The Cuisine of Central Italy


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A 1926 Roman folksong ‘Na gita a li Castelli promises that in the town of Marino, located on the outskirts of the capital, white wine instead of water gushes from fountains. The song is part escapist fantasy and part reality: Public utilities do run wine through a fountain at a harvest celebration and famously switched the valves in 2008, mistakenly sending wine to the faucets of private homes. The song’s raunchy lyrics are bellowed at dinner sing-alongs to this very day. 

Another mental picture painted by the song is that of the fraschette, an eating venue that is part tavern and part social hall. You buy a carafe (or two, or three) of wine and bring home cooked meals to share with others at long wooden tables. Variations of these do-it-yourself eateries existed in the Middle Ages but are limited to the Castelli Romani today.

The concept happily resonates with central Italy’s cooking philosophy that values camaraderie, individuality and a playful dose of one-upmanship. Because two-thirds of Abruzzo is mountainous, the region boasts delicious cheese from herded sheep and goats (like sharp pecorino), lamb dishes and meat ragù served over pasta alla chitarra (“guitar strings”). The Marche offers fried green olives stuffed with minced meat (olive ascolane).

Umbrian cuisine delivers vegetable or lentil minestrone, toasted crostini and strangozzi (“strangled priests”) pasta with shaved truffles. The cooking of Lazio and Rome is even more rustic and relies on the so-called quinto quarto. “Fifth quarter” cooking makes use of discarded animal leftovers: Stewed ox-tail (coda alla vaccinara), fried brains, veal intestines (pajata) and lamb hearts (coratella).

KEY INGREDIENTS

Artichokes: The reigning queen of Roman-Jewish cuisine, carciofi alla giudia—served primarily in Rome’s Ghetto—are pressed open and fried like a giant flower. 

Guanciale: From the pig’s jowl, this bacon-like meat cooks to crunchy, crusty perfection in bucatini all’Amatriciana (with spicy tomato sauce) and spaghetti alla carbonara.

Lentils: Abruzzo’s Lenticchia di Santo Stefano di Sessanio and Umbria’s Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia are known to pack a flavorful punch despite their diminutive size.

Orata: Sea bream is a popular fish along both sides of the peninsula and is sometimes served acquapazza style (“crazy water” with white wine, tomatoes, onion and parsley).

Saffron: L’Aquila in Abruzzo, is known for its high quality zafferano. Used to flavor cannarozzetti (tubed-shaped pasta), stewed chicken or rabbit or steamed mussels.

DRIED AND FRESH PULSES (LEGUME) SOUP

26 ounces dried pulses (chickpeas, lentils, peas, broad beans)
½ teaspoon salt
5 ounces spinach, rinsed, drained and roughly chopped (approx. 1¼ cup)
1 stalk of celery, rinsed and chopped, about ½ cup
5 ounces Swiss, green or rainbow chard, rinsed, drained, and roughly chopped
1 small fennel bulb, rinsed and diced, about 1 cup
1 Belgian endive, rinsed and drained, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 pork snout with bone, or ham bone
1 pound minced pork meat (ground pork)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh Marjoram leaves, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, rinsed and drained
8 tablespoons lard (butter, shortening, olive oil)
¼ cup fresh parsley leaves, rinsed and patted dry
1 medium onion, peeled and diced, about 1 cup
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 pinch ground cloves
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup tomato sauce
24 ounces Durham wheat pasta (ditalinni or elbow macaroni)
10 ounces fresh pasta of various types and sizes (fresh pappardeli or fettuccine broken into large pieces, or maltagliati)
2 pounds fresh pulses (peas, broad beans)

Soak dried legumes in a large pot of water for at least one day, changing the water twice. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add legumes and gently boil for 30–45 minutes, until beans are partially cooked. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add next 6 ingredients, boil until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside. 

In a large stock pot, add the ham bone or pork snout, and enough water to cover. Bring to a low boil, and cook about 45 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, remove bones, chop the meat, and return meat to pot with the stock. Keep stock at a low simmer.

Season minced (ground) pork with salt and pepper, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through. Add to the reserved partially cooked beans and legumes. Add marjoram and mint, stir to combine and set aside. Add lard and parsley to a skillet over medium-high heat, cooking until butter begins to brown. Reduce heat to medium, add tomato sauce, chopped onion, garlic, ground cloves and nutmeg. Cook another 5 minutes, until onions are tender. Add to pot with stock.

Add all cooked, reserved ingredients to the stock pot, season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a low boil. Add Durham wheat pasta and cook for 5 minutes. Add fresh pasta and fresh pulses, cooking 3–5 minutes more, until pasta is done. Serve hot or cool. Serves 8.

 

Inside Central Italy >>>

Discover Umbria and the wines of Central Italy >>>

Explore Rome, a wine lover’s city >>>

Check out Central Italy wine reviews in the Buying Guide >>> 

Discover Italy’s other diverse regions and wines >>>

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