Mar 27, '21

Endless Italy: Region by region, Top Chefs Share the Country’s Most Graceful Ingredients

By Edoardo Celadon and Phoebe Hunt

Italy’s cuisine is as varied as the terroir: from the Alps and Apennine Mountains to the sun-baked shores of Puglia, from the volcanic soil of Etna and Vesuvius to the northern Lakes and the hills of Tuscany, produce and ingredients follow the land. Still, the country has a staggering number of high quality products, which goes some way to showing the sheer biodiversity on offer within a single nation, formed of twenty incredibly different regions. 

Still, the stereotypes of the country’s most famous food – pasta, pizza, gelato, lasagna – risk drowning out an essential concept: Italy is not just the sum of its traditions, but a land of great producers. To summarise all of Italy’s endless produce would take many volumes, but to get an impression of our most precious and unknown ingredients we’ve asked some of the country’s top chefs to talk to us freely about biodiversity. Each acts as an incredible ambassador for their region, showcasing what provenance means to them.

Abruzzo, by Cristiana and Niko Romito

Abruzzo’s identity is captured by its most famous artist Ettore Spalletti, who recently passed away: an apparently quiet land, it has an hidden inner power.

Cristiana and Niko Romito
Cristiana and Niko Romito. Photo by Brambilla Serrani

“The quality of charcuterie and cheese in Abruzzo is second to none, which reflects its strongly pastoral history. Particular highlights include Cuor di Paganica, basically the heart of prosciutto, from the province of Aquila. There’s also exquisite Manteca butter, a very unusual scamorza cheese filled with butter, made in the commune of Capracotta. Cereals and legumes are also a staple here. For instance, we have insanely good chickpeas coming from Navelli and lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, which we sometimes use at our restaurant paired with hazelnuts and an amazing Sulmona red garlic paste. Some favorites of mine are also the Solina and Saragolla flours, which I use for dark bread. Finally, perhaps the most important product is the prestigious saffron from Aquila, which I used in my dish Assoluto di Cipolla, Parmigiano e zafferano tostato.”

Restaurant: Casadonna Reale (Castel di Sangro)

Basilicata, by Vitantonio Lombardo

A beautiful hidden gem located in Italy’s far south, crowned by the breathtaking UNESCO Heritage Site Matera.

Vitantonio Lombardo

“Being the son of farmers, I always felt the need to express my land through its products. Probably the symbol of our region is the Peperone Crusco, the “Corno di Capra” peppers which grandmas used to hang on wires and sun-dry in front of their houses. It is used to make traditional dishes – served with Baccalà cod or in soups. We also have great cheese such as the Caciocavallo and Pecorino from Murgia Materana. From around Matera you also have Crapiata, a soup which farmers traditionally made with unsold leftover cereals and legumes and yet feels just as luxurious as caviar. But one of my absolute favorite meats is baby lamb which hasn’t ever eaten grass, with an incredible milky, fatty flavor and a great milk curd filled intestines.”

Restaurant: Vitantonio Lombardo Ristorante (Matera)

Calabria, by Luca Abbruzzino

The “toe” of Italy, Calabria is an undiscovered sun-baked pearl of rugged mountains, traditional villages and dramatic coastline.

Luca Abbruzzino

“Our region is incredibly rich in terms of products, most of them organic and wild. Some of the most famous ones we can name are the bergamot from Reggio Calabria area, the beautiful Tropea onions, as well as a very intense licorice and of course an enormous quantity of chilis, which go into ‘Nduja, the globally known spicy pork soft sausage. Also worth a mention is the Belmonte Tomato, which can reach huge dimensions and is so juicy and meaty. Another must is the Calabrian pork which, in my opinion, finds its peak in the Gelatina: a jellied salami made using all the pork “leftovers”, such as the legs, the skin, the ears and so on. Insane.”

Restaurant: Ristorante Abbruzzino (Cava-cuculera Nobile)

Campania, by Franco Pepe

Home to Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Campania is world famous for Mozzarella di Bufala, but the region offers so much more than that.

Franco Pepe

The first thing that comes to mind is the beautiful Conciato Romano, which is probably Italy’s most ancient cheese. It is magic: after the sheep, goat or cow milk is coagulated, expert hands press it to create the shape and then garnish it with condiments, and finally age it in terracotta vases. It develops a scent of alcohol and mature fruits, as well as an almost spicy persistence. We use it in our Mastunicola pizza with a figs preserve from Puglia, some Caserta Black pork lard and Matese oregano. Of course, we can’t forget to mention tomatoes: in my pizzeria I use many of them such as the San Marzano, the Piennolo (a sort of small natural candy growing under Mount Vesuvius), but the one I particularly care about is the Pomodoro Riccio by La Sbecciatrice. It is a very ancient variety, which grows in the area of Piana di Monte Verna; it is very resistant to heat and its balanced taste make it the perfect tomato for my Margherita Sbagliata – literally ‘wrong margherita’ sauce. I could speak for days but to conclude, I must talk about the Crisommola, which means apricot in Neapolitan dialect. In the Vesuvius area, we can find more than 70 different varieties of indigenous apricots with the most bizarre names. They have an incredible range of aromas, textures and flavors, from intense sweetness to complex acidic bitterness. I use them to make jam, paired with fresh ricotta, hazelnuts and dehydrated Caiazzo olives in my fried dessert pizza, the Crisommola.

Restaurant: Pepe in Grani (Caiazzo)

Emilia-Romagna, by Anna Caretti, Riccardo Cotti and Franco Cimini

One of the main epicentres of Italian gastronomy and culture, Emilia-Romagna is the symbol of excellences such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, but also of the huge varieties of filled pastas, cured meats and iconic cheeses.

Anna Caretti, Riccardo Cotti and Franco Cimini
Anna Caretti, Riccardo Cotti and Franco Cimini. Photo by Alberto Blasetti

“Biodiversity is the core of every traditional recipe of Emilia and Romagna. The kings of this land are undoubtedly Parmigiano Reggiano, followed by Prosciutto, Culatello and Mortadella. An interesting cheese which we often use at our Osteria is the forgotten Tosone: it consists of the scraps cut off while shaping the Parmigiano Reggiano wheel, with a soft texture and a very sweet taste. Tosone was originally fried, chargrilled or melted into the morning’s fresh cream to create the lasagne sauce which is now replaced with béchamel. Another highlight at our restaurant Mirasole is the Ragù di Cortile (Courtyard Ragù), the time-honored ancestor of contemporary ragù. It is a simple recipe which includes the innards of different courtyard animals such as chicken, duck, rabbit, guinea fowl and more. Those innards were essentially part of the farmer’s paycheck, and changed weekly according to which animals were sold. Finally, eggs. We are focusing a lot of attention on eggs lately and we discovered that in Emilia-Romagna alone there are at least 60 different spices of indigenous hens. Each egg has a different color, shape, taste, texture: beauty is just a simple fried egg with some good bread, beautiful.”

Restaurant: Antica Osteria Del Mirasole (San Giovanni in Persiceto)

Friuli-Venezia Giulia, by Antonia and Vittoria Klugmann

This north-eastern region is a borderland and a melting pot of influences from many cultures. And its geography perfectly reflects this status.

Antonia Klugmann
Antonia Klugmann. Photo by Mattia Mionetto

“You go from an international port city such as Trieste, to the hills and the gentle flat countryside, passing through the lagoon area of Grado. This peculiar landscape favored the flourishing of many different products, some of them hardly exportable. We are thinking especially of the Rosa di Gorizia, a very unique kind of radicchio whose heritage is directly linked to the families of seed keepers. But also the vast tradition of pickles and ferments, in which we can appreciate extraordinary fruit vinegars and many vegetable preparations such as the Brovada (fermented turnips) or the Crauti (fermented cabbage). Finally, we could add the many varieties of corn used to produce flour and cook polenta, as well as the unmeasurable quantity of wild herbs, foraged for hundreds of years and an integral part of countryside celebrations.”

Restaurant: L’Argine a Vencò (Vencò)

Lazio, by Sarah Cicolini

Home to Rome and the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, the central Italian region is brimming with culinary legacy. A whole new generation of chefs are carrying the region’s heritage into new pastures.

Sarah Cicolini
Sarah Cicolini

“Lazio is my adopted region since I am originally from Abruzzo, but actually the incredibly rich food culture overlaps; mostly due to a strong history of sheep farming and its products such as Pecorino Romano. A vegetable I really love is the artichoke from Sezze in Monti Lepini, a very healthy variety rich in iron thanks to the microclimate in which it grows, constantly exposed to sea winds. Another fascinating practice is the natural wine from around the Bolsena lake, a very deep lake with a volcanic origin. One producer close to my heart is called Gianmarco Antonuzi, who runs the Azienda Agricola Le Coste. An interesting and less known ingredient is the so-called Sarzefine di Zagarolo, a variety of salsify which was once consumed in front of the fire by poor farmers and is quite rare today. Both the roots and the leaves are edible once cooked and they are just amazing. I’ll finish by talking about the beautifully complex Conciato di San Vittore, a flavorful sheep milk cheese which is scented with several herbs and plants such as camomile, sage, rosemary and wild fennel, before being aged on wooden shelves.”

Restaurant: SantoPalato (Roma)

Liguria, by Giorgio Servetto

A magical place, varied in terms of geography and produce, Liguria is the land of Pesto, Genoa and Cinque Terre, with its unique vineyard “terraces” overhanging the sea backed by the beautiful Appennino.

Giorgio Servetto
Giorgio Servetto

“In such a rich context, it is not hard to find great stuff. Think about the Cipolla Bellandina di Andora, the excellent indiginous onion, or the area of Albenga and its famous Violetto asparagus. This purple excellence cannot be crossed with any other variety, and is perfectly adapted to the alluvial plain soil of that area, resulting in a soft and unique texture. Moving to the Ligurian Alps area, we must highlight the precious Taggiasche olives, also used to produce the extra virgin olive oil thanks to their delicate aromatic profile, and also the Badalucco, Conio and Pigna white beans, as well as the Perinaldo artichoke. Finally, I’d like to underline the special Brigasca sheep milk, which comes from this rare native breed of sheep and it’s used to create several types of cheese, yogurt and ricotta, such as the Bruzzo (fermented ricotta).”

Restaurant: Nove (Alassio)

Lombardia, by Cesare Battisti

This densely populated region in northern Italy is well known for its capital city, Milan, the most fashionable and international one in Italy. A Milanese chef will explain what Lombardia is really about.

Cesare Battisti
Cesare Battisti

“The question of provenance brings to mind my attempt of making Milanese people eat local freshwater fish: it is way more sustainable, and the flavour is as rich as the seawater one. For instance we could talk about Missoltini, the typical preparation done near Lake Como. It consists of Agone fish, which is dried in the sun, grilled and paired with polenta. Also we can’t get away without talking about rice. The area called Lomellina – a group of small provinces surrounding Milan and Pavia – is the homeland of the Carnaroli variety, which makes a perfect risotto. It has big grain, twice as much starch as normal rice, and a beautiful delicate perfume. I use a special one produced by Riserva San Massimo: it is outstanding. We have an infinite variety of cheese like our famous Gorgonzola or the mountainous Bitto. And then there are meats such as Luganega, a flavorful pork sausage filled with wine, meat stock and cheese, but I don’t want to go on forever!” 

Restaurant: Ratanà (Milano)

Marche, by Catia and Mauro Uliassi

This idyllic Italian region, famous for its soft sausage called Ciauscolo, has inherited the split identity of its traditional villagers who used to be farmers and fishermen at the same time.

Catia and Mauro Uliassi. Photo by Alberto Blasetti

“Biodiversity means to be able to get rid of pollution and to reconstitute local varieties of coastal plants, which will help attract animals and create sustainable sand dunes. Our region is a meeting point between land and sea, where the perfume of the soil after the rain, of the farms in the sunshine, along with the sound of the waves crashing into the rocks and the familiar verse of the seagulls shaped who we are. The little seafront houses morph into smallholdings and farms, with a few chickens, pigeons and pigs. Inland a bit, there used to be ditches where you could search for frogs and snails, another cornerstone of our culinary tradition which we love to cook. Our restaurant wouldn’t exist without biodiversity and the celebration of every part of the animal: the pigeon and its innards, the cuttlefish and its liver, the turbot and its heart, eyes and sperm, and the local monkfish with its tripe – to name just a few.”

Restaurant: Uliassi (Senigallia)

Molise, by Stefania Di Pasquo

Even though extremely small, Molise is still largely untouched, wild and delicate. A well kept jewel in which time seems to stand still.

Stefania Di Pasquo
Stefania Di Pasquo

“Molise is not known as a touristic location, but this can be a double-edged sword. For instance, not everybody knows that in the northern area, surrounded by woods and mountains, we can find an interesting variety of black and white truffles, which nowadays represents a good proportion of the Italian production. The core of the region is farming traditions which brought us the incredible Caciocavallo di Agnone, the Pecorino di Capracotta and the Stracciata, a stretchy, freshly spun cheese which is shredded and eaten by itself or with delicate vegetables. I should also mention the wonderful Pomodoro di Montagno, a very sweet tomato with low acidity, the Salsiccia di Pietracatella and a pork sausage spiced up with local sweet and hot chilies. Lastly, the very ancient apple varieties such as the Zitella, which is extremely sweet, and the Limoncella which is crunchy and sour.”

Restaurant: Locanda Mammì (Agnone)

Piemonte, by Michelangelo Mammoliti

The elegant and rich Piemonte, international epicenter of the rare and luxurious Alba white truffle, is also famous also for its hazelnuts and wines. Yet, it’s an area which still has a lot to be discovered.

Michelangelo Mammoliti
Michelangelo Mammoliti. Photo by Michele Petrini

“After studying abroad, I didn’t want to come back to Italy, but my love for Tuscany and Piemonte made me change my mind. I was lucky enough to find a place near Alba, in the Langhe area, homeland of many special products. To me, biodiversity means to care daily for my beautiful garden, which counts around 400 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs. A delicacy I really love is for instance the Santena asparagus, famous for its sweet flavor and the smooth texture. Also we have the Andezeno white onions, very surprising and delicately persistent, as well as the Capriglio bell pepper, an ancient variety which looks relatively small but is nonetheless meaty and super sweet. Eventually, I’d like to mention one cheese among the endless varieties Piemonte has: the Cevrin di Coazze. It comes from a mix of Alpine chamois and cow milk, with very intense scents and a flavor which reminds me of hazelnuts and butter.”

Restaurant: La Madernassa (Guarene)

Puglia, by Isabella Potì and Floriano Pellegrino

The southern region on the heel of Italy is famous for Burrata and cured meats such as Capocollo, typically produced in the Andria and Martina Franca zones. In the last few years, a little culinary revolution has quietly started.

Once upon a time we wanted to open up our restaurant in London, but we came back to Puglia because our creative process is intensely linked to the diversity of the land and we realised we couldn’t find this abroad. Think about our crowning jewel, the Ricotta Scante: it is basically a ‘rancid’ fermented ricotta. It has a powerful and pungent flavor, slightly bitter and spicy. Or take the Lampascione, a small wild plant with a bulb which resembles a little bitter onion, which is ingrained in all our childhood memories of Puglia. 

I, Floriano, grew up in a family of farmers, caring for the animals, and I can still smell that farmyard manure! You must visit and breathe our air, that’s the only possible way.

Restaurant: Bros’ (Lecce)

Sardegna, by Luigi Pomata

This marvelous island to the west of Italy is a resistance land, isolated in the middle of the Mediterrenean Sea. The emerald and blue of the waters perfectly mixes with the intense brown and green of the mountains and the gold of its Bottarga.

Luigi Pomata

“The resilient spirit of Sardegna’s landscape gave life to a unique diversity of flora and fauna, shaped by its waves and caressed by the sun. Many beautiful products come to mind, such as the famous Pecorino Sardo, an extremely strong and aged cheese, the beautiful selection of honeys, and the Fregola – a durum wheat pasta, shaped like small hailstorm grains. There’s also Culurgiones, a raviolo filled with sour cheese and potatoes, with a shape similar to gyoza, and a paper-thin crunchy flatbread called Pane Carasau. Finally I would add the infamous Casu Marzu, the sheep milk cheese which contains live maggot larvae, which is a true delicacy.”

Restaurant: Luigi Pomata (Cagliari)

Sicilia, by Ciccio Sultano

To sum up Sicily’s culinary history and influences could fill many thousands of pages. The quantity of different cultures and varied weather and microclimates makes this land almost surreal.

Gabriella Cicero and Ciccio Sultano
Gabriella Cicero and Ciccio Sultano. Photo by Benedetto Tarantino

“From the famous Ribera oranges, through to our native Nebrodi pork, the Bronte pistachios and the Pachino tomatoes, there’s almost too much to mention. It sounds strange, but among my favorite products from the island is salt, for its ancient tradition here in Sicily, especially the unrefined one from the area of Racalmuto. There’s also Buzzonaglia, dark tuna meat which remains attached to the central bone and preserved in oil, and the Spinella pear from the Etna’s volcanic soil, ideal cooked in the oven because of its texture and acidity.”

Restaurant: Duomo (Ragusa Ibla)

Toscana, by Fabio and Giulio Picchi

Home to Florence, Siena and Pisa, Toscana is a rich and poor land at the same time: you switch from the magnificence of Renaissance and Finocchiona to the coastal Cacciucco fish soup and the fascinating Butteri shepherds around Maremma.

“Discovering the perfume of the organic and untreated wheats which grow around Livorno is a magical experience: the result is an easily digestible bread which gives you energy and nourishment. And after slicing that bread, dip it into a pool of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and you’ll be in paradise. Our region has an ancient EVO oil tradition and knowledge, passed through generations. For us is a sort of spiritual ritual to consume the “Olio Nuovo” (new oil) in the first days of its life, just pressed when it’s still green, intense and beautifully bitter. It is an act of love towards yourself and a celebration of human craftsmanship. Along with this, we enjoy our salty Tuscan Prosciutto and a good Pecorino. The two of us are also deeply attached to the sea; and the sea is in deep crisis. By intensively farming certain fish we are destroying tons of other species and damaging the environment with chemicals. I always think about Sconcigli, a mix of all the small creatures you can find near rock pools such as sea snails, hermit crabs, limpets, small octopuses, crabs and so on. They’re all hand-picked only at certain times of year and in certain places – we eat it with pasta and it tastes just like the sea, it’s fabulous! We should enjoy every food in this limited way, having the intelligence to preserve seasonality.”

Restaurant: Cibreo, C.BIO (Firenze)

Trentino-Alto Adige, by Norbert Niederkofler

This mountainous and landlocked region which borders Switzerland and Austria in northern Italy, famous for Speck, honeys and great apples is another example of how melting cultures has been the key to Italy’s beauty.

Norbert Niederkofler. Photo by Francesco Ferretti

“Biodiversity is at the very core of our philosophy – “Cook the Mountain” – which we carefully explained in our latest book. It is based on the usage of every ingredient which can be found in the local wilderness, avoiding packaging and food miles, and respecting the natural rhythms of the seasons: throughout the year we use more than 400 different vegetables, herbs and mushrooms. Another fundamental step is to learn how to preserve the ingredients in order to have them all the year; and that’s when we started fermentations, dehydration, preservation under sand and under soil. Thanks to the diversification and to the knowledge in the various rotations nature is not stressed and neither are we.”

Restaurant: St. Hubertus (San Cassiano)

Umbria, by Stefano Faioli

Umbria, a central Italian region home to the famous fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli, is often known for the Norcia prosciutto, the Castelluccio lentils, truffles and spelt.

Stefano Faioli

I moved to this marvelous region just recently, but I immediately fell in love. One ingredient I can talk about is pigeon, typically from the Orvieto area, where they were bred. Traditionally pigeon is prepared “in leccarda”, meaning skewered and wrapped with fat like lard or guanciale, and then cooked over the fire. It’s placed over a pot with EVO oil, wine, herbs, anchovies, capers and the pigeon innards, and its fat runs into it while the liquid reduces. The pigeon is continuously bathed with this liquid and eventually served with toasted bread and some Fagioli Secondi del piano di Orvieto cooked in a glass jar – “Al fiasco.” Another beauty is the Cinturello Orvietano pork which has a tender and delicate meat with sweet livers tasting almost like chocolate. I would also highlight the Monteleone pear, an ancient variety which is now quite uncommon. It is perfect to cook a dessert, due to its hard texture and skin. I use it in a sorbet and in a sauce to complete a millefoglie of chestnut and Panpepato (a honey, chocolate, herbs, spices and dried fruit cake).”

Restaurant: Radici (Castel Giorgio)

Valle d’Aosta, by Paolo Griffa

Located in the north west tip of Italy, this fascinating region is famous among mountaineers for peaks such as Cervino, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and the controversial Mont Blanc. Nevertheless, its food can easily compete with such beauty.

Paolo Griffa

“This is Italy’s smallest region but it’s home to great products such as the famous Fontina cheese, an extremely tender and sweet venison, various types of corn flours with different mineralities as well as an infinite array of native herbs which grow wild in the mountains and valleys and are a great add to Toma cheeses. For instance, in our land we can count something like 80 varieties of thyme and more than 60 varieties of potato. On the topic of potatoes, the region has an organisation called “Paysage a Manger” which is dedicated to categorizing and taking care of all these varieties and more. It is unbelievable.”

Restaurant: Petit Royal (Courmayeur)

Veneto, by Diego Rossi

The northeastern region of Italy encompasses Venice, Verona and Padua, ‘must-visit’ cities on everyone’s map. Let’s look at the products behind this curtain of mainstream tourism.

Diego Rossi
Diego Rossi. Photo by Marco Varoli

“Veneto is my native region and I always try to be the spokesman of some of its outstanding gems. For instance the Pero Misso della Lessinia, a particular pear which needs to be matured in order to be consumed, and tastes like a beautiful fermented fruit. This is perfect in the oven, paired with tortelli or with some kind of cheese. Another highlight is the Oca in Onto, an ancient preserved goose recipe. Basically the animal was stored under salt for a few days or directly cooked with wine and herbs and then conserved under its own melted fat inside terracotta vases. It could be preserved for several months and then served in soup, or maybe with polenta. Then we have Custoza broccoli grown near verona, which is very sweet and perfect just boiled and dressed with salt and EVO oil. Last but not least, I want to talk about the Seppiolina di burchio, a baby cuttlefish which is consumed ‘dirty’, with its skin and innards, typically just grilled and paired with polenta, it’s unbeatable.”

Restaurant: Trattoria Trippa (Milano)

Map by Dario Hansson.

Edoardo Celadon
Born in 1997, Edoardo is an Italian Chef and content Creator. He promotes a Tasty, Complete, Happy, Healthy, Sustainable and Natural table. Continuously exploring the World, with a focus on his native land, in search of
“Graceful ingredients to be cooked with Love, fulfilling the Soul.”
He previously contributed to Luxeat Insider with his piece: “The grand tortellini debate or Don’t
mess with the Nonna!

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