Italian food is among the most popular in the world and many restaurants, particularly in the Western world, have at least one traditional Italian recipe on their menus. Most of these, I am sorry to tell you, have never been heard of in Italy, but that’s a different matter, for a different post. It is a fact, however, that no self-respecting foodie would fail to pick a favourite Italian restaurant and many will claim that their home-made tiramisù is the best in town. The popularity of Italian food has much to do with the fact that relatively simple combinations of fresh and easily sourced ingredients offer a wide variety of flavours, as well as with the established benefits of the Mediterranean diet. How much would you say you know about Italian food though? It’s not all pizzas and lasagnas, you know. Italian culture is not homogeneous, and there are significant regional differences in traditions, natural resources and dialects. Cuisine is no exception. Some of the most interesting recipes originated in rural areas, in which farmers would often sell the best part of their crops and the finest cuts of meat and would therefore have to feed their own families with what was not appealing enough to be sold. Throughout the centuries, generations of men and women have found creative ways of preparing tasty and nutritious dishes with what was considered to be second rate ingredients. To this day, such recipes are enormously popular in their regions of origin, but I suspect you might not have heard of most of them. If you happen to be in the right area, you should definitely give them a chance, even though some of them might sound and look quite unusual.
1. Lampredotto (Tuscany)
This typical tuscan dish is usually intended as a sandwich filling, but you might, on occasion, enjoy it on its own. Its main ingredient is one of the four stomachs that make up the digestive system of a steer. There are several way of cooking it, but the most popular recipe has the Lampredotto boiled with onions, carrots, celery, pepper, parsley and cloves. Other recipes add tomatoes and chards. The name for this dish comes from a particular type of Eel, called Lampreda, very common in the Arno river, whose corrugated skin resembles the inner walls of a bovine’s intestine.
2. Pajata (Lazio)
This is a hugely popular roman dish and it is considered a delicacy. Its main ingredient is a particular type of tripe, namely the small intestine of a calf or, less frequently, an ox. This dish is said to have originated in the area of Rome that goes by the name of Testaccio, where the communal abattoir was located. The bovine intestine is traditionally cooked in steer-fried onion and celery and then tomato sauce is added. Properly seasoned, the resulting mixture is a delicious pasta condiment, traditionally served with rigatoni.
3. Sanguinaccio (Campania)
Let’s get this straight: sanguinaccio is an exquisite chocolaty dessert, whose main ingredient is pig’s blood. It may sound gruesome, but it’s not that different from British black pudding. Granted, there are many who find that disturbing too. There are several versions of this recipe, some of which work the mixture into a cake or a pie. The Neapolitan one, however, looks more like a mousse and it’s designed to accompany the traditional carnival-time fried sweets. This lush, shiny cream is made of blood, lard, milk, dark chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, flour, vanilla, cedar, salt and cinnamon. Nowadays, blood-free versions are available.
4. Cibreo (Tuscany)
Imagine you are a poor farmer in medieval Tuscany. You keep chickens, but you need to sell them in order to make a living. How would you ever go about cooking chicken for your family? You would probably take back home the parts that your customers would dismiss as offal: livers, combs and quite possibly testicles. These rather unappealing cuts are fried, seasoned and then stewed in chicken stock (which, back in the day, would have been obtained from claws, heads, kidneys and other third-rate cuts). Egg yolks, flour and lemon juice are added to the mixture. The Cibreo is a surprisingly tasty dish and it is said to have been Caterina De Medici’s personal favourite.
5. Meusa (Sicily)
If you happen to visit Sicily, you will find that the “pani câ meusa” (literally “spleen sandwich”) is one of the most popular kinds of street food, particularly in Palermo. The recipe is pretty self explanatory, once you master the lingo: a sesame bun is filled with cuts of calf’s spleen and lungs, that have been boiled and stir-fried. If the original version is too blunt for your palate, you might had grated caciocavallo or ricotta cheese or a squirt of lemon juice.
6. Raw snails (Apulia and Sicily)
Mother nature’s cheapest snacks and undoubtedly an interesting alternative to a bowl of peanuts. This is not a “recipe”, strictly speaking – although some might boil the snails briefly before eating them –, more of a custom. We are not talking about fancy escargot and you are unlikely to find them in most restaurants, but you might happen upon the practice of eating raw snails in some rural areas in Sicily and Apulia. They were once believed to cure heartburn and gastritis. Luckily, nowadays we can count on several altogether nicer remedies for those afflictions.
7. Bagna Cauda (Piedmont)
The main ingredients in this traditional dish from Piedmont are anchovies, garlic, butter and oil. As you might have guessed, it is a recipe best suited for the cold season and it is said to have been originally meant as payment for grape harvesters. There is only one way to consume Bagna Cauda: piping hot. It can also be accompanied with a side of raw and cooked vegetables or croutons.
8. Schiuma di mare / gianchetti
This particular type of tiny whitebait can only be harvested under particular conditions and at specific times of the year, in order to prevent the killing of shoals that have not yet had the time to breed. The term “schiuma di mare” (literally “sea foam”) is generally understood all over the Country, but each region has its own name and recipe. In Liguria, for instance, the whole fish is boiled in salt water and served with olive oil and lemon, whereas in Apulia and parts of Sicily it is filleted and used to make fried fish-pies or omelettes.
9. Sarde in Saor (Venice)
The name of this dish is the venetian dialect translation of “tasty sardines” and, well… they are. In this mouth-watering sweet and sour recipe sardines are fried and garnished with a separately cooked mixture of onions, vinegar, sugar and sultanas. Incredibly easy to prepare, Sarde in Saor can be kept in the fridge for several days and not lose their pungent taste, but they are best consumed hot.
10. Seadas (Sardinia)
If you haven’t tasted this delicious Sardinian treat, you are seriously missing out. Seadas are cakes made from two simple and delicious ingredients for which Sardinia is famous: sheep’s cheese and chestnut honey. They are served hot and accompanied by a sweet wine, such as Malvasia.
However daring or traditional your choice of menu is, the perfect conclusion to a meal in Italy is a hot black espresso and not a cappuccino. Here’s why.