Despite all the talking of the complex flavors in Italian cuisine and the comparison with French food, Italian dishes can be counted among the world's simplest to prepare. Italian cooking has been compared to the Japanese one because both rely on some trusted flavor profiles and quick, simple cooking methods, most of the times.
If you get into making your own fresh pasta, that can be really challenging and time consuming - it will be also very pleasurable and you will understand why people rave about fresh pasta. If you just want to cook Italian, that is easy now that the ingredients are virtually in every food store.
There was a time when olive oil was difficult to find outside of the Mediterranean countries. Now you can get decent olive oil in almost every grocery store, and, as the trend of cooking with olive oil is on the increase, variety and prices are getting better. Use olive oil for cooking but as a condiment for flavoring. Olive oil, tomato, Parmesan cheese, and basil are the keystones of cooking in Italy. They share some other condiments - such as anchovies, garlic, olives and oregano - with other Mediterranean countries but almost every other ingredient or cooking method is common to the rest of the world. That is the reason behind the popularity of Italian food.
There is not much that needs to be added to the basic international pantry to make it Italian. There will be anchovies, olive oil, garlic, onion and pasta already there. Just stocking some extra herbs and spices, such as basil, marjoram and oregano, Italian cheese and wine will make the cupboard ready for delicious Italian cuisine.
Anchovies - The best come packed in olive oil and in resealable glass jars, rather than cans. However, if you indulge in lots of French and Italian days, buy whole salted anchovies, rinse them in water then fillet and pack them in oil. They keep perfectly well stored in the refrigerator.
Basil - Fresh basil beats the dried one at all times. Get fresh basil whenever is available. Freeze fresh leaves to use in all sort of cooked dishes.
Extra virgin olive oil - Extra virgin olive oil is the oil obtained after the first cold pressing, before any heat or chemicals have been applied to extract extra oil - usually these method manage to coax out a second batch. Aalthough it is normal practice to use thisl olive oil for frying, as it has a higher smoke point than extra virgin, the flavor of extra virgin olive oil can be used for all methods and cooking techniques, and it is key in Italian cooking, especially for flavor.
Italian cheese - Parmesan cheese, or Parmigiano Reggiano, is the real things. It is cheaper by the block. Keep a chunk of Parmesan and grate it on top of the pasta. If you keep it well wrapped in the fridge, it will keep for months - and it does not matter if the cheese gets a little dry, still good to grate. Grana di padano is used as a substitute; same instructtions apply. Pecorino Romano cheese can be useful and it is the substitution of choice for people sensitive to cow's milk that tolerate sheep's milk.
Marjoram - Similar to oregano, with a a milder, more subtle flavor. Better to use fresh but, if you don't have any at hand, remember dried marjoram tastes better than dried oregano. Maybe you will prefer the milder flavor in other dishes, as well.
Oregano - For Italian cooking, choose a Mediterranean variety. Fresh oregano is always preferable. If fresh oregano is not available and dired needs to be used, consider substituting with dried marjoram as it tastes better.
Wine - Italy is wine country and wine is added for flavor to many Italian dishes. White wine to fish dishes and some pasta ones; red wine is added to heavy meat casseroles.