Italian cuisine is extremely varied: the country of Italy was only unified in 1861, and its cuisines reflect the cultural variety of its regions and its diverse history (with culinary influences from Greek, Roman, Norman and Arab civilization). Italian cuisine is regarded as a prime example of the Mediterranean diet, and is imitated all over the world.
Roman cuisine, for example, uses a lot of pecorino (sheep's cheese) and organ meats, while Tuscan cooking features white beans and bread without salt; the pizzas of Rome are thin like crackers, while Neapolitan and Sicilian pizza is thicker. Northern Italian dishes tend to be somewhat influenced by French cooking, due to the proximity of the French border. Emilia-Romagna leads Italy in wheat production, and is known for its stuffed pasta. Naples ( Napoli ) is the home of pizza and mozarella.
Northern versus Southern Italian cooking
As a general rule, northern and southern Italian cuisines are differentiated primarily by the cooking fat and style of pasta commonly used. Northern Italian cuisine favors butter, cream, Mascarpone cheese, risotto and fresh egg pasta, while southern Italian cuisine tends toward Mozarella cheese (usually from buffalo), olive oil and dried pasta. Southern Italian cuisine also uses a greater amount of tomato.
Traditional menu structure
A traditional Italian menu consists of:
1. l'antipasto - hot and cold appetizers
Prosciutto , or Parma ham, is a dry-cured ham original from central and northern Italy . It is also produced in other Adriatic countries.
Strictly speaking, prosciutto means "ham" in Italian. Therefore, it generically refers to the pork cut, and not to its specific preparation. So in Italian there is a disctinction between prosciutto crudo (literally "raw ham", that is to say cured ham, which English speakers refer to as "prosciutto") and prosciutto cotto ("cooked ham", which is similar to what English speakers call "ham", as a derivative of the pork cut).
Parma ham is also inaccurate when used to mean types of prosciutto crudo other than Prosciutto di Parma (see below).
The process of making prosciutto can take anywhere from nine to eighteen months, depending on the size of the ham. First the ham is cleaned, salted, and left for about two months. Next it is washed several times to remove the salt. It is then hung in a shady, airy place. The air is important to the final quality of the ham. The ham is left until dry. This takes a variable amount of time, depending on the local climate, and size of the ham. When the ham is completely dry, it is hung in an airy place at room temperature for up to eighteen months.
Interestingly, prosciutto is never cured with nitrates (either sodium or potassium), which are generally used in ham production to produce the desired rosy color and unique flavor. Only sea salt is used. The pigmentation seems to be produced by certain bacteria, rather than a direct chemical reaction.
Sliced prosciutto crudo in Italian cuisine is usually served as an antipasto, optionally wrapped around grissini or, especially in summer, melon.
Cold cuts are cheeses or precooked meat, often sausages or meat loaves, that are sliced and usually served cold on sandwiches or on party trays. They can be bought pre-sliced in vacuum packs at a supermarket or grocery store, or they can be purchased at a delicatessen or deli counter, where they might be sliced to order. Most cold cuts are high in fat and sodium.
Cold cuts are also known as lunch meats, luncheon meats, sandwich meats, cooked meats, sliced meats and cold meats.
Bologna sausage is an American version of the Italian mortadella (a finely hashed/ground pork sausage with lard pieces). The American version can alternatively be made out of chicken, turkey, beef or pork. It is commonly called bologna and often pronounced and/or spelled baloney (or boloney).
This food is usually served in round uniform slices pre-cut in a package or sliced by a butcher, though many brands are sold as large chunks to be sliced by the consumer. Minced bologna is popularly produced and sold by Oscar Mayer, which had a famous ad campaign in the 1970s with a well-known jingle ("My bologna has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R..."). There are many other manufacturers as well, including local butcher shops and grocery store meat counters.
Bologna sausage is typically served in a sandwich, often for lunch; hence, it is one of the most common "lunch meats" in the U.S. However, bologna may also be served fried or wrapped around mashed potatoes and baked as a version of "pigs in blankets."
Ring bologna can be found in two inch diameter sausages that are normally about a foot long. These can often be found pickled in a combination of vinegar, salt, sugar and spices. Koegel Meat Company produces a version of pickled bologna that is popular in Michigan and can be purchased as an individual ring or an entire jar.
Bologna sausage is commonly believed to be created from lowly scraps of meat cuts. It is assumed that this food, therefore, is the origin of the slang word baloney, meaning "nonsense" or "BS".
Bologna is also popular breakfast food in Newfoundland , served as a substitute to ham slices. Because of its popularity, bologna has earned the nickname "Newfie Steak".
("First Course"), usually consists of a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup. There are usually abundant vegetarian options.
("Second Course") the main dish, usually fish or meat (Pasta is never the main course in a traditional menu). Traditionally veal is the most commonly used meat, though beef has become more popular since World War II and wild game is very popular, particularly in Tuscany .
4. Contorno ("Side Dish") may consist of a salad or vegetables. A traditional menu features salad after the main course.
5. Dolce ("Dessert")