Imagine Italian food and most people will picture pasta or pizza, spaghetti or sausages. But like most ancient lands, Italy has a diverse cuisine. The regional variations show up nowhere so sharply as the divide between Northern and Southern cuisine. There is overlap, to be sure. But travel north toward the Alps or to the northern sea coasts and you will find food that varies from its cousins to the south.
Cuisine of Northern Italy
Pasta much less often plays center stage here. Instead, rice typically has the founding role, forming a literal base beneath many delightful dishes. Risotto, made from a local grain called Arborio is a common dish in Lombardy, at the center top of the country.
Meat is featured, certainly. Hams made from local pigs are a common sight in Lombardy and the sausage meatballs here can't be beat. Venison is a favorite of the area, as well, often in the form of Capriolo alla Valdostana.
But vegetarians can find dozens of choices that satisfy, too. Polenta for generations was a food primarily of the poor. Yet, today, this corn-based dish can be found in the finest restaurants of the region. Piedmont offers fonduta - a melted cheese dip made from milk, eggs, and local white truffles.
Blessed with ample coastline, there is seafood galore. Shellfish makes its way from the sea shore to the entire interior yet remains entirely fresh, thanks to modern transportation. Still, there's nothing like a carp or trout that has just been plucked from one of the many rivers that line Northern Italy. The Po River Plain in Veneto offers wild fowl, mushrooms, and more, all easy on the olive oil, since butter is a more common ingredient in Northern Italian cuisine.
Even very simple dishes clearly show their origins. A delightful carne cruda is a good case in point. Called steak tartare in other parts of the world, it has a wonderful twist in this part of the world.
This dish from Piedmont is only one of dozens from a section of this lovely country known for outstanding cuisine. Try it and you'll quickly become convinced.
Cuisine of Southern Italy
The cuisine of Southern Italy is familiar to the average person. Who hasn't heard of pizza? Pasta, too, is much more common here than in the dishes of Northern Italy. The distinctive flavor provided by olive oil and tomatoes is also much more likely a part of a dish here than in regions further north.
Still, there is a variety to Southern Italian cuisine that may surprise visitors to this warm, friendly land. The long growing season allows for production of the finest vegetables. Long coastlines provide an abundance and astonishing variety of seafood.
And, yes, Neapolitan food such as pizza, is not only common here, but delightfully different from what you might find in Brooklyn. It is here in Campania, too, that one finds the finest spaghetti, not to mention superb lasagna. The reasons aren't far to seek. Great dishes start with great ingredients and it is in this region that rich fields produce the best durum wheat. You couldn't find better ricotta anywhere else.
The sun-drenched slopes of Mount Vesuvius of southern Italy do more than produce world-class grapes. They provide the soil and warmth that gives San Marzano tomatoes their rich, rich flavor. Those in turn are mashed to create marinara sauces that are the envy of the world.
Meat dishes are plentiful in Southern Italian cuisine, too. Whether it is the fine veal from Calabria or the outstanding clams from the coast, you will find the finest here. Even further south, to the island of Sicily for example, you can find influences from Greece and other ancient lands.
The olives of this tiny island, birthplace of Napoleon, are among the best in the world. The cannoli is to die for and a delicious layer cake called Cassata is a favorite of the locals. Eggplant doesn't get any better elsewhere. A superb eggplant Parmesan can effectively prove the point...
Try a few dishes from Southern Italy and you may never want to go home again.