Visit any Italian kitchen and you're more likely to find a set of sticky, batter-covered fingers rather than a set of high-tech scales and mixers. The heart of an Italian home, la cucina, is known to eschew elaborate tools and methods in favour of instinct and creativity.
"Authentic Italian home cooking is about simple recipes that have worked for hundreds of years, using uncomplicated techniques, great produce, and the most Italian ingredient of them all, passion," says host of Cook like an Italian, Silvia Colloca.
"If you select forgiving recipes, you can really get away with just using your instinct"
For Italian home cooks, Colloca says recipes have never been as important to preparation as feel. The trick is to trust your hands and eyes – and to choose dishes that are sympathetic to improvisation. "If you select forgiving recipes, you can really get away with just using your instinct and what your eyes and your senses are telling you," she says.
Standard practise across Italy
Matteo Carboni, chef and owner of Barossa Valley's Casa Carboni, tells SBS flexibility is key. This is especially true when trying to replicate a traditional dish that varies between regions – a particular pasta might differ from one village to the next, despite being called by the same name, he says.
"Even piadina (a delicious flatbread), our typical snack food in my home city of Forli, is different to the one from Rimini, which is a short distance down the Adriatic Coast.”
"I would say do not be afraid of experimenting or to substitute ingredients with produce that's in season."
Following a recipe tenaciously might close you off to tastier possibilities – so keep an open mind. "I would say do not be afraid of experimenting or to substitute ingredients with produce that's in season," says Carboni.
From experience, Colloca knows that some adjustments always have to be made in the kitchen, from the oven temperature and baking time to whether you like a bit more salt or a bit less sugar.
Use what you have
Her pizzettes epitomise Italian food prep – simple, hands-on, fuelled by creativity and adept at using up leftovers from the fridge. These little round pizzas, made from leftover bread, can be topped with just about anything – Colloca starts with a red marinara sauce using just four main ingredients: tomatoes, chopped garlic, fresh or dried oregano and a couple of tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil.
From here, anchovies, bocconcini and baby zucchini make mouth-watering additions. "This is the beauty of these kinds of recipes where you’re basically really just unleashing your creativity," says Colloca. "Just go with the flow... Go with what you’ve got."
Also one to embrace intuitive cooking, Carboni loves to make cappelletti – a type of stuffed pasta – for family and friends, taking inspiration from his nonna, Pia. "There is no written recipe, so I try to replicate the flavour that I remember from her dish," says Carboni. "Everything she ever made was by look and feel."
What about dessert?
But what of dessert, when the scrupulous measuring of flour, sugar and butter – or lack thereof – can make or break a recipe? "When it comes to baked sweets, you think you’d be mad to do so without a measuring jug or a set of scales, and, in truth, most sweet recipes require some sort of precision," says Colloca. That said, some recipes are less rigid than others so it’s ok to experiment with adjustments.
When making her mother’s foolproof yogurt and berry loaf, for example, the only instrument of precision required is a tablespoon - and the recipe calls for ten portions. "Sweetness is always a matter of preference," she says. "If you like it sweeter, just add one or two more [tablespoons] and if you like it less sweet, just add eight."
It seems the only non-negotiable is to trust your instincts. As Carboni says: "recipes are a starting point that can take you on many different journeys.”
Find Silvia Colloca sharing family secrets from her very own kitchen in the brand-new series Cook like an Italian, Wednesdays at 8:30pm on SBS Food from 8 January to 11 March 2020 and later on SBS On Demand. Head to the website for recipes, articles, tips and more. Follow the 'like an Italian' series here.