• Pecora in cappotto con fregola. From A Sardinian Cookbook, by Giovanni Pilu and Roberta Muir. (Anson Smart)Source: Anson Smart
To enjoy the best Italian cuisine, it pays to know a few of the regional specialties.
Carla Grossetti

9 Aug 2018 - 11:58 PM  UPDATED 11 Jun 2019 - 10:59 PM

While we have come to marvel over the Italian goods that are popular by demand, pizza, lasagne, spaghetti, risotto, ragù, it's the dishes that may not have the credit, but have so much soul that has us revelling.  

Cuculli Genovesi (potato and pine nut fritters) 

Lucio Galetto of Lucios in Sydney: "I grew up in La Spezia in eastern Liguria where cuculli is a speciality. The word cucilli comes from a slang word in the Ligurian dialect that means 'hyperactive children'. In the old days, we were very poor and my mum would give us these to fill up our stomachs and keep us quiet. These days, cuculli are served as an aperitif at a dinner party. Traditionally, cuculli was made with chickpea flour for farinata, which is a very thin pancake. But my mum uses mashed potatoes. It's a lovely starter because it's crispy on the outside and melts in the mouth and it's easy to pick up with a toothpick. It's beautiful with a glass of chardonnay." 

Pecora in cappotto con fregola (mutton stew with fregola)

Giovanni Pilu of Pilu at Freshwater: "Pecora in cappotto con fregola is a dish made to celebrate La Festa di Sant'Elia in Sardinia. This festival has been going on since the 1200s on the last weekend in May. It is a big celebration with 3000 people dancing and eating mutton stew ladled from pots that are so big I can fit into them. Pecora in cappotto means 'mutton with a coat'. The coat is made with potatoes, onion and vegetables. The meat is boiled for a while and with peas, carrots and pasta, this makes it a one-course feast. You can add fregola or small pastina. I sometimes make a consommé at Pilu that honours this dish. It's used in a dish called zuppa gallurese because it's from Gallura. We make it with stale bread soaked in mutton stock, pecorino and fresh mint. It's delicious."

Pecora in cappotto con fregola. From A Sardinian Cookbook, by Giovanni Pilu and Roberta Muir.

Baccala mantecato (salt cod paste)

Alessandro Pavoni, chef and restauranteur: "Baccala mantecato is a traditional dish from Venice made using salted cod from Norway that is cured naturally in the alpine air. The beauty of this dish is it is as much about the onions as it is the fish. You cook the onions very slowly and put the fish through cornflour and put it on top of the onions and then poach it very gently in milk. I have this dish on the menu at my new place, Sotto Sopra. When the fish is cooked, I whip it with extra virgin oil and it's bloody amazing. In Italy, you serve it on crostini or on soft white polenta. You can also whip it with extra virgin oil or with the onions and it's called vicintina. Before you whip it, it looks like a fish curry but the flavours are very Italian. You can serve it cold from the fridge like a paté."

A salt cod paste is a traditional Venetian side, make your own here!


Cassouela (casserole)  

Luca Ciano, author of Luca's Sesaonal Journey: "I grew up in Milan and when my mum made cassoeula I used to run away. I still remember when I enjoyed it for the first time. I was 20 and I'd been a chef for five years and I was visiting Milan from London and there I was sitting down to this dish from my childhood and it was so bloody great. Cassoeula in the Milanese dialect means casserole. It's from Lombardy. Cucina povera (cuisine of the poor) was created after WWII when people had to cook with what was around them - whether it was a pig or vegetables. My grandfather used to say: 'A cassoulet is not good enough unless your lips stick together from the fat'. These days, mum makes it lighter. She adds ribs, rind and trotters, but not the pig's head. It's a winter dish and it really is nose-to-tail eating."

Developed as a dish for the poor, casseroles are now a popular mainstay of Italian cooking. 

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get cooking: italian
The lowdown: Italian cuisine
Italian food is adored across Australia, but that hasn’t stopped several classics – pasta and pizza included – from being rather misconstrued. More than a carb fest, Italian cuisine prides itself on simplicity and seasonality: seafood sings, cheeses are revered, and tomato is king.
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