shape coming through; in the unhurried tempo of the drying rooms, where low temperatures keep pasta drying for several days.

The great pasta artisans have their plants in central and southern Italy. Martelli is in Tuscany; Cocco in Abruzzo; Cavalieri in the southernmost tip of Apulia; Faella near Naples, in Gragnano, the birthplace of Italian pasta; and Molini del Ponte in Sicily, where Filippo Drago mills ancient Sicilian hard grains. These are some of the most prominent, but there are many others.

There are a few more steps to the realization of a perfect dish of pasta, and they take place in your kitchen. If you are feeding four, you need a pot that will hold four to five quarts of water. When the water boils, it must be salted. I use two tablespoons of table salt or Diamond Crystal kosher salt. A broad pot is better than a narrow one, because, when the water boils, you can drop in a pound of spaghetti that will immediately lie flat and be fully submerged without your having to bend the strands below the water’s level.

Pasta should be cooked at a sustained boil until it is tender, yet firm to the bite. It used to be that people cooked their pasta too long. Now they are likely to cook it not long enough. Ignore absurdly low cooking times printed on the package. Cocco, for example, advises nine minutes’ cooking for a cut of pasta that takes me fifteen minutes. Pasta is not enjoyable when crunchy. Don’t go by the timer. Taste periodically until you are satisfied.

Drain cooked pasta immediately and transfer it to a warm bowl. If you have used butter in the sauce, add grated Parmesan cheese to the pasta, toss quickly, then toss with some fresh butter. Add the sauce and toss, turning the pasta over and over, not once, not twice, but at least a dozen times, thoroughly coating every strand of spaghetti, every penne tube with sauce. Do not serve the dish with a pool of sauce resting on top, however decorative that may appear to be.

If your sauce was made with olive oil, and possibly tomatoes with mashed anchovies, or capers, or olives, you may want to use pecorino romano. If you decide to do so, add the grated romano cheese to the pasta as soon as you have drained and placed it steaming hot in the serving bowl. Toss quickly, then add a spoonful of olive oil and proceed to toss thoroughly.

Chefs like to toss drained pasta for a minute or so over the burner in the skillet containing the sauce, and afterward slide it into the serving bowl. This doesn’t work well with all types of pasta. Yes with spaghetti, no with hollow tubes. The consistency of such shapes as penne, ziti, or rigatoni deteriorates in a hot skillet; it becomes gummy, a little like the precooked pasta that is reheated and served in bad Italian restaurants. It lacks the fresh, spontaneous taste of home cooking; there is a slick, professional patina to it that I don’t like. On the other hand, a homemade egg noodle, like fettuccine, should be tossed in a pan with a sauce of gorgonzola, butter, and heavy cream, which it loves to drink up.

I actually prefer a platter to a deep bowl for tossing and serving pasta, in particular the tender, homemade kind. When spread on a long platter, you get more even distribution of sauce, and the pasta does not risk becoming soggy as it may at the bottom of a deep bowl.

There are cooks who use an appliance at home to extrude pasta in imitation of the industrial process. It extrudes egg and flour dough through dies to form shapes typical of boxed store pasta, such as penne. The product has neither the finesse of home-rolled pasta nor the textural substance of factory pasta. It is a hybrid, and not a successful one.

If you love fettuccine, tagliatelle, or pappardelle but don’t want to, or can’t, make them yourself, there are dried, boxed, commercial versions that rival, and perhaps surpass, the egg pasta that many cooks are capable of making at home. A small hilly town of two thousand souls in the Marche, a pastoral region facing the Adriatic Sea in central Italy, has become the source of commercially produced egg pasta of very high quality. The town is Campofilone, and the most notable producer of its pasta is Ivana Maroni.


Il Riso da Risotto

Every language has a word for rice. In Italian it’s riso. But there is no other word, in any language, for risotto, the rich, creamy transformation of rice into a dish almost limitless in its variety that northern Italian cooks began to produce about two hundred years ago.

The unique consistency of risotto has its source in slow, continual stirring of rice over moderate heat to release some of its starch. Only a handful of Italian rice varieties suit the risotto method, and one can limit one’s acquaintance to the three most important ones: Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. These are their varietal names, for each of which there are several producers.

Arborio rice has long established its popularity with cooks both in Italy and abroad. Its plump, large grains are packed with starch, of which a substantial amount will dissolve to produce risotto with luscious texture. It demands watchfulness in the dosage of liquid and careful timing. Overcooked Arborio makes gummy risotto.

Carnaroli, which was created in 1945 from a cross between Vialone and a Japanese strain, is the finest variety for risotto. Its handsome, large kernel is sheathed in soft starch that dissolves deliciously as you stir, while the core of tough starch expands visibly as it absorbs broth, cooking to a firm, satisfying, elegant consistency. When I first wrote about it in 1986, Carnaroli was a rare item that few of my readers could then find, but it has since won over so many cooks that its production has drawn close to Arborio’s.

There are many excellent producers of Carnaroli, such as Campanini and Beretta, but the outstanding one is Acquerello. Upon harvesting the rice, Acquerello stores the unhusked kernels in a granary at low temperature for a minimum of one year and a maximum of seven before processing it. Aging stabilizes the components of the rice, which hold up better when cooked and more fully absorb the ­risotto’s flavors.

Vialone Nano is the signature variety of risotto in Venice and other cities of the Veneto region. Its kernel is round and stubby and well-endowed with starch. It cooks to an admirable firm consistency and is well-suited to seafood risottos in the Veneto style known as all’onda (wavy). There is a version of Vialone Nano, produced with vintage equipment, that bestows a different and enjoyable texture on risotto. In this antique procedure, an oval basin of red Verona marble contains the rice, and old gears made of wood lift and lower wooden poles two yards long to pound the grains, softly husking them. The poles are called pestelli, and the rice is known as riso ai pestelli. A grainy substance from the ­gentle husking clings to the rice and eventually slips into the risotto, adding to its texture. One of the producers that still makes Vialone Nano with pestelli is Gazzani, who ships its rice to the online specialist in Italian foods, Gustiamo.


Marcella’s spatula for stirring risotto

The foundation of nearly every risotto is chopped onion sautéed in butter. At first, the rice is stirred into, and coated by, the hot butter and onion, then it is moistened by a cupful of wine, usually white. After the wine has been absorbed, periodic doses of broth are administered, three or four ladlefuls at a time. The rice is stirred continually while it absorbs the liquid that is added at intervals. Risotto should be cooked in a pan whose heavy bottom is broad enough to spread the rice evenly while stirring it. I use a long-handled wooden spatula whose mixing end is straight with rounded corners. The straight end wipes the bottom of the pan clean as it sweeps it when stirring, and the corners dislodge the rice that likes to gather between the bottom and the sides of the pot. I stir with a circular motion from the center toward the sides.

Risotto is not complete without the final mantecatura in which, off heat, butter is first whisked into the risotto, and then grated Parmesan cheese. Some cooks omit this step when making a seafood risotto; others make no exception.

Unlike pasta, risotto does not require a warm serving platter, nor should it be eaten flaming hot. It is best served onto an individual flat plate, rather than a bowl. It is a gracious gesture, when serving, for the host or hostess to shake the plate with a circular motion to spread out the risotto so that the guest can eat starting at the edges, where the risotto will be cooler, then proceeding toward the center, where its heat takes longer to abate.


L’Olio Extra Vergine d’Oliva


If I were spending time in a habitable but remote outpost, to which I’d have to bring a supply of food that did not exceed five items, these would be dried pasta, canned tuna, canned tomatoes, salted anchovies, and extra virgin olive oil. The single most significant contribution to my survival might well come from the olive oil.

If olive oil were a drug, it would have a place of honor among miracle drugs. No other food in the pantry of our Western kitchen plays a more active part in our well-being at the same time that it brings deep pleasure to our table.

Olive oil is not the only fat I cook with. I come from cow and pig country in the north of Italy, and when I think it’s appropriate to the taste and texture of what I am cooking, I cook with butter, and I cook with lard. Read more about both ingredients on pages 179 and 182. Nonetheless, it was my good fortune to have been born and raised in the culinary culture of the Mediterranean, whose flavors like to travel in one commodious vehicle: olive oil.

When I say olive oil, I mean extra virgin olive oil—and only extra virgin olive oil. No other grade has its transformative power, its combination of therapeutic antioxidants and flavonoids that is kind to your life, as well as loving to your palate. Italy, along with nearly every other country that produces olive oil, defines extra virgin olive oil as a virgin oil, extracted from olives solely by mechanical means that do not in any way alter the oil, which, when tested, may not contain more than 0.8 percent free oleic acidity. Notwithstanding this apparently unambiguous definition, large industrial processors and packers have somehow, through blending and other manipulations, succeeded in flooding the market with olive oil whose shortcomings should have disqualified it as extra virgin.

A home cook has several strategies available in the pursuit of true extra virgin olive oil. The first step is to respect it, when genuine, as the one product in your pantry on which you can depend for cooking that is both healthful and flavorful. The second step is to buy no olive oil from a supermarket chain. If an olive oil’s brand has become familiar to you through advertising, stay away from it. The simplest labels, avoiding picturesque details in favor of straightforward information, are the most credible ones. A fresh olive oil, carefully extracted from locally harvested olives in prime condition, bearing the name of its producer, along with the date of the harvest, and possibly the name of the olive variety and its place of origin, cannot be cheap. A bargain price is no bargain. The best place to buy olive oil is a food specialty store where you can talk to someone who has chosen and can describe the oils for sale. There are also reliable online sources, which I have listed at the back of this book.

Develop an appreciation for the taste of olive oil. Olives are fruits whose oils differ in flavor, varying in intensity from delicate to medium to strong. Some will appeal to you more than others. It could be worth your while to discover which, by organizing a simple tasting for yourself and one or two friends.

You may come across detailed descriptions of the professional method of tasting olive oil, but unless you plan to go into the business, I would ignore them. What matters to a cook is not how olive oil performs out of a blue tasting glass, but how it tastes with food. In one of my cookbooks, I proposed a tasting of no more than four or five different oils, each drizzled on separate slices of plain, peeled, slightly warm, boiled potatoes. I was comforted to find that Italy’s Gambero Rosso guide to olive oils now recommends the same approach. Collect a few bottles of oils of respectable quality and also a supermarket’s least expensive extra virgin, which will serve as a foil. Conceal the identity of all the bottles, enclosing them in numbered paper bags. Have separate plates for the sliced potatoes keyed to the numbers on the bags. Refresh your palate between each taste with sips of water.

The basic attributes by which olive oil is described are ­fruitiness, pungency, and bitterness. The intensity of each varies according to the variety of olive it was made from and the place where the olives were harvested. An oil extracted from Taggiasca olives on the Riviera will show delicate fruitiness and reduced pungency and bitterness, which has often made it a good choice for fish. An Umbrian oil from the Moraiolo olive is rich in antioxidants and consequently expressive of pungency and bitterness. It is splendid brushed on grilled meats. In Tuscany, the Frantoio olive may lead to intensely flavored oils with bold pungency that are excel­lent with braised vegetables and soups. I am fond of the south’s extra virgin oils, often very fruity, such as the oils from ­Campania based on the Ortice varietal, or from the ­Ogliarola olive in Apulia, which is pleasingly ­aromatic, ­gently balanced between pungency and bitterness. ­Sicilian extra virgins range from the intense, sometimes ­over­powering fruitiness of the oils from the western side of the island derived from the Nocellara del Belice varietal to the Tonda Iblea olive ­harvested in the hills above ­Syracuse. Yet Sicily also produces delicately pleasing oil from the ­Biancolilla olive in the Agrigento zone.

Oils that have been subjected to corrective measures in industrial processing or that have been poorly stored or extracted from partly fermented olives may have various tastes inconsistent with fresh extra virgin oil; they may taste rancid or fusty. The latter is a sensation that to me recalls that of boiled-over milk. The supermarket oil you dropped into the tasting will be helpful in displaying defects.

Do not place too much importance on color, which may range from a golden yellow-green to a deep forest green. Do pay attention to harvest dates. Oil does not age well. You should allow it not much more than two years. Ideally, especially if you are using the oil as a raw condiment, the first four months of an olive oil’s life are its most desirable. Extra virgin olive oil suffers from exposure to light. Do not buy it if it comes in a clear bottle. It also suffers from long confinement in a tin can.

Use extra virgin olive oil as liberally as you can afford in your cooking. Do not be distracted by the voices that talk about smoke points. For the record, the smoke point of good-quality extra virgin olive oil is suitable for all but the highest frying temperatures. In any event, I do not deep-fry with olive oil. When I want the food I am frying to make a fresh, light impression on the palate, I do not need the distracting flavor of olive oil. Non-hydrogenated lard would be a better choice. Do not listen to the food scientists who tell you it is pointless to cook with extra virgin olive oil because it loses its precious aromatic qualities. It doesn’t lose its aromas; it transfers them to the ingredients that are cooking with it. I adore the richness of extra virgin olive oil when braising vegetables, which, aside from its use on salads, may be its highest calling. In many pasta sauces, particularly those with seafood, such as clams or mussels, using extra virgin olive oil is not subject to question; it is mandatory.

If you make constant use of it, as I do, you may keep a small quantity of extra virgin olive oil within quick reach. Lacking a cold pantry—there are no cold pantries in a Florida condominium—I keep my finest oil, which I use raw as a condiment, in a dark cupboard at a distance from the stove and oven.



The natural flavor of ingredients—my thoughts go to the ones I have known best in my life: to the vegetables grown in the salt-laden air of the Venetian lagoon’s farm islands; to that same lagoon’s small shellfish, the razor clams, the tiny soft-shelled crabs, the brown shrimp; to the olive oil from Lake Garda; to the peaches of my native Romagna; to the sweet San Daniele prosciutto from Friuli; to the tender lambs of the Roman Campagna; to the majestic red wines of the Langhe in Piedmont—each brings us the flavor of a single inimitable place. The paramount example of such flavor is that of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

It’s about the milk, a milk rich like no other, milk produced by the cows of a small, precisely mapped and legally protected area in northern Italy, enclosed almost entirely by the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia, where the country’s plushest pasture lies. It’s the milk, and the manual method by which it becomes cheese, a method that in nearly eight hundred years has changed only in the hands working it. It’s the milk, the method, and the aging, a slow two years’ maturation at natural, seasonal temperatures.

It’s the taste. Pry off and slowly munch a nugget of Parmigiano. In the warmth of your mouth its grainy texture slowly dissolves. It doesn’t feel like a hard cheese; it is an increasingly creamy complex of satisfying sensations, its fragrant layers of flavor steadily mounting and then tapering to a long, bracing, faintly bitter back taste like that of apricot or peach stones. If up to now you have used Parmigiano­Reggiano only for grating, you will regret having denied yourself the pleasure of one of the greatest of table cheeses.

The thousands of dairies supplying milk to the hundreds of cheese makers that produce Parmigiano-Reggiano labor under the rigorous supervision of the biologists and agronomists of the Consortium, an efficient and authoritarian entity that has emphasized consistency, sometimes at the expense of individual artisanal variations. There are variations nonetheless, largely derived from the season in which the cheese is produced.

The date of production is burned into the rind of the cheese, and you can easily learn it if your cheese monger displays a whole wheel of cheese. The two most significant differences in the seasonal characteristics of Parmigiano-­Reggiano are between the summer cheese and the winter cheese. The summer is dryer, grainier, and more pungent. Its consistency and accented flavor are ideal for grating. The winter cheese is milder, richer in butterfat, delicious at table. Some people prefer what they discern as the more balanced flavors of autumn’s Parmigiano, others the herbaceous fragrances of the spring cheese. In reality, Parmigiano ­produced at any time of the year is a superior hard cheese both for table use and for grating.

One enduring, and possibly expanding, variation in Parmigiano character is the cheese derived from the Razza Reggiana breed, otherwise known as the Red Cow. Originally all Parmigiano-Reggiano was made from Red Cow milk, but the dominant breed today is the spotted Friesian breed, a more abundant milk producer. A small resurgence of Red Cow breeding is going on, and its Parmigiano is available at online and retail cheese mongers both. The color of the cheese is yellower, and its flavor is nuttier, grassier, richer, and more emphatic. It is believed to be suitable for aging well beyond the customary twenty-four months. Should you find a source of Parmigiano-Reggiano made from the milk of Red Cows that were grown on mountain pasturage rather than in the plains, you may be onto the ultimate version of a cheese that is the ultimate to begin with.

If you have access to a good cheese monger, buy a wedge of Parmigiano pried fresh from the wheel rather than the plastic-wrapped chunks from the supermarket. The rind you get with it is a bonus, because you can enrich a soup or a braise with a piece or two of it. Examine the opened wheel on display. The cheese should look dewy. If the part against the rind looks chalky, the cheese has been stored badly and is drying out.

When you have found a reliable source of Parmigiano­Reggiano, consider buying a substantial piece of it. If scrupulously stored and refrigerated, it keeps quite well. I can store it for many months before using it up. If the piece you’ve bought is very large, split it in two or more parts. Wrap it tightly in a layer of good cheesecloth. I buy mine from the King Arthur Baker’s Catalogue. Over the cheesecloth, wrap a sheet of special cheese paper, available from Formaticum, or aluminum foil, fastening it tightly with paper tape. Refrigerate it, enclosing it, if you wish, in a large resealable plastic bag. Rewrap the cheese with a fresh piece of cheesecloth every ten days. If white spots show on the surface, they signal the presence of the amino acids that contribute to the desirable graininess of the cheese. If a few green moldy spots appear, simply scrape them off. If the cheese is beginning to look chalky, it is drying. Replace the cheesecloth with a freshly moistened piece, wrap the cheese in it, wrap aluminum foil over it, and refrigerate overnight to replenish the cheese’s moisture. The following day, rewrap it, replacing the moist cheesecloth with a dry piece.

Do not buy grated cheese, nor have a store grate cheese for you, nor grate it at home too long in advance of using it. Once grated, it begins to lose moisture. A way of knowing how an Italian restaurant uses Parmigiano is to ask if you could have a chunk of the cheese to eat at table. It is possible that they do not have any.

Let me introduce you to the crostino of Parmigiano and olive oil that my husband’s grandmother used to prepare for him when he was a schoolboy in Bologna. Grill slices of good, plain, crusty bread to a pale brown and lay them on a tray. Blanket the bread with abundant freshly grated Parmigiano, allowing an excess of cheese to drop onto the tray. Pour enough olive oil over it to soak the cheese thoroughly, not caring if some of the oil spills onto the tray. After eating the crostino, use a slice or two of bread to wipe up the oil and cheese from the tray. Your fingers will get sticky. Victor used to lick his.

Grana Padano

Grana is the generic colloquial Italian name for all hard grating cheese with a granular texture. Parmigiano is a type of grana. Padano is another. Like Parmigiano, Grana Padano is made from cow’s milk, but unlike the milk for Parmigiano, Grana Padano’s is produced over a vast zone, spilling over twenty-seven provinces in five northern regions. Its variable territorial origin makes it considerably more inconsistent than Parmigiano, a variability accentuated by the two size formats that are permitted. Parmigiano is allowed only one size wheel. Grana Padano is aged twelve months, half that of Parmigiano. There can be no questioning the superior richness and complexity of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but a good, fresh, and moist piece of Padano can, on occasion, serve as an acceptable and less expensive alternative.


Pecorino romano is not about nuances. It’s about blunt power; it’s the bite of sheep’s milk cheese sharpened by salt. During its first weeks of maturation, it is rubbed with salt, at first every day, then at gradually broader intervals. It is ready for grating after a minimum of eight months, but the best cheese makers age it longer.

The impact of pecorino romano can excite the palate, and a well-made example is exactly the cheese you want to cap the robust flavors of such Roman classics as a carbonara or an amatriciana. The pasta dish that best showcases its appeal is cacio e pepe, sauced with only a mound of grated pecorino romano that you loosen with a little pasta water as you toss it, and which you blanket with an exceptionally liberal fresh grinding of black pepper.

The most devoted consumers of pecorino romano are Italian Americans, who account for more than 70 percent of Italy’s production. I have an elderly Neapolitan neighbor here in Florida who, in his long life, has never dusted his pasta with gratings from another cheese but romano. When I came to the States in 1955, and I began to shop Little Italy’s grocers for ingredients, it was rare to find any other kind of hard cheese.

The word pecorino derives from the Italian for sheep, pe­cora. The domestication of sheep long antedates the Christian era, and so does the production of cheeses from ewe’s milk. Indeed, pecorino romano is Italy’s oldest cheese, evoking for us the pastoral image of flocks grazing ancient Rome’s country­side. Roman legionnaires, when deployed to expand and police the empire, counted on having a piece of the cheese in their daily rations. Sheep continue to crop the grass of the region’s hills, and a few Roman producers such as Fulvi or Brunelli are the best sources of carefully aged pecorino romano. Today, however, the pecorino you buy is often Roman only in name. Most of it comes from the island of Sardinia, whose production is better able to deliver the quantities that are sent to America.

Pecorino romano is molded into tall, narrow, cylindrical forms, usually coated black for export, and varying in height from ten to eighteen inches. A wedge coming from the center, with no part of the rind from the bottom or top of the wheel, is the moistest and most desirable piece. The color of the cheese is either a stark white or an exceedingly pale, faded straw hue. Romano’s consistency is hard and compact. Do not buy it grated or grate it long in advance, because it will dry quickly. Bring a good piece home, wrap it tightly with a double layer of plastic wrap, then again with foil, and stow it in the refrigerator. It will keep for weeks. Rewrap it well after each time you use it.

Pecorino romano is a legally controlled name that applies solely to a cheese from central Italy, or the island of Sardinia, made with ewe’s milk from particular breeds of sheep grazing on designated pasturage. Do not be misled by the name romano on American and Canadian cheeses, which are produced under loose regulations that do not even require them to be made from sheep’s milk.


Il Tonno Sott’Olio

In almost every one of its edible manifestations, whether eaten fresh or out of a can packed in water, tuna bores me. The one exception, when it achieves a miraculous transformation, one might even call it a transubstantiation, is tuna packed in olive oil in the Italian or Spanish manner. No food gives me greater pleasure. Whenever I open a tin of really good tuna in olive oil, it doesn’t matter what I intend to do with its contents, I help myself to a preliminary nibble or two. Once I have removed the tuna from the can, I use a little fork to bring to my lips any fragment remaining in the tin.

What I often make with it is this classic Italian tuna salad: Slice a mild onion very thin. (In Italy we’d want to use the red torpedo-shaped Tropea onion; here one can choose any of the sweet onion varieties available, or else sweeten the onion by soaking it in water as described on page 76.) Spread freshly cooked, slightly warm cannellini or borlotti beans over the onion. Top with shards of high-­quality canned tuna packed in olive oil. Toss with salt, red wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. Accompany with good crusty bread.

I sometimes make a tuna spread that I serve to guests on tiny crostini before dinner or put on grilled slices of bread to take with me on a plane, along with other good things, as my alternative to airline food. Put canned tuna packed in olive oil in a food processor with butter (yes, butter), a mashed anchovy fillet, diced cornichons, and capers, and process to a smooth but still slightly chunky consistency. It is even better if, instead of using the food processor, you mash all the ingredients in a bowl with a fork.

Canned tuna packed in olive oil is what you want in a Niçoise salad, demonstrating that fresh is not always best.

There are many enjoyable ways to use canned tuna packed in olive oil in a pasta sauce. One that I particularly like combines tuna crumbled out of the can with roasted bell peppers, garlic, and capers.

The most ravishing thing you can do with good canned tuna is the sauce with mayonnaise, anchovies, and capers, in which you steep slices of cold, poached veal or pork, the elegant Italian contribution to a summer table, vitello ­tonnato.



The sweet, fatty, pale flesh of the tuna’s belly is called ­ventresca—from the Italian ventre, for “belly”—a separate, expensive category of canned tuna. It corresponds to the raw Japanese toro, highly sought after for sushi or sashimi. It can go, like regular tuna in olive oil, into salads and sauces, but it is almost too sweet, even bland, not to mention too costly, for such compound uses. It is best enjoyed on its own, out of hand, on the points of a fork, with a slice of buttered bread.


Le Spezie e Gli Odori

Italian cooks make stingy use of spices and herbs, because the guiding principle of the country’s regional cuisines is that the flavors of a dish should be the undisguised ones of its basic ingredients. The role of a spice or herb or other flavoring agent is that of an accent that prompts recognition of a familiar taste sensation, as rosemary does of roast chicken or sage of game, or at most it is that of a fanfare calling the palate to attention, which is what a little bit of chili pepper does in sautéed rapini.


Le Acciughe o Alici

An ingredient that I, along with every good cook I have known, am most grateful for, is the anchovy. It has a self-­effacing flavor that accommodates itself to any role you assign it. Mash it to a pulp and add it to a roasting veal shank, where it will divest itself of its explicit identity while adding depth to the flavor of the meat. Stir it into chopped garlic sautéing in olive oil, and you have the foundation of scores of lively sauces for pasta or vegetable dishes. It is indispensable in bagna cauda, the Piedmontese dip for raw vegetables, and in salsa verde, the piquant green sauce for poached fish or boiled brisket of beef. A fine, large, meaty, lustrous anchovy—not the cheap, salty, wizened ones packed in tiny cans—is fabulous on its own as a crostino, served on buttered bread, or with peeled, roasted peppers.

The best anchovies are the large ones that are packed in salt whole and sold by the piece. The grocer pries them loose, one by one, out of a big can. To prepare the fillets at home, I’d first rinse away the salt, then scrape off the skin, remove the dorsal fin, open them up, pull away the center bone, and separate each fish into two beautiful fillets that I’d lay flat on a shallow dish and cover with olive oil.

Unhappily, in recent years, I have been unable to find whole, large anchovies packed in salt and sold loose. There are anchovies packed in salt available in smaller cans for home cooks. I have tried them and found them mushy. I prefer high-quality fillets packed in olive oil by such companies as Ortiz, Scalia, or Recca.

Colatura Di Alici


The name—Italian for “anchovy drippings”—exactly de­­scribes the product, but colatura tastes much better than it sounds. Think of it as essence of anchovy. Fresh anchovies are salted, packed down flat in a wooden barrel, and heavily weighted. A light, golden liquid that the anchovies discharge flows out of an opening at the bottom of the barrel, where it is collected. Colatura descends from an ancient condiment that Romans called garum. Vietnamese fermented and odorous nuoc mam is a contemporary relation, but colatura is sleeker, fresher smelling.

The best use for colatura is with a pasta sauce based on garlic and olive oil, which may also include tomatoes and seafood. I don’t cook the colatura; I swirl a heaping spoonful of it, or even a spoonful and a half if I am cooking for four or more, into the sauce with which I am tossing the pasta. It’s heady. Use spaghetti or linguine only, no fettuccine or other egg pasta.

Colatura di alici is a specialty of a town called Cetara, in Campania, and its preeminent bottler is Nettuno.


I Capperi


Capers, the hand-harvested flower buds of the Mediterranean caper bush, need something soft in which to sink their bite. It could be the softness of the tuna and mayonnaise sauce for vitello tonnato. The sponginess of a Neapolitan pizza. The mildness of sautéed swordfish, or pork. How bland would a puttanesca taste without capers! I must always have them on fine smoked salmon.

Capers have a lovely aroma that is smothered by the vinegar in which they are customarily pickled. The best capers, such as those growing on the volcanic islands of Salina and Pantelleria, off Sicily, are packed in salt. Rinse the salt away before using them, and then enjoy their clear, spirited flavor without the distractions of a pickling vinegar. If you rinse more capers than you can use, store the excess in a little jar, cover them with olive oil, and refrigerate.

There are small capers called nonpareils, “without equals,” and large capers, which usually come from one of the Italian islands. I prefer the full, robust flavor of the large Italian capers.


Il Peperoncino


The chili pepper used in some of the dishes of central and southern Italy, of which the best-known, no doubt, is spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino, is a slim, horn-shaped, approximately two-inch-long, spicy red pepper popularly known as diavolicchio, or “little devil.” It measures just 30,000 Scoville units, so it is not too devilish. Pleasant aromas temper its moderate fire.

Peperoncino is sold fresh or dried, loose or in bunches, whole or ground or powdered. I prefer it dried and whole, which allows me to mince as much as I want of the spicy part, the pod.

The most flavorful peperoncino comes from Calabria. You can buy it online from Alma Gourmet and other sites that specialize in Italian products.

Out of a desire for variety, I sometimes use jalapeños. I like the exotic accent of their aroma, which harmonizes successfully with some of my sauces and meat braises. With sautéed vegetables in the Apulian style however, I stick to Calabrian diavolicchio. As a backup, for those occasions that I run out of peperoncino, I keep a supply of dried aji panca, a Peruvian chili.

Spaghetti aio e oio, with garlic, olive oil, and chili pepper, is a dish demonstrating that, in Italian cooking, ­simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Outside of Rome, I have rarely, if ever, had a perfectly seasoned aio e oio. One of the defects is that often the garlic is burnt. I mince it very fine, put it in the pan at the same time as the oil, and sauté it at medium heat together with the chili pepper until it slowly becomes colored a deep, tawny gold. Another problem is that the finished dish is often shy of salt. You cannot add it to the sauce because salt won’t dissolve in olive oil. Before draining the pasta, I save some of its water, and as I toss the spaghetti in the pan, I add a tablespoon or so of salty pasta water. I sometimes skip cooking the sauce. I steep raw minced garlic and ground chili pepper with an intense extra virgin olive oil in a warm covered bowl for thirty minutes to an hour. Toss with drained, hot, fully cooked spaghetti, some pasta water, and it’s done.


Il Pepe

In Italian cooking, the color of pepper is black. A black peppercorn is a small, dried fruit whose wrinkled skin surrounds a white core. There are aromatic substances held by the peppercorn’s black outer layer that release floral and citrusy scents, distantly evocative of thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and cedar. It is the promise of these aromas, traveling on gentle waves of heat, that has rewarded black pepper with universal employment. Pepper is present on an extraordinary variety of Italian foods, brightening the taste of soups, broths, salumi, and grilled and braised meats of all kinds. A few fine, freshly ground grains of pepper bring uplift to buffalo mozzarella, burrata, or a slice of Tuscan pecorino. Without black pepper, a host of Roman pasta dishes, cacio e pepe, alla gricia, and amatriciana among them, would not exist. At the same time, in the north, it freshens the meat fillings of homemade pasta dumplings.

South America and Asia are the main sources of black pepper. The best, surpassing all others, comes from Tellicherry, in India. It is a large and comparatively heavy, dark berry, moderate in heat, but fresher in taste and with a more complex aroma than any other pepper.

You should buy only whole peppercorns. Throw out any powdered pepper you may have been keeping on your shelf or in a shaker. Store your peppercorns in a tightly closed jar. Grind the pepper no more in advance than the time you need it; soon after grinding the most desirable of its aromas begin to fade. White peppercorns are black peppercorns stripped of their skins, and consequently stripped of much of their aromatic quality.


La Noce Moscata, Il Macis, Il Pimento

Nutmeg’s finest moment is, I believe, in the final aromatic touch it brings to ragù, Bolognese meat sauce. Without it, the meat sauce is unfinished, but too much of it, and the ragù is spoiled. Judicious use of nutmeg is a wonderful thing—it bestows an exotic warmth and sweetness to meats and sauces, but an excess leaves an ineradicable mark of ­bitterness.

In addition to its place in a ragù, Italian cooks grate a little nutmeg into the fillings of pasta dumplings, into mashed potatoes, and into the béchamel sauce of vegetable gratins. Some use it in braises and stews because nutmeg can certainly flatter a meat dish, but I do it with great circumspection to avoid that taint of bitterness.

It is useless to buy grated nutmeg. You must grate it fresh. A cylindrical Microplane grater does the job perfectly for me. Store whole nutmeg in a tightly closed jar, and discard the nut when it has been ground down to a nub.

Mace is the nutmeg’s orange cloak. It is considerably milder than the nut itself. It can be ground in a food processor or with a pestle in a mortar and used as one would nutmeg with shyer results. Some exploit its orange hue by adding it to pasta dough to give it a warmer color.

Nutmeg is the seed of its tree, native to Indonesia. Allspice is a berry from a plant that grows in Central America. Although botanically and geographically distant, they share, to a surprising degree, a similar aroma. Allspice is sweeter than nutmeg, and I am not apprehensive when I grate it over pasta with a cream sauce, because I know it is safe and good to do so.

Buy only whole allspice, not powdered. Store it in a tightly closed glass container. To grind it, use a pepper grinder.


Il Prezzemolo

There are two dozen or more varieties of parsley, but the only one we use in Italian cooking is the flat-leaf version, because it has the most flavor. It is used to contribute to the flavor foundation of innumerable dishes: in braises, soups, some tomato sauces, seafood (linguine con le vongole), meats (think of thin chicken breasts Siena style with just parsley and lemon juice or veal scaloppine al limone), and in the combination of olive oil, garlic, and parsley that constitutes the classic medium for sautéing mushrooms. Parsley is so diffuse in Italy that we say of someone whom we are continually running into, “Sei come il prezzemolo.” (You’re like parsley.) It’s an observation that would have more currency in Old World cities and towns, where people move on foot and acquaintances do indeed bump into one another.

Both the leaves and the stems of flat-leaf parsley have flavor, but the one of the leaves is much more pronounced than that of the stems. The leaves can be minced very fine or chopped coarsely. It is done better with a sharp chef’s knife, but if you have a large quantity to prepare, a food processor does an acceptable job. Parsley leaves must be dry before mincing or processing. If they are moist, press them firmly between sheets of paper towels. The stems are used whole in meat braises such as osso buco or when making broth. If they are in a meat dish, remove them before serving.

Buy parsley whose leaves are vivid green with no sign of yellowing or wilting. At home, wrap the stem half of a bunch of parsley in a wet paper towel, put the bunch in a plastic bag, and store in the vegetable drawer, where it will keep easily for a week.

If you are about to mince parsley that has begun to wilt in the refrigerator, detach the leaves from the stems, put them in a bowl of ice water for ten to fifteen minutes, and they will revive. Spin off all the water clinging to them and squeeze them dry between paper towels before mincing. If you should have a quantity of minced leaves left over, refrigerate them in an airtight plastic bag. They will keep for three or four days. Do not ever use dried parsley, which is tasteless.


Il Rosmarino


You are an Italian child coming home from school. You are greeted by the distinct scent of rosemary coming from the kitchen, and you may confidently assume that what you will be having for dinner is a roast—any kind of roasted meat, veal, pork, chicken, lamb, rabbit. The saliva-­quickening pungency that rosemary broadcasts while it cooks is the default accompaniment of nearly every meat roast cooked in the Italian manner, on top of the stove.

Rosemary is the most desirable partner for chickpeas both in soups and in a sauté; for potatoes, particularly when roasted in lard; for pasta e fagioli. It is insuperable in a focaccia­-style flat bread, and sometimes I chop the leaves very fine, to a powder—it must be done with a knife—and sprinkle them on a loaf of bread I am reheating in the oven.

In Italy, rosemary grows so abundantly wild that it is only city dwellers who need to buy it. I must buy it, too, in Florida. Strangely, it is the only herb that doesn’t flourish here, on my Gulf-side terrace. I buy potted plants of rosemary and must replace them periodically. If you are buying cut sprigs—never buy powdered, dried rosemary—choose ones that are soft, not woody. The color of the green leaves should be bright, and they must be firmly attached to the branch, not coming loose easily. Smell it; the fragrance should be strong and clear.


La Salvia


The fragrance of the soft, furry, gray-green leaves of fresh sage, an extremely easy plant to grow in a window box, is teasingly penetrating. It is the traditional herb to use with game, and its presence is prominent in any home where there is a hunter. I no longer get to cook game, but I use scaloppine and sage to make the classic Venetian dish osei scampai—“flown birds” made of veal. Meat stews braised with sage and mushrooms, wild mushrooms preferably, are pleasingly redolent of the rich fragrances of game cookery.

I consider sage indispensable for cooking dried beans, especially cannellini and cranberry beans. I cook the soaked, drained beans in olive oil and water, peeled crushed garlic, and as many fresh sage leaves as I can bring myself to pluck from my plant.

Another good thing to do with very fresh sage is to fry it, dipping each leaf separately in pastella, a light flour and water batter. The combination with fried squash blossoms can be sublime.

When fresh sage leaves are not available, dried leaves are convenient to have, but not for frying. Follow the same advice I’ve been giving with other herbs; do not buy them in powdered form.


Il Timo

Thyme is the elegant herb. There is a fine edge to its fragrance, which is suave, cool, and penetrating. I seek occasions to use thyme, and the best one is usually with seafood. My favorite example is the large, deep-sea scallops prepared as we do in Venice. First salt the scallops, then add a few drops of lemon juice followed by a generous cover of thyme leaves patiently stripped from the stems, top with bread crumbs, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake in a very hot oven for five to six minutes. You’ll need bread because there will be marvelous juices to sop up.

Thyme is an ideal match for sautéed zucchini, and I also use it in a sauce of young fava beans and guanciale or pancetta that I make for pasta. Thyme elevates the tone of a vegetable frittata, particularly if it is fresh. Use it also in minestrone and with meat stews. It’s lovely with lamb.

I have found thyme an easy plant to cultivate both here in Florida, and in Venice where I once lived. A pot of it can thrive on a balcony or in a window box. Thyme is most appealing when clipped fresh from the plant, but if it has been properly dried, it maintains most of its fragrance. I try to always have on hand dried whole thyme stems imported from Sicily in a cellophane bag. It is available online and in some of the stores that specialize in Italian foods. The package makes it very easy to separate the leaves from the stems, which can otherwise be a chore. I shake and squeeze the closed bag and retrieve from it the leaves that drop off the sprigs.

Do not use powdered thyme. Farmers’ markets usually have a stand that sells herbs, and there you may find sprigs of fresh or dried thyme. Supermarkets sell fresh sprigs packaged in plastic. Sometimes they are fine, but their shelf life is short. Make sure their color has not dulled, and open the package and sniff to make sure the fragrance is still lively. If you buy sprigs of fresh thyme, keep them no longer than a week, refrigerated in a tightly closed plastic bag.


L’Origano e La Maggiorana

Oregano speaks dialect; it is eloquent in a vigorous expression of the exuberant flavors of southern Italian food. It receives its friendliest welcome in tomatoes: raw tomatoes in a salad, tomatoes saucing pasta or braising a chicken fricassee or a lamb stew, in clams or mussels with tomatoes. Oregano’s most popular performance may be in partnering tomatoes and mozzarella in pizza Margherita. Oregano and lemon are also a brilliant duet as in salmoriglio, the matchless sauce for swordfish. Sprinkle it on grilled eggplants, peppers, and zucchini. If you pickle vegetables, its aroma is well-suited to eggplants, artichokes, mushrooms, and peppers.

Fresh oregano is very much milder than the dried, which is what you will choose if you seek its full-throated fragrance. Dried oregano keeps a long while in a tightly closed glass container. I buy the whole twigs, which are imported from Italy or Greece, packaged in cellophane. I shake off or rub loose the leaves.

Marjoram comes from a different branch of the oregano family. Its fragrance is gentler than oregano’s; it makes one think of a mild version of thyme. Drying silences marjoram’s delicate fragrance; fresh is the only useful way to have it.

Marjoram is closely linked to the cooking of the Riviera, in northwestern Italy. It goes into the ground meat mixture of that cuisine’s celebrated filled vegetables, i ripieni. It is used freely in soups, on pan-roasted fish, on shellfish and crustaceans with fresh tomatoes, over vegetable frittatas. Marjoram’s fragrance is charming but fragile; it does not survive long cooking.

It grows well in a window box or small balcony, and it ought to be clipped from the plant just before cooking.



Should I encourage you to use bay leaves? Certainly. Their tealike aroma makes a valuable contribution to long-cooked dishes such as soups, meat broths, stews, boiled potatoes, braised artichokes, steamed fish, or if packed with pickled vegetables. Should you prefer dried to fresh? Once again, certainly. Unlike most herbs whose fragrance dissipates when they are dried, that of the bay leaf, like that of oregano, emerges when drying concentrates and refines it. In this country, moreover, it is prudent to buy imported dried leaves coming from the desirable Mediterranean laurel plant rather than the leaves of the California bay laurel, often sold fresh, which have a strong medicinal accent of eucalyptol.

The sharpness of a dry bay leaf can cause internal damage if it is swallowed, hence it should be carefully picked out and removed after cooking. If you break up the leaves to enhance the release of their fragrance, wrap them in muslim so that they can be safely removed before serving the dish.

Store whole dry bay leaves in a tightly closed glass jar. If you haven’t used them all after a year, discard and replace them.

In Italian, the herb is called alloro (laurel) after its parent plant, Laurus nobilis. Laurel is a name with magnificent resonance. In Greek mythology, the plant was considered divine, a symbol of honor, wisdom, and glory. A circlet of it crowned the head of the winner of the Delphic Games and, as acknowledgment of the highest honors, the head of a distinguished poet. To this day, our country bestows a similar honor when it designates a poet as laureate. A university degree in Italy is called a laurea, and a graduate a laureato or, in my case, a laureata. I don’t understand why the leaf is called “bay” instead of “laurel,” why it has exchanged the glorious symbolism of its history in favor of such a modest and unsung appellation.


Il Basilico


Small-leaved sweet basil, sometimes known as Genovese, is the superstar of Italian herbs. It is irresistible on ripe tomatoes, in salads, scattered on a pizza Margherita after it comes out of the oven, and most famously in pesto. From the list, one quickly infers that it is meant to be used raw. Indeed, all the charm of basil—its cheerful hue, its effusive clove-like and minty scent, all its notable properties—vanish when heated. In a caprese it is irreplaceable; cooked it is almost useless.

Basil grows so easily in a sunny spot that you should make every effort to take your basil leaves from a living plant. Packaged fresh basil, its leaves preferably small, can take the place of the real thing, when there is no alternative. Do not keep it any longer than the day you buy it. I have known of, and tried, various methods of keeping cut basil leaves, including freezing. I am not satisfied that any of them supplies what I am eager for when I use basil.

The whole leaf looks immensely attractive with sliced tomatoes or on a caprese, but it will release more fragrance if you tear it first.

Thai and other Asian basils are not fully successful as substitutes for sweet basil in Italian salads, and certainly not in pesto.


La Boraggine

There is a small town called Sori roosting above the rocky shore of the Italian Riviera, about twelve miles south of Genoa. My husband and I once spent a summer in Sori, where I became acquainted with borage, a wild, luxuriant, green herb with spectacular, star-shaped violet-blue flowers. The leaves are covered by a pale hairy fuzz, bristly in the larger leaves, almost velvety in the younger, smaller ones, which are used in the fragrant cooking of several of the Riviera’s dishes. The most popular employment for borage is in the filling of pansoti, famous herb and cheese ravioli triangles served with a walnut sauce. To prepare the filling, you assemble an assortment of borage and other wild herbs, blanch them, chop them up, and mix them with an egg, Parmesan, some nutmeg, and a local yogurt-like fresh cheese called prescinseua. The sauce on pansoti is an emulsion of walnuts, milk, soft bread crumbs, Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil.

Borage has a cool, mildly sour, and pleasant taste that makes one think of cucumber. You can blanch and chop a mixture of fresh borage and wild herbs, such as is used in the filling of pansoti, and stir it into a minestrone. A borage frittata can be formidably delicious.

I have read recently that borage can be added raw to salads. There seem to be few things that people in the States won’t put in a salad. However, every cook I spoke to when I was in Sori emphatically warned me not to eat borage raw. It’s toxic, they said, if it is not thoroughly cooked.


Le Bacche di Ginepro

Juniper berries are not berries at all, but the tiny, tightly closed seed cones of the juniper bush. Their unique resinous scent—I believe it is the only spice of conifer origin in Western cooking—is fresh and agreeably tart, with a citrusy accent. It emerges best in slow, gentle cooking when it is in contact with lamb or game birds or hare or venison. Crush the berries lightly to give their flavors a lift, but don’t pulverize them.

There is a lamb shoulder that I roast over the stove—a farmhouse recipe from Lombardy, in northern Italy—to which juniper berries make a significant contribution. I omit, for once, the conventional preliminary browning and put everything into the pot at the same time: the cut-up shoulder, vegetables, garlic, rosemary, wine, and the wonderful piney and citrusy crushed juniper berries. The contents of the pot look discouragingly gray in its early stages, but after three hours or so of carefully monitored slow cooking, they become a glorious deep brown, the meat subtly infused with juniper aromas.


La Menta

Mint may grow faster than an epidemic, but it doesn’t reach many Italian kitchens. Roman cooks are the ones who make great use of it. Mint is essential to carciofi alla romana, artichokes braised in olive oil, cooked and served upside down with their long stems attached. A mixture of mint, parsley, garlic, and ground black pepper fills the vegetable’s cavity. Before cooking, the tough tops of the artichoke’s leaves are trimmed away and the stem peeled to render the vegetable tender and exquisitely edible in all its parts. Mint is also used with tripe, one of the most popular of the city’s traditional dishes.

I don’t know of other significant uses of mint in everyday Italian cooking, but in the Veneto, where I lived for many years, it is used with frutti di bosco (small, wild berries). When it is the season for foragers to come to the market with red and white currants, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, tiny fragoline (wood strawberries), we collect as wide an assortment as we can, wash the fruit, and put it in a bowl with sugar, a few drops of lemon juice, and torn-up mint leaves.

Whether you use mint cooked or raw, use only fresh leaves plucked as recently as possible from the plant. The mint family is packed with many different members. In Italy, one would not use anything as aggressive as peppermint, known as menta piperita. The fragrance of the mint used in Rome, popularly called mentuccia, is cool, but mild.


L’Aceto di Vino Rosso

There was a restaurant in Sarasota where they kept two special bottles for me at the bar. One was for my after-dinner bourbon tipple; the other was a very good red wine vinegar. When you are eating out, it is discouraging to ask for olive oil and vinegar with which to toss your own salad and have the waiter bring balsamic with the oil. “No, not balsamic! Please bring red wine vinegar.” “Sorry, ma’am, balsamic is all we have.” What a calamity. Why make a salad taste sweet? I have also heard from chefs who tell me they send out their salads tossed with only olive oil and salt, I assumed to accommodate those who want to drink wine with salad. Flat, nerveless salads. How boring.

Someday I hope to see good red wine vinegar restored to its long-honored place, alongside extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, as one of the three essential condiments of a salad. I would also hope we might be weaned from the vinaigrette habit that weighs upon the immediacy, the refreshing lightness of good greens. The fragrance in a few round drops of a really good red wine vinegar is sufficient to brighten the flavor of any salad, whether it is composed of mixed small field greens, or boiled, peeled potatoes, or tuna, onion, and beans, or an elaborate Niçoise. My husband and I like a small dab of vinegar on a caprese; it draws out the sappiness of the tomato, making it taste sweeter and riper.

When the wine making process moves forward without interruption, vinegar is its conclusion. Acetic acid bacteria takes up where alcoholic fermentation stopped, converting wine’s alcohol into vinegar’s acid. There are two approaches to the making of vinegar. The modern, most commonly used approach, takes only a few hours. Wine, together with a glob of acetic acid bacteria, known more affectionately as the mother, fill a stainless steel or aluminum tank. Rapidly circulated oxygen increases the mother’s alcohol-devouring bacteria, which quickly turns the alcohol into acetic acid. The wine becomes vinegar in less than a day. It is quite possible to make good vinegar by this accelerated method, depending on the quality of the wine. Some producers age the vinegar afterward for a year or more in barrels.

A slower process, developed centuries ago, is the Orléans method. An active vinegar mother is introduced into an oak barrel of wine. There is no forced circulation of oxygen to stimulate the mother’s growth, and its bacteria will convert the wine’s alcohol into acetic acid at a natural, slow pace. It may take up to three months, instead of the alternate method’s half day. When the vinegar is ready, it is drawn off and replaced by a fresh supply of wine. The Orléans method presumably delivers more of the wine’s aroma and nuance. It always depends, of course, on the choice of wine. A hard, tannic wine may not yield the freshness and fruitiness one hopes for in vinegar.

An unopened bottle of vinegar is said to last indefinitely. I can’t say and I wonder how anyone else might know. I buy a case at a time containing twelve bottles of excellent vinegar made from Valpolicella red grape varieties—a vinegar my son bottles and imports—and several months later, the last bottle from the case that I open is still in mint condition. I store an open bottle in the refrigerator. It not only preserves it, but the refrigerator’s cold temperature causes any solid matter to drop to the bottom of the bottle, leaving the vinegar clear and bright.

I prefer the roundness of red wine, its fruitiness and berry freshness, as the source of vinegar, but I have also used sherry vinegar. I don’t dislike it; the flavor is rich, but sherry lacks the vibrancy, the fragrant youthfulness of red wine, and sometimes sherry may have an undesirably sweet touch. I don’t use infused vinegars or vinegars made from anything but wine from grapes.


Il Burro e Lo Strutto

I come from Italy’s cow and pig country, Emilia-Romagna, and butter and home-rendered lard were familiar presences in my mother’s kitchen. Nor did we ever lack excellent fresh olive oil, which came from my uncles’ farms, either in the hills of Romagna or on the shore of Lake Garda. Not many days pass in my kitchen without my using olive oil. It is the very soul of my Mediterranean culinary heritage, but in the cooking traditions of my country, there are other seas besides the Mediterranean. There is Liguria’s Tyrrhenian; there is the northern Adriatic of my native Romagna.

Butter has a legitimate place in the everyday cooking of Italy’s northern regions, as well as in some of the celebratory holiday specialties of the south. I would not want to be without its luxurious smoothness, its roundness, the full taste it elicits from any preparation of which it is part. I won’t have some of my pasta sauces diminished by its absence. A swirl of unsalted butter can also be a successful corrective for a soup or a sauce that tastes a little saltier than you would have liked.

When we lived in Milan, we often spent a long weekend in Liguria, Italy’s Riviera, exchanging numb, colorless March days in town for Liguria’s sunny hillsides and flower-decked windows. We made good friends, one of whom, the Marquis Giuseppe Gavotti, eventually became secretary general of L’Accademia Italiana della Cucina, a rather tony epicurean society whose charter excluded professionals. With Gavotti we talked of little else but food, particularly of the traditional dishes that graced his table. It was Gavotti who taught me to add a little butter to pesto. “It’s the way they do it in all the old families,” he said. “Other people don’t do it because butter is too expensive.” That is the way I published the recipe in my first book, and notwithstanding the accusations of heresy, I have never been tempted to do it differently.

From pesto and other regional sauces that are never cooked, such as the Sicilian salmoriglio, I have spun off a series of raw sauces that work particularly well on fish. One of them is a summery emulsion of basil, chopped onion, salt, lemon juice, olive oil, and butter that I usually serve with baked salmon. At other, cooler times, I omit the basil and onion and make the sauce with thyme—my favorite herb for fish—a touch of mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, and again, butter.

There has been much talk recently of cultured butter in the European style. Actually, before pasteurization, it was once the prevailing style in America as well. Milk collected in the evening was left to settle during the cooler night hours, giving the cream time to rise. The microorganisms present capitalized on the lack of refrigeration to develop and produce agreeably cheesy flavors in the milk and its cream. The butter churned from that cream might have resembled the tangy and nutty butter that we now describe as cultured. When pasteurization came, Americans found, not unreasonably, that they preferred the new sweet cream butter. Europeans instead chose live cultures to put back into the cream and recapture the taste of the butter they had been used to.

The percentage of fat is also a frequent subject of interest. The minimum the FDA requires is 80 percent butterfat. It might seem obvious to assume that the richer in butterfat and denser the butter, the more useful it would be. This is not always true. I have tried butters that were very high in butterfat, such as the Straus Family line, but I did not like the effect they had on the taste of a sauce I was making. The high butterfat dominated the lighter aromas in the sauce.

One of the butters that harmonizes well with my cooking is Land O’Lakes. I also like the Vermont Creamery’s version of European cultured butter. Among the European butters, I enjoy the lushness of Ireland’s Kerrygold and the finesse of several Breton Baratte butters. I wish I could find Beppino Occelli’s extraordinary cultured mountain butter from Piedmont. It was once briefly available online; then it disappeared.

If I may voice a feeling of mild annoyance, I wish recipe writers would stop specifying unsalted butter. If it isn’t to be used in baking, whether it is salted or not is none of their business. It is up to the cook to decide. Moreover, the aromas of butter are sensitive to the conditions of its storage. Salt protects them from undesirable influences. I have on a few occasions found that the unsalted butter I had brought home had off odors. Salted butter would have been fresher.



What lard can do, it does better than any other cooking fat. Lard envelops fried foods with the crispest, most delicate coating, it makes the best biscuits and the flakiest piecrusts, and when it is done, it disappears, leaving behind no odor, no grease, no taste of itself. No other cooking medium behaves with such refinement.

The lard I am describing is not the package that you find in a store on an unrefrigerated shelf. That is hydrogenated trans fat, just as some vegetable shortenings are trans fats because they have been hydrogenated to make them solid and long-lived at room temperature. The lard I speak of is pure pork fat, melted at slow heat and allowed to harden naturally, unaltered by any other process, free of all preservatives. It can be stored at moderate room temperature for up to twenty days, or refrigerated for three or four months. It can also be frozen, but you should use it within a year.

Lard was once a boon to poor families, who had easy access to abundant raw pork fat and melted it themselves at low heat. My mother made excellent lard from rendered—melted—pork fat. Making it at home yields a bonus—the delightfully crunchy, tasty solid bits that reward you when you strain the melted fat through fine cheesecloth. They are cracklings, ciccioli in Italian. The choicest fat for making lard is that surrounding the kidneys, known as the leaf. The next choicest is back fat, and then comes the belly fat. It takes several hours to render fat on a home stove, but if you grind the fat first it will go faster.

I am loath to talk about chemical properties of food, but you may more easily be persuaded to try non-hydrogenated pure lard if I tell you that it has a high level of the “good fat,” monounsaturated fat, and a relatively low level of saturated fat, 20 percent less than butter. It has a high percentage of vitamin D, which vegetable oils lack, and it has a much higher smoke point than butter.

You can find sources of non-hydrogenated lard online. Unfortunately, what was once a resource for poor families has become very expensive, costing as much as eighteen dollars a pound for the best leaf lard. And even more unhappily, a ­little lard does not go a long way. A large dollop of it ­vanishes quickly in cooking.


Il Pangrattato

If you don’t own a food processor, making bread crumbs at home could be a plausible motive for getting one. Good bread crumbs are immensely useful, and the only way to have them is to produce your own. Boxed bread crumbs from the store, even those deceptively labeled “plain,” all contain ingredients and flavorings added to grated bread that you want to keep out of careful home cooking.

The most familiar example of how bread crumbs are used in Italian cooking may be in the breading of meat cutlets—veal, chicken, or pork—in the Milanese style. Use them also to bread meatballs, and when you brown pieces of meat or vegetables such as artichoke wedges. Crumbs absorb moisture, favoring crispness.

Bread crumbs are essential to the marinade that I use on all the fish that I either grill or bake. First I salt the fish, then sprinkle lemon juice and thoroughly coat the fillets with bread crumbs, which I finally moisten with a thin stream of olive oil. I now prefer to cook fish unsauced save for this marinade. I then make pesto-like sauces that I serve raw over the cooked fish.

In southern Italian cooking, we sometimes sprinkle bread crumbs on pasta after we have tossed it. On pasta that has a runny, olive oil sauce, they bestow a fine, light-handed texture. Bread crumbs are well-suited to seafood pasta, in which they take the place of cheese.

To achieve the light, crackling texture that Italian cooks strive for, you need fine, dry bread crumbs, not soft and fresh. Nor do I find that panko, the Japanese bread crumb, which is otherwise an excellent product, is satisfactory in Italian cooking. To make my bread crumbs, I collect leftover bread—crusty, plain white bread, such as the excellent ciabatta that we use at table—and fill a brown paper bag with it. When it is dry, I break large pieces into small ones and grind it all in the food processor, as fine as it will come. I pass the ground crumbs through a fine-mesh strainer to eliminate the thicker crumbs. I store bread crumbs in the refrigerator in a large glass jar with a tightly closed cap. They last a very long time.


Croutons—crostini in Italian—greatly magnify the pleasure of having soup. They are easy to prepare, and if you make them in quantity and freeze them, they will be ready to use whenever you want some.

I once used corn bread and enjoyed the croutons from it but I still prefer high-quality, plain, thick-sliced white bread. Trim away the crust and cut each slice into ¾-inch squares. Fry them at medium heat, using any fat you prefer, spreading the cubes of bread, a batch at a time, in a single layer in a skillet. Butter or olive oil will each endow the croutons with its own distinctive flavor. Non-hydrogenated lard, which leaves no flavor, makes the crispest, lightest croutons. Fry over medium heat, carefully watching the bread squares in the pan and turning them quickly as soon as one side becomes colored a light gold. Cook the other side to the same hue, retrieve them from the pan using a slotted spatula, and let them drain on a cooling rack or on paper towels lining a dinner plate. If you are not using them right away, let the croutons cool completely, put them in resealable plastic bags, and freeze them.


Il Sale

Sea salt, rock salt, pink salt, gray salt, kosher salt, hand-­harvested salt—the choices on offer for what is the most ­common ingredient we use in cooking are bewildering in their variety. It may be another manic food fad, but even if it is, I welcome it as long as it encourages us to turn to salt with the attention and respect it deserves. Using salt correctly and confidently is the most important skill a cook develops. Salt reaches deep into the ingredients of our dishes and draws from them aromas and flavors that would otherwise lie dormant. In Italian, food that lacks salt is described as sciocco, or “foolish.”

When the ancient oceans evaporated, they left behind immense deposits of rock salt that we mine for our table and for industrial purposes. We also search for salt in the living waters of our seas and oceans, or large salty lakes, or salt-rich ponds. The flavors of sea salt harvested by evaporation are enriched by the trace minerals of its sources.

Salts I Have Used

Table Salt. Table salt is rock salt crushed, made granular, given cubical shape, and purified. Unless it’s been iodized—I have never been able to judge iodized salt correctly—ordinary table salt or Kosher salt is what I add to pasta water. Using expensive sea salt for this purpose would be both extravagant and futile, because all its nuances would be lost.

Kosher Salt. Like table salt, it is rock salt, but it is produced by methods that transform it into flakes rather than grains. The Diamond Crystal version of kosher salt is made by a patented process called Alberger that creates hollow, inverted cup-shaped crystals. As Shirley Corriher describes in CookWise, the difference between the granular cubes of table salt and the flakes of Diamond Crystal kosher salt is that between an ice cube and a snowflake. The flake adheres better to food and dissolves in half the time. To make Morton kosher salt, steel rollers are used to press granular salt into flakes. A tablespoon of Morton kosher salt has less salt than a tablespoon of table salt, but more salt than Diamond Crystal. Diamond Crystal kosher salt is a good product for a cook who has not yet achieved full confidence in her salting skills. It leaves a margin for error and provides the opportunity to learn to salt by pinches rather than by measuring spoons.

Gray Salt, Sel Gris. This is a salt you might consider moving up to, once you have graduated from Diamond Crystal kosher salt. It is both an all-around cooking salt that bestows the flavor of its minerals on any food in the pot, and one that brings satisfying completion to the salad at the table. It is moderately coarse and it is moist, raked by hand after it has collected on the bottom of salt ponds.

Extra Fine Gray Salt. A powdery form of sel gris that I use when I am making pesto or another raw sauce in which I want the salt to dissolve thoroughly and instantly. It would probably be very useful in baking, but you’d have to ask a baker.

Fleur de Sel, Fior di Sale. In the shallow salt ponds of France, of Spain, of Portugal, of Greece, of Italy, when the sun beams and warm winds blow, water evaporates and fine salt crystals rise to sparkle on the surface. Patient men with hand rakes wait there to gather them before they sink. This is the most subtle and complex of salts; food’s deepest flavors blossom at its contact. Île de Ré, Guérande, Camargue, and Noirmoutier are the place names on the Breton coast where French fleur de sel blooms. In Italy, there are impeccable salt flats off the northern coast of the Adriatic that I have passed thousands of times in my life. They are in Cervia, the town immediately next to mine. They call their salt dolce (sweet) because of its tender, warm, ripe touch on the palate. Another fine fior di sale from Italy is the one from Trapani, in Sicily; it is richly mineral, yet not so salty a salt.

Ravida. A hefty salt from Sicily that I associate somehow with picnics at sea.

Maldon. I love this English salt; I love to dispense it on a salad by crumbling its beautiful flakes between my fingers. It is a good salt, lacking most of salt’s natural bitter back taste. It is complementary to all foods, but terrific on any that is fried, such as potatoes or shrimp or calamari.

Jacobsen. Mr. Jacobsen produces beautiful, glittering crystal flakes from what he calls Oregon’s cold waters. There is nothing cold about the salt; it is bold and strong, too bold perhaps for general cooking, but quite dynamic as a finishing salt.

Himalayan Pink Salt. This salt, as delightful in appearance as it is in taste, is chipped off an immense salt mountain in Pakistan. It is sold both coarse and ground fine. I use the finely ground version when I need quick integration into a dish.

Amabito no Moshio. Recently, a friend brought a small packet from Japan containing cream-colored grains as fine as powder-soft sand. No other salt has such suave manners. It disappears into the food you sprinkle it on—I used it on briefly cooked king salmon—and ­flavors emerge with precision and clarity.

Before you make a lasting commitment to the use of any salt, taste a few. The effect of salt on the taste of tomatoes can be dramatically clear. Take one or two firm, ripe Roma tomatoes, slice them crosswise into rounds, and use one round for each salt that you are tasting. On one or two rounds sprinkle table salt or kosher salt as a foil.

The good cook’s way to measure salt is by pinches. When you distribute salt that you hold between the tips of thumb and forefinger, or even adding the middle finger, you acquire an enjoyable tactile sense of the texture and volume of the grains and flakes of your salt, and you come to understand exactly how much you are using. You don’t need to use all the salt you are holding; if you have some left after you have used what you feel is enough, return the remainder to the salt pig. When you use your fingers, you are better able to distribute salt evenly. Hold your hand high above the dish or pan or raw ingredient that you are salting and move the hand around while you rub your fingertips, causing the salt to sprinkle like rain over the whole surface of the food you are seasoning.


Il Concentrato di Pomodoro

On my desk there are two cans, two tubes, and one glass jar of tomato paste. The cans are from California. One of them is Contadina, the only brand I found when, in 1955, I arrived from Italy. Its label lists twenty ingredients, in addition to tomato. The sauce from that can is a dark, somber red. It tastes strong, sour, and spiced, like cheap pizza. In the back of the mouth, it is faintly bitter. The other canned tomato paste from California is Muir Glen. Its list has just two ingredients, tomato and citric acid. The color is a bright red, the taste, mild, fresh, tomatoey.

The paste in the tubes is imported from Italy. One brand is Amore; the other has appropriated the San Marzano name. Both list just one ingredient, tomato. Both are labeled “double concentrated.” The Italian food authority defines three degrees of concentration, of which “double” is the mid-level and most broadly available and in which a little more than thirteen pounds of tomatoes are reduced and concentrated to slightly less than two pounds of paste. The tomatoes are chopped, heated, and strained, and the filtered juice is gradually reduced by evaporation in an industrial concentrator. The paste that squeezes softly from the tube is bright red. It has a pleasant, vigorous taste of tomato.

The jar is labeled estratto. It is produced in Sicily, where it is called strattu. My sample comes from Pianogrillo, the eminent olive oil producer. I have seen its like made in Sicilian farms, in summer. Crushed tomato pulp is spread outdoors on large boards called maidde and allowed to cook down in the sun for three or four days. It is jarred with olive oil and salt, the only other ingredients, besides tomatoes, that are listed on the label. They should also add “sun,” because it is what makes Sicilian strattu different from other tomato paste. The color is a dark, dark red, the consistency is dense but spoonable, and the taste has a deep tomato aroma, intense and pungent, as of long-cooked sauce.

I don’t see why anyone should use tomato paste to fortify a tomato sauce. I make my sauces with genuine San Marzano canned tomatoes, and they need no improvement. In season, I use fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes. I cook them carefully and slowly, and they need no improvement either. Tomato paste is useful to me, if I choose to use it, when I don’t have a tomato sauce in the pan, as in a vegetable braise or a stew or a soup. Depending on the flavors of the dish, I’d use either the mild double concentrate from a tube or the Sicilian strattu, dissolving it first in a small cup with warm water, broth, or wine, again depending on the flavors of the dish it is going into.



Is there anything else taken from the sea that resembles the sweet-salty, musky taste of bottarga, the twin sacs of a gray mullet’s eggs, pressed, salted, air-dried, looking like long, large, amber drops? It’s a taste of ancient times, the flavor of a technique invented before the Christian era by Phoenician fishermen, or by Arabs. It is from the Arabic that the Italian (and also English) word bottarga is derived.

The finest and most expensive bottarga is made in western Sardinia, utilizing gray mullets caught in a brackish lake near Oristano. The two lobes of the mullet’s ovaries are gently removed, their natural casing handled carefully to keep the eggs in it intact. The air within the lobes is gently squeezed out, and the flattened lobes are lightly salted and dried in air. When dry, they were once encased and preserved in paraffin or beeswax. Today, they are shipped sealed in the vacuum of plastic packets.

You use bottarga either grated or, like truffles, shaved into thin slices. I make a pasta dish in which it is both grated and sliced. I use the grated for a sauce with garlic, parsley, and olive oil, which I later loosen with a spoonful of hot pasta water. I toss the cooked, drained pasta with the sauce, and I toss it again with bottarga sliced very, very thin and chopped parsley. Either spaghettini—thin spaghetti—or fettuccine work well. Thin shavings of bottarga and spaghetti with clams are a heavenly combination.

In Sardinia, bottarga, in addition to its use over pasta, is either grated or shaved thin, and combined with ­artichokes—raw, thoroughly trimmed artichoke hearts if served as an antipasto, or sautéed and slivered to make a sauce served over grilled fish.

The most irresistible use of bottarga known to me requires another Sardinian product, pane carasau, the round, paper-thin cracker bread also known as sheet music bread. Lightly toast two or more rounds of the bread. It is very brittle; handle it gently as you break it into more or less equal pairs of sandwich-size pieces. Butter each piece on one side with very soft butter. Cover the buttered side with bottarga shavings and close the sandwich with its approximately matching buttered piece. It could be the most successful appetizer you’ll ever serve, but it’s painful to have to share it.

Mullet bottarga is also made in Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. It is very inexpensive in Istanbul’s bazaars, but nowhere is it as good as Sardinia’s. It is now made in Florida’s west coast, on the next island to mine. Our waters are rich in gray mullet, which here is also sold smoked. Florida bottarga is excellent, just a little softer and blander than the Sardinian. Many American restaurants are using it.

There is a second type of bottarga made from the roe of another fish that used to be plentiful in the Mediterranean, tuna. It is much larger than mullet bottarga, and after curing, it is cut into small brick-shaped pieces. It is very salty. When served in thin slices as an appetizer, it is customary to sprinkle lemon juice and olive oil on it. Tuna bottarga is also available grated to use over pasta.

I have been hearing of experiments in the bottarga style using roe from other fish, such as mahimahi, red snapper, and shad. The one I’d be curious to try would be the shad bottarga.


I Pinoli

It’s not even a nut—it’s a little seed—but its place in cooking, in at least one instance, is critical. If you are making pesto, the classic version from Genoa with basil, garlic, olive oil, and cheese, you cannot omit pine nuts. Theirs is the body of the sauce, the resinous fragrance that plays counterpoint to basil’s minty scent.

There are many other uses for pine nuts, some of them having infiltrated Italian cooking from the Middle East. I love them with eggplant. I roast the eggplant whole in its skin. When the flesh becomes very soft, the skin collapses, and I pull it away. I toast the pine nuts in butter in a little skillet over medium heat. I must keep turning them, because pine nuts have quite a bit of oil themselves, and if the pan gets too hot they will be scorched. I like them a dark brown, however. I mix them into the soft eggplant flesh together with salt and a few drops of lemon juice and olive oil.

Pine nuts and raisins are a natural match; they are delicious in preparing fresh sardines or small soles in the saor style, in which fried fish is covered with a warm marinade of sautéed onions, vinegar, raisins, and pine nuts, then put aside overnight to macerate. Toasted pine nuts add agreeable crunch and nutty flavor to a pasta sauce of sautéed rapini and mashed anchovies. They harmonize with all the green vegetables of southern Italian cooking, with them alone, sautéed with garlic and olive oil and raisins, or all together in a hearty, garlicky sauce for pasta.

Pine nut cookies are a classic with an afternoon cup of espresso. No, not cappuccino, if it’s afternoon. My husband’s favorite dessert, next to a dark chocolate mousse, is torta di mandorle con pinoli, almond cake with pine nuts.

The only unpleasant thing one must say about pinoli is that the top quality—the wonderful, elongated, ivory, intensely fragrant Tuscan pine nuts—are very expensive. So are the Spanish pine nuts, and they are not even as good. Lesser pine nuts, both in price and in tasting quality, are those from America’s southwest and from China. They cost about one-fourth of the Italian and Spanish pine nuts.

Refrigerate pine nuts in a tightly covered jar for up to eight months. If you keep them much longer, they will lose fragrance and their oils will begin to turn rancid.


Il Gusto Dolce

In human mouths, there has always been a sweet tooth. Even in the mouths of toothless babes. From our evolutionary beginnings, sweetness is the taste to which we instinctively respond. Cooks have forever sought sources of sweetness. Before sugar became commonly available in Europe, about five hundred years ago, the most important sweeteners were honey and concentrated grape must.

In the kitchen and at table, we have never ceased to make offerings to our sweet tooth. Everyday examples are ketchup, barbecue sauce, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, mint jelly with lamb, and uncounted others. There is sugar in our pickled vegetables and fruits and in agrodolce, a common sweet-and-sour sauce that Italian cooks make at home. We also continue to turn to such sweet condiments from early times as saba, mustard fruits, and balsamic vinegar, all of which are now commercially produced and broadly available.



Start off with the must—the juice—of freshly crushed Trebbiano white grapes grown in the farmlands of Modena or Reggio Emilia, in northern Italy. Boil it down to a ­sugary syrup and pour it into the first of what eventually will be­come a line of five or more barrels, made of different woods in successively decreasing size. In a few years, evaporation will have reduced the contents of the first barrel, which you then transfer to the next smaller barrel in the line. Repeat the procedure until, after a minimum of twelve years, or ­possibly several decades, you have filled the last and smallest of the barrels. What you will draw from the last barrel, in your time or that of your descendants, is a lustrous nectar of a brown so dark it is nearly indistinguishable from black. It is divinely sweet, but not cloying. It is traditional balsamic vinegar. Depending on its age, a flacon containing ­approximately three and a half ounces of vinegar may cost up to, or even more than, two hundred dollars.

Traditional balsamic vinegar performs miracles on simple ingredients. Get yourself an eyedropper and use it to dose traditional balsamic on food that is neither strongly spiced nor too creatively encumbered by complicated flavors. A single, fat drop on a sliver of Parmigiano-Reggiano or on a young pecorino such as a marzolino, or on creamy goat cheese. Several drops on strawberries that are already marinated with sugar. Two or three drops on boiled, very fine, very fresh green beans that have been tossed with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. The same on boiled, sliced potatoes. On boiled or baked sliced beets. Some drops on pasta that you are about to toss with a tomato sauce. Two drops on a richly marbled rib eye as it comes off the grill. On liver and bacon. Use traditional balsamic vinegar raw, because cooking silences its more complex and expressive aromas. Sip it out of a small tulip-shaped glass.


Condimento balsamico is relatively inexpensive, versatile, and, when bottled by a good producer, a respectable alternative to traditional balsamic. In its finer versions it is composed of young, or even a small quantity of aged, balsamic vinegar made in the traditional manner, blended with unaged, boiled must. The quality of condimento can be extremely variable. Look for examples bottled by those who also produce traditional balsamic and who have a reputation to defend. San Giacomo’s condimento is excellent.

You can use condimento more uninhibitedly than you would use a two hundred-dollar bottle of the traditional. In moderate doses, it goes into a marinade for lamb or hoofed game, in sauces and reductions, in a salad, on a risotto with mushrooms. I would counsel restraint, however. Its sweetness can lead to monotony.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

There are bottles labeled “balsamic vinegar of Modena,” costing twenty-five dollars or more, that deliver a product seeking to evoke something of the taste of traditional balsamic vinegar. They can be useful, but they are exceptions. Most of the vinegar thus labeled is a cheap filler for supermarket shelves, trading on the prestige of traditional balsamic that can cost almost ten times the price. Supermarket balsamic, even if manufactured in Modena, probably contains caramel and sweet thickeners to imitate the natural color, flavor, and consistency of the precious original for which it hopes to be mistaken.


Saba is a survivor from the epochs when sugar was rare and extremely expensive, and people had to satisfy the craving for sweetness with honey, dates, and syrupy, boiled grape must. It has remained a favorite of country cooks in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna. Saba is usually made from Lambrusco red grapes that are freshly crushed and cooked down to one-third their original volume. It is not aged.

Saba is used to fill a ciambella or other homey pastries. It can go sparingly over polenta, and it is most appealing on dry, aged cheeses, as well as on panna cotta or on vanilla gelato—custard cream gelato would be even better.

Saba is available online or in specialty stores, often bottled by a producer of traditional balsamic vinegar.



Mustard fruit, a product that first became popular in northern Italy in the sixteenth century, consists of fresh, seasonal, and slightly under ripe fruit that is preserved with mustard and sugar. It accompanies either meats or cheese. Some of the meats alongside which you may find a small bowl of mustard fruits are prosciutto cotto, Parma’s exquisite cooked ham; cotechino and zampone—creamy, large, steamed pork sausages; cold, sliced rare roast beef; wurstel, which is what we call frankfurters in Italy, and smoked pork chops; the magnificent assortment of meats in a bollito misto, the mixed boiled meats that in classic northern restaurants are served from the steam compartments of a specially configured trolley and carved tableside.

For nearly every cheese—­gor­gonzola, both fresh and aged pecorino, robiola, Parmigiano-­Reggiano, sheep’s milk ricotta, crescenza—you will discover a mustard fruit that fits it. I have a passion for mascarpone with the Veneto’s quince mustard.

Nearly every town of the vast northern plain through which the Po River proceeds in its journey eastward to the sea has its own mustard fruit tradition. Quince stars in many of them, and so does pear. Pear mustard is perfect over any firm to hard cheese. The quince mustard from Mantua is an essential component of tortelli di zucca, squash-filled pasta dumplings. There is Piedmont’s own mostarda that contains red grape must, quince, pears, and toasted hazelnuts. The most widely distributed mostarda is the one from Cremona, the town more famous abroad for its antique string instruments. Cremona’s mostarda is characterized by a spicier taste than most of the others and by the use of many different fruits preserved either whole or in large sections.