ABRUZZO:

Abruzzese cooks are masters at turning simple ingredients (perhaps a handful of freshly plucked beans from the garden plot, gleaming black mussels, golden noodles) into glorious feasts. They flavor their dishes with hot chili pepper, aromatic saffron, fruity olive oil. Pasta is the preferred Abruzzese first course, and none is as typical as maccheroni alla chitarra (“guitar pasta”): sheets of egg dough are cut using a flat rolling pin on a wooden box with strings (hence the name “guitar”). Crêpes (called scrippelle) are rolled around savory fillings, dropped into broths, or layered with cheese, vegetables, and meat before baking. Polenta is usually enjoyed with a spicy sausage ragù or hearty meat sauce. In port cities, just-caught fish is marinated in a vinegary brine, and rich soups are concocted from dozens of types of fish. In the mountains, sheepherding remains a common way to make a living, so lamb, kid, sheep, and mountain goat are mainstays of the diet; wine, garlic, olive oil, and rosemary are favorite flavorings, especially when the source of heat is a lively wood fire. Many families still raise their own pigs, and free-roaming pigs yield flavorful, lean meat and tasty salumi (cured meats). Pastries tend to be unsophisticated: olive oil is often used instead of butter, nuts or dried fruit provide bulk and flavor, and sheep’s milk ricotta, a favorite in central and southern Italy, shows up in fritters and sweet cakes.

The most interesting Abruzzese culinary tradition is la panarda, a multi-course feast of gargantuan proportions. A legend holds that la panarda was born when a young mother, gone to fetch water near her home, returned to find her newborn in the mouth of a wolf. Desperate, the woman prayed to Saint Anthony of Abate, and the wolf let the baby go. The grateful young mother promised to prepare a feast for Saint Anthony, starting a tradition that would be passed down from generation to generation for centuries to come. Most panarde consist of 35 to 50 courses and last all night, thus enabling guests to partake of every dish at a leisurely pace. The mountain town of Villavallelonga has preserved its panarda traditions more fervently than others, and local families still host the feast on an annual basis. To go to Villavallelonga, take Highway 25 to the Celano exit, then follow the road to Trasacco and look for Villavallelonga.

Traditional Abruzzo Recipe:
This dish is made, with minor variations, across central and southern Italy, especially for Easter. It is boldly flavored thanks to an abundant handful of grated Pecorino and rendered velvety by the addition of eggs at the last moment. Serve it with roasted potatoes for a splendid main course.

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 pounds boneless lamb, trimmed of fat and sinew, cut into 1-inch cubes (preferably from the neck or shoulder)
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 and 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan over a medium-high flame (a terra-cotta pan is ideal, but cast iron or heavy stainless steel will do). When the oil is hot, add half of the lamb and brown it on all sides, turning often to cook evenly; it will take about 8 minutes. Remove to a plate; brown the remaining lamb in the oil left in the pan. Return all the lamb to the pan, add the onion, stir, and cook 5 minutes, or until the onion wilts.

Add the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 10 minutes. Cover; lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours, adding 1/4 cup of the broth every 15 minutes. Uncover; the lamb should be fork-tender (cook a little longer if it is not).

Beat the eggs with the Pecorino, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Remove the pan from the heat, transfer the lamb to a serving platter, and return the pan to the heat. Pour in the egg-Pecorino mixture, and stir gently to create a smooth, velvety sauce. Do not let the sauce boil, or it will curdle. Pour the sauce over the lamb and serve hot. Serves 6

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CAMPANIA:

Settled by the Greeks and then dominated by the Etruscans, Samnites, and Romans, the southern region of Campania is more densely populated along the coast than inland, where hills and mountains make for harsher living. Profoundly influenced by the Normans, who conquered the region in the eleventh century, Campania later belonged to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which comprised the Bourbon territory of Sicily and Naples. Near the busy capital city of Naples, Mount Vesuvius reigns impassive and foreboding, a daily reminder of the eruption of August 24, 79 A.D., when the nearby cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae were covered in red-hot lava and a cloud of ashes. But the volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius has also ensured Campania fertile land where some of Italy’s tastiest produce is grown, ready to be shipped and enjoyed all over the world.

Best known around the world for its pizza, Campania’s exuberant cuisine relies on sun-kissed vegetables and herbs, salty capers, dried pasta, and fresh farmhouse cheeses (chief among them water buffalo’s Mozzarella). In the nineteenth century, people living in the capital city of Naples were nicknamed Mangia Maccheroni (Maccheroni Eaters); to this day, Neapolitans remain devout pasta eaters, and their pasta is among the best and the most varied in all of Italy. In Campania (as in Sicily) you will find the elaborate dishes of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French monzù tradition; one, a rich rice Timballo called Sartù di Riso, is made only for feasts.

The Campani, as the people of Campania are called, are renowned for their fish and seafood specialties. All along Campania’s glittering coastline, cooks tenderize octopus by stewing it in a sealed clay pot with olive oil, garlic, capers, olives, and parsley or with chili and tomatoes. Squid and cuttlefish are boiled and served in salads, stuffed and baked, or fried into crunchy rings, while mussels and clams are cooked with a whisper of wine and tossed with handmade pasta or added to seafood salads. Salt cod, fresh sardines, and anchovies too are staples, and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without eel marinated with vinegar and herbs or cooked with tomatoes and white wine.

On the Amalfi Coast (a stretch that has been called “The Most Beautiful Coast in the World”) there is a unique pasta called Scialatielli, prepared with flour, eggs, milk, grated Parmigiano, and parsley, shaped into stout strands, and tossed with seafood and flavorful cherry tomatoes. Fertile volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius and a thriving fishing industry combine to make Campania’s kitchen one of the luckiest, and most varied, in Italy. Seafood dishes are bright and vibrantly flavored, a true ode to the sea, while pastries bespeak an Arab and Greek influence and often feature honey, nuts, and spices.

Crostini con Pure’ di Carciofi, Mozzarella e Pomodorini
Crostini are similar to bruschetta–both are finger foods based on crisp bread–but crostini are baked rather than grilled, and they emerge crustier than bruschetta. You can try mild goat cheese instead of Mozzarella for a sharper flavor.

  • 12 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 24 thin slices baguette (about 1/4-inch-thick)
  • 1 cup artichoke paste (available in specialty food shops)
  • 1 pound fresh buffalo’s milk Mozzarella, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup basil leaves
  • ¼ cup snipped chives
  • ¼ cup oregano leaves
  • ¼ cup mint leaves
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat an oven to 450°. Arrange the cherry tomato halves, cut side up, in a single layer on an 11- x 17-inch baking
sheet. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and ¼ teaspoon of the pepper. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until just soft and slightly wrinkled. Remove from the oven.

Arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on an 11- x 17-inch baking sheet and top with the artichoke paste. Arrange a slice of Mozzarella on top of each slice of baguette. Top each with 1 roasted cherry tomato half, cut side down.

Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes, or until the Mozzarella melts and the baguette becomes golden.

Meanwhile, blend the basil, chives, oregano, mint, garlic, the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt, the remaining ¼ teaspoon of pepper, and the olive oil until nearly smooth in a blender.

Pour the herbed olive oil over the hot crostini and serve immediately. Makes 24

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EMILIA-ROMAGNA:

Dubbed “Italy’s Food Basket,” Emilia-Romagna is home to many of the country’s most renowned foods: Prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and balsamic vinegar to name a few. Cooks in the region have a penchant for rich flavors and spectacular presentation, and are especially skilled at making all manner of stuffed pasta by hand.

Emilia-Romagna is the birthplace of that most delectable of vinegars: aceto balsamico, or balsamic vinegar. Syrupy, rich balsamic vinegar, aged in wooden barrels until it acquires the depth and complexity of a fine wine, hails from the city of Modena. Dubbed balsamic thanks to its curative powers, it is still fermented and aged just like it was in the Middle Ages, when only the noble classes could afford it.

Few foods have enjoyed the widespread fame of balsamic vinegar, not only as a condiment, but as a medicine of sorts, since the turn of the second millennium. This luxurious, heady nectar has been produced in and around the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna since the year 1000, and myths and legends have long attested to its awesome medicinal properties.

Insalata di Finocchio al Balsamico (Shaved Fennel Salad in Balsamic Vinaigrette):
The balsamic dressing below is quite versatile; try it with baby greens or grilled vegetables. Make a double batch and refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 weeks.

  • 2 shallots, very thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup minced tarragon leaves or 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, quartered, and sliced paper-thin

Place the shallots, tarragon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper in jar. Close with a tight-fitting lid and
shake to blend.

Pour the dressing over the fennel in a bowl. Toss, taste for salt, adjust if needed, and serve after 15 minutes. Serves 6

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PIEDMONT:

From the peaks of snowcapped mountains to the shores of glittering lakes, Piedmont encompasses a diverse and prolific landscape. First-class wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera hail from hillside vineyards, noble partners to a cuisine that is unabashedly rich and deliciously refined. Fresh pastas are stuffed with delicately spiced forcemeats and showered with fragrant white truffles, rice is paired with everything from frogs’ legs to Castelmagno cheese, prized cuts of meat are boiled to tender perfection and served with great pomp during the cold winter months, and the chocolate confections are the best in the country.

Gnocchi di Patate ai Funghi (Gnocchi in Delicate Mushroom Sauce):
The sauce for the gnocchi combines dried porcini with fresh shiitake and a hint of tomatoes for a delicately woodsy aroma. In Piedmont, fresh porcini would be used instead.

  • 1 ounce (1/2 cup) dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
  • 6 large ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 pounds fresh potato gnocchi
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Soak the dried porcini in cool water to cover for 30 minutes, or until soft and pliable; drain, reserving the soaking
water, and rinse, then chop finely. Strain the soaking water through a cheesecloth-lined sieve and set aside.

Heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan over a medium flame. Add the shiitake, garlic, parsley, and porcini, and sauté 10 minutes, or until the shiitake have let out all their liquid and the liquid has evaporated. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the pepper, and the reserved porcini soaking water.

Bring to a boil and cover; cook 15 minutes, stirring once in a while; keep warm.

When you are ready to cook the gnocchi, bring 8 quarts of water to a boil.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of salt. Drop in the gnocchi and cook until they float to the surface; remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl.

Fold in the warm sauce with a rubber spatula (you may not need all of it), dilute with as much of the gnocchi water as needed to create a light, flowing consistency, and stir in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the Parmigiano. Serve hot. Serves 8