Pasta, prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano… there are so many foods unique to Italy that are highly revered (and salivated over) in the western world.
Italian food is about quality, but it’s also about connection. Walk into any Italian home, and you’re likely to meet heaping platters of food to be shared amongst family, friends, and maybe even a stranger or two.
For our March issue, we’re celebrating one of our favourite cuisines with a special spread featuring tips and tricks from six Alberta chefs who know Italian cuisine well. Salute!
When it comes to Italian dining, we’re encouraged to eat as much as humanely (or inhumanely) possible, and as Chef Dione Harwood at Vaticano Cucina in Edmonton points out, a good Italian meal always starts with antipasti.
“Everyone at the table passes around antipasto platters with meats and cheese, and takes time to enjoy the company they’re with,” she says. “That really rings true to Italian culture.”
Anything salty, meaty or pickled works perfectly for antipasti, and Harwood says if you really want to show off your Italian cooking skills, you can even try curing your own charcuterie at home.
“One thing I’ve been able to practice and perfect at Vaticano, is curing your own meat,” Harwood says. “A lot of people think it’s scary and will take a long time, but I want to teach home cooks they don’t have to be afraid to try it.”
With an endless supply of instructions online, Harwood says all you need is your meat of choice, high quality curing salt, and the rest is just time.
Try: Vaticano’s specialty Anchovy Butter for grilled meats!
Raised in Naples, Chef Giuseppe Di Gennaro, owner and chef at Cotto Italian Comfort Food in Calgary, says the trick to Italian cooking is always applying the “less is more” rule.
“When it comes to making pasta, you don’t need an abundance of sauce,” Di Gennaro says. “Use the best ingredients you can find, and keep it simple.”
Di Gennaro says the easiest (and most avoidable) error is overcooking pasta. Because noodles are the star of the dish in Italian cuisine, he recommends making your sauce first and then setting it aside so full focus is on cooking the noodles.
“People make the mistake of putting pasta in the water first, but by the time the pasta is done the sauce isn’t ready,” he explains. “The secret to pasta is watching it at all times. Make sure you’re tasting throughout the cooking process!”
Try: Cotto’s tasty Three Cheese Tortellini with Butter Fondue!
He may be Canadian born, but Chef Daniel Costa is an honorary Italian in our books. Recently opening his third Italian restaurant, Uccellino, in Edmonton, Costa says his style is heavily influenced by his time spent in Italy.
“I discover new dishes and methods each time I travel to Italy,” Costa says. “I could be cooking couscous with a spicy fish broth from Sicily one day, and a risotto with white truffles from Piedmont the next.”
While most of us are landlocked here in Alberta, it doesn’t mean we can’t impress our guests (or even ourselves) with a spectacular Italian pasta. Fresh pasta is fun and easy to make at home, but Costa says there are great, high-quality dry pastas you can find at places like the Italian Centre Shop.
“A major misconception of pasta is that fresh is always superior. Dried pasta works much better with specific sauces,” he explains. “Cook your pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until just under al dente. Finish cooking in your sauce with a ladle or two of the pasta’s cooking water.”
Try: Uccellino’s favourite late-night Spaghetti with Anchovy & Pangrattato!
We’ve tackled antipasti and pastas – now on to the meat, and who better to ask than a chef who cooks a few hundred steaks a week?
Spencer Wheaton, executive chef at one of Calgary’s longest standing Italian restaurants, Mercato, is known for his take on Bistecca Alla Fiorentina. Ranging from 25 ounces all the way up to 70 ounces, these Tuscan-style rib steaks are meant for sharing in true family-style fashion.
It might seem daunting to cook a 7½ cm cut of beef, but Wheaton says it’s something straightforward to make at home and will feed just about everybody.
“With any Italian cooking, the quality of the product is paramount. You wouldn’t want to go anything less than AAA beef,” Wheaton says. “Make sure it has at least 21 days of age — the aging of meat is what makes it tender and flavourful.”
When cooking meat, Wheaton says there are two crucial steps to follow: bringing meat up to room temperature beforehand, and letting it rest afterwards.
“Cold meat doesn’t cook evenly, whereas meat at room temperature will cook a lot more evenly,” he explains. “On the back end, if you slice meat that hasn’t rested properly, all the juices will run out. Resting allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat and will give you a much better end result.”
Like pasta dishes, avoid heavy saucing and let the meat be the star. Wheaton finishes his steaks simply with arugula, olive oil, sea salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Try: Mercato’s signature fish soup: Zuppa di Pesce!
A true Italian might argue a meal isn’t complete without at least five or six dishes to pass around. Pastas and entrees are often accompanied by contorni, which are smaller side dishes usually in the form of roasted vegetables.
Rosario Caputo, chef and owner of Cibo Bistro in Edmonton, says the name of his restaurant, which translates to food, is about just that — letting the food speak for itself.
“We focus on seasonal, regional cuisines,” he says. “Every region is so different, but we usually focus on heavier fare from northern Italy in winter, and lighter fare from the south in summer.”
Roasted eggplant, green beans and sweet root vegetables are all typical contorni, but Caputo says one of his favourites is cauliflower. An easy, delicious side dish or starter to make at home, Caputo says you can roast cauliflower in the oven with olive oil, salt, pepper and shallots, and finish with a bit of salsa verde.
“Slow roast until it gets charred on the outside,” Caputo explains. “Serve it with green herb purée or substitute with pesto, and finish with Pecorino Romano. The fresh pop of the salsa and saltiness of the cheese really rounds out the entire dish.”
Try: Cibo Bistro’s favourite contorni: Roasted Cauliflower with Salsa Verde!
What have we learned about Italian cooking so far? Other than eating (a lot), the entire foundation relies on simplicity.
Having worked as a chef in Italy, Keith Luce — now the chef at Tavernetta in Calgary — says Italian cuisine is a style born of necessity, with a focus on quality (not quantity) ingredients.
“Italian was a cuisine of frugality,” he says. “Luckily for Italians, they had amazing natural resources, but not a tremendous amount of wealth. There wasn’t time to prepare because that bounty was their means of supporting their family and making ends meet.”
And so for any chef making any Italian meal, Luce says the trick is exercising constraint and committing to only a few ingredients per dish.
“Italian is one of those cuisines that really brings you back down to earth,” he says. “At the end of the day, taking raw ingredients and getting them to table with minimal manipulation (and having fun while doing it)… well, there’s nothing more Italian than that!”
Try: Tavernetta’s mouth-watering Beef Brasato!