• Pizza margherita. (Food Safari Fire)Source: Food Safari Fire
The building blocks of a cuisine that fills the belly, warms the heart, and has charmed the world over. Master this set, and you'll (almost) have nonna credentials.
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7 Aug 2018 - 10:30 AM  UPDATED 13 Aug 2018 - 10:21 AM

1. Porchetta

In Italy, the ancient dish of porchetta generally refers to a whole pig that has been gutted, rubbed and filled with aromatics like ginger, fennel, sage, rosemary and lemon, then spit-roasted on an open fire. While we may not all have access to entire pigs or the luxury of an open fire, we can all achieve the same flavour profile, characteristic amber crackling, and the sweet and tender porchetta meat at home. Try this recipe for perfect porchetta—it contains a secret (but a very Italian) ingredient. Hint: you'll be able to use the leftovers to sip on while you dine. 

2. Risotto 

Rice was introduced to Italy by the Arabs in the Middle Ages, with the humid Mediterranean climate fitting for the starchy short-grain rice to flourish. In the Venice and Veneto regions, where most of Italy’s rice grows, risotto is eaten in place of pasta for a first course. Risotto Alla Milanese - a saffron-laced risotto - is thought to be the original risotto flavour, and, as the name would indicate, hails from Milan. Serve as-is, or accompanied with mushrooms, seafood, or a meat dish like Osso bucco. 

Food Safari's risotto alla Milanese

3. Crudo and carpaccio 

Same same but different: both crudo and carpaccio are dishes of sliced raw meat, and both are dressed with lively vinaigrettes and garnishes that complement the meat's elegant flavours. The difference when they're on your plate is that "crudo" is generally fish, as it's sliced thicker, and carpaccio may be fish or meat and is sliced paper-thin. This kingfish crudo with cucumber, fried capers and chilli dressing encompasses the essence of raw Italian dishes: top-quality ingredients, simple preparation, and punchy condiments. 

4. Pasta 

Once you nail making fresh pasta, a whole new world of pasta opens up to you: you can make anything from pappardelle to ravioli, lasagne sheets to linguini, or even this silk handkerchief pasta with pesto (mandilli di seta). It's called "handkerchief" pasta, as the slices are large - like a handkerchief - rather than long and thin. Pesto pasta hails from the home of pesto, Genoa, where basil grows particularly fervently and sweetly. 

5. Fritto misto

Fritto miso is an Italian "fried mixture"—anything from meat-stuff olives to eggplant, custard, and seafood. Ingredients are tossed in seasoned flour, then deep-fried until irresistibly crisp and golden. What you're served in your fritto misto mixture is determined by seasonality, regionality, and availability, so it's likely you may never get the same fritto misto twice. Try this crispy fried prawns and calamari (fritto misto), and remember to obey the golden rule: eat it while it's hot.

6. Bolognese sauce 

It is said that are as many bolognese recipes as they are grandmothers in Italy. The differences may be in the meat used—beef, pork, veal mince, or a mixture; the wine—red or wine; the type of stock; and the use of extra flavour-enhancers like chicken livers, anchovies or pancetta. Bolognese is essential for lasagne, and is a beloved sauce for pasta, but here's a fun fact: spaghetti bolognese is not something you'll find traditionally in Italy. If you come across it there, it's to market to foreign tourists. Bolognese in Italy is reserved broad, flat pasta like pappardelle, tagliatelle or fettuccine, or tubular pasta like rigatoni and penne. This recipe for sugo bolognese is the one served by Guy Grossi at his Melbourne restaurant, and who inherited it from his mother. 

7. Polenta

Polenta is especially popular in the north of Italy, where it was originally peasant food, thanks to being cheap and filling. It can be left soft, or spread into a baking dish and allowed to set, before being fried or baked until golden. When cooked like this soft polenta, with milk, butter and parmesan, it's the ultimate comfort food. Serve it alongside and is served alongside meat dishes in place of other popular Italian carbs. 

8. Pizza Margherita

Pizza Margherita is a good test of a restaurant - the quality of the base, the tomato sauce, and the mozzarella - there's no hiding behind other ingredients. Pizza had been eaten in Italy for centuries, but when Queen Margherita was served a special creation in 1889, adorned with ingredients reflecting the Italian flag, she was won over and her namesake combination became a classic.

9. Bagna Cauda 

Bagna cauda is like an Italian fondue, an appetiser to be shared between friends with a bottle of wine—considering it’s from the Piedmont region of Italy, a local red like Barbera or Nebbiolo would be true to form. It’s served warm, and rich with a heady aroma from the combination of extra virgin olive oil, anchovies and mounds of garlic. Get some friends around (or have a party for one!) and make this pinzimonio (Italian crudites) with bagna cauda.

10. Gnocchi

Suspected to come from the Italian word for knuckle (“nocca”) - not a far stretch, when you look at them - gnocchi are little dumplings mostly commonly made of potato, but might also be of ricotta, spinach and pumpkin. Made right, like this gnocchi with fresh tomato and basil sauce, they’re light and luscious. Top tips include using a starchy potato variety, boiling the spuds whole and unpeeled, peeling and mashing the mixture while they're warm (so the egg binds to the dough), and not to overwork the dough, which releases the gluten. 

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? This week, The Chefs' Line is all about Italian food and culture. Tune in 6pm weeknights to SBS and check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.

More classics
Food Safari's caponata

Everyone has their own way of cooking this Sicilian favourite, and Rosa Mitchell cooks each vegetable separately as they all take different times, before mixing them together at the end.

Schiacciata all’uva (grape focaccia)

This is an Italian bread that’s traditionally made when grapes are harvested for winemaking. It’s like focaccia, only covered with jewel-like grapes. It’s a little bit sweet and a little bit savoury, the perfect bread to eat with a good hunk of firm cheese.

Spinach and ricotta ravioli with passata

“By investing a little time each summer in processing box upon box of the season’s tomatoes, Rosa Bovezza and her family ensure they have enough passata to feed everyone all year round. This recipe does feed a lot, but you can always freeze half for another time.” Rachel Khoo, Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook Melbourne

Meatballs (polpette)

Scatter with parmesan and basil and grab some crunchy bread to mop up all that rich sauce. 

Minestrone

Stefano Manfredi recalls eating this fabulous touch-your-heart Italian soup, full of fresh vegetables at least once a week as a boy. In a twist on tradition, Manfredi finely chops the parmesan rind and leaves it in the soup instead of discarding before serving. Minestrone is a soup that gets better with age, so while it’s good the day you make it, it’s even better the day after.