Central Italian Cuisine by Region

  • 01 of 05

    An Overview of Central Italian Cooking

    The four regions of Central Italy
    Danette St. Onge/Creative Commons

    Central Italy comprises four regions: Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, and Lazio, home of Rome, the capital.

    Summers in these regions are hotter and longer than those of the north, and consequently, tomato-based dishes are more common than they are further north. At the same time, the winters are chilly inland, making it possible to grow leafy vegetables that reach their best after it frosts, for example, black lacinato (a.k.a, Tuscan or dinosaur) kale. Though there are braised meats and stews, in much of Central Italy the centerpiece of a classic holiday meal will be a platter of mixed grilled or roasted meats, with poultry, pork, and beef, especially in Tuscany, where the renowned Chianina cattle graze the fields. In Lazio, on the other hand, the platter will likely also have lamb, which may also be present in Umbria and the Marche.

    Central Italy also has a rich specialty farming tradition, with many crops that are difficult to find elsewhere, including farro, an ancient grain domesticated by the Romans, and saffron, whose distinctive sharpness adds considerably to many dishes. The area, which is almost entirely hilly or mountainous, also boasts massive chestnut stands on the steeper slopes; chestnuts were, in the past, one of the staple foods of the poor and even now roasted chestnuts are a wonderful treat in winter, as are sweet and savory dishes made with chestnut flour.

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  • 02 of 05

    Tuscan Cuisine

    Bistecca alla fiorentina: Florentine-Style Steak
    John Rizzo / Getty Images

    At first glance, Tuscan food appears simple: There's not much in the way of spices other than black pepper, there are few sauces or seasonings other than olive oil, and only a minimum of herbs. Even the bread is unsalted.

    In truth, it's not simple at all, but rather elemental: Tuscans seek out the best meats, vegetables, fish, and fruit, and once they have the best, they don't want to add anything that might distract from the flavor of these quality ingredients. Chianina beef is superb, for example, so it's seasoned with just a little salt when grilling a fiorentina steak.

    A festive Tuscan meal begins with chicken-liver crostini, followed by either pasta or soup; menus tend to be seasonal with more substantial fare in winter, for example, pasta e fagioli (bean and pasta soup), ribollita, pasta with game sauce or meat sauce, or lasagna in winter, and lighter fare in summer, such as panzanella or pappa al pomodoro, or pasta with a simple tomato sauce.

    The main course (secondo) follows the same pattern, with heartier roasts and stews in the winter months, and more quickly cooked grilled or even fried entrees (meat or fish) in summer. Salads are standard year-round, seasoned with just extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt—no pepper—and beans are also extremely popular. Fresh when available, but dried when there is no choice.

    Desserts, with a few exceptions, are quite simple, often enjoyed with a small glass of Tuscan vinsanto or nocino (walnut liqueur).

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  • 03 of 05

    The Marche Cuisine

    Ciambella marchigiana, a ring cake with pinenut filling and eggs, a traditional cake for Easter in Le Marche
    Nico Tondini / Getty Images

    The traditional diet in Le Marche was almost exclusively vegetarian for the vast majority of the population living inland, and though fish did play a part in the coastal cities, the pickings were still primarily vegetarian: polenta made from corn, seasoned with oil, cheese, onions, ricotta, tomatoes, greens, beans, etc.; bread made from a mixture of cornmeal and flour, wine only in the periods of greatest exertion, and salt pork only occasionally.

    Cuts of veal, lamb or chicken only appeared at holiday meals and wedding banquets, with the portions being so lavish that every guest could take something home. Though there is more prosperity now, the traditions shine through.

    There's still lots of polenta, wild herbs, especially wild fennel in the mountains, mushrooms, including truffles, snails, which were especially popular on meatless days inland where the only fish available was baccalà (dried salt cod), and greens. Meats do appear more frequently now than they used to but still don't predominate.

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  • 04 of 05

    Lazio and Rome Cuisine

    Roman-Style Artichokes - Carciofi alla romana
    maakenzi / Getty Images

    The cooking of Lazio is, in essence, the cooking of Rome; the Eternal City dominates the region now and did so to an even greater degree in the past. As a result, the city became the depository of all of Lazio's local culinary traditions, including that of the storied Roman Jewish population. 

    If one were to select a single word to describe the cooking of Lazio, it would likely be simple (as opposed to elaborate). The region boasts some of the finest farmland in all of Italy, and the produce is superb, in particular, the artichokes, olives, chicory, and salad greens. The cooks have wisely realized that the less they do to these ingredients in the kitchen the better.

    Pasta sauces also tend to be simple, aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil), for example, or all'amatriciana, a spicy tomato sauce with pancetta or guanciale, or alla carbonara, with pancetta and eggs.

    This simplicity carries through into the meat dishes, which are, with a few exceptions—coda alla vaccinara comes to mind—primarily veal and lamb based: Quickly-cooked veal cutlets, either with wine sauce or prosciutto (saltimbocca) and roasted or grilled abbacchio, i.e., suckling lamb.

    The wine to enjoy with all this? Though Lazio's producers are now making reds as well, tradition dictates one quaff the light zesty whites from the Alban Hills, and a fine pairing it is.

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  • 05 of 05

    Umbria Cuisine

    Fresh porcini mushrooms
    Imagesource / Cadalpe / Getty Images

    Umbria, the only landlocked region in peninsular Italy, is known as Il cuore verde D'Italia, the "Green Heart of Italy," because of its ample valleys, green hills, and relative lack of industrialization. The cooking is one of the most local of all Italian cuisines, in the sense that the Umbrians have stayed true to tradition, feeling little need for ingredients or procedures introduced from elsewhere.

    The region is known for its pork products, especially salami and prosciutto, which is salato, in other words, more heavily salted than the prosciutto of Parma. Other meats include beef, and a wide variety of poultry, including chickens and guinea hens. Lamb is less common, though the lambs of Colfiorito are renowned.

    In terms of cooking technique, Umbria is known for grilling, which is done simply, with few herbs or spices to alter the flavors of the meats. In addition to meats, the Umbrian diet is rich in vegetables—family vegetable plots produce a greater volume of produce than commercial farmers, who export much of their produce to neighboring regions. Again, cooking and seasoning are simple; Umbria has excellent olive oil and many people just that and a little salt.

    Forests also play an important role in the diet; Umbria is renowned for the variety and quality of its mushrooms, which include both porcini and truffles, and the chestnut crop is also superb.

    Wines? Look for Orvieto, a white, and Torgiano and Sagrantino, both reds.