An easy to use dictionary to understand Italian Food terms
A Tuscan stew made by the Etruscans as long as three thousand years ago, cacciucco is made either with fish and seafood or with meat. In both cases, many varieties of meat or fish are cooked with vegetables and given an especially sharp flavor by a generous quantity of garlic and chili pepper. The seaside town of Livorno is famous for its fish and seafood cacciucco.
A type of hard cheese, typical of Sicily, somewhat similar to provolone, which is made of whole milk, processed without cooking, and aged for at least two months. Though it is often smoked, its flavor is also affected by the amount of time it is aged. After two months the mild quality of caciocavallo becomes increasingly assertive. One version, made in Ragusa from a blend of cow's and lamb's milk, exhibits a strong flavor after prolonged aging and is used, grated, in many typical Sicilian dishes. The cheese originated in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and both its rather bulbous shape and odd name have provoked speculation. Some of the credulous believe the cheese was first made with horses' or asses' milk. Some thought the cheeses were paired like saddlebags and transported on horseback (each cheese weighs about four and a half pounds). It could be the name had to do with an early cheese tax with a stamp in the form of a horse. But most likely caciocavallo is simply a variant of a very similar Turkish cheese called "qasqawal".
Literally translated, the name of this cheese means 'ricotta cheese', but in reality it is a drier cheese, a hybrid between caciocavallo and fresh ricotta; some versions closely resemble Ricotta Salata, or salted ricotta. Often made from sheep's milk or a combination of sheep's milk and cow's milk in Southern Italy, cacioricotta is a specialty of Apulia and Basilicata. A softer cacioricotta is eaten in the province of L'Aquila, in Abruzzo, on feast days.
Like pizza - a dish synonymous with Italian cuisine the world over - the calzone originated in Southern Italy, namely Campania, Apulia, Calabria, and Basilicata. The word calzone literally means 'trousers': in essence it is a savory turnover made with pizza dough, folded over itself, and then baked or fried. In Naples, the classic calzone is stuffed with provolone, caciocavallo, or mozzarella, as well as fresh ricotta, Pecorino, and cubed salami; in Apulia, a tomato sauce flavored with onion, black olives, salted anchovies, capers, and fresh basil is combined with ricotta cheese and Pecorino for the filling of choice; and in Basilicata, the favored stuffing is Swiss chard, fiery red chili pepper, and oversized black olives.
A specialty of Trentino-Alto Adige, these bread dumplings are the Italian version of Austrian and German knödel. Often served in rich meat broths, they are made with stale white or rye bread moistened in milk and bound with eggs, and frequently flavored with parsley, speck (a local cured ham), nutmeg, and caraway seeds. Liver is sometimes added to make canederli al fegato.
A Sicilian specialty, named for its pipelike shape and intended as a treat at Carnevale, cannoli spread through Italy and were eventually a fixture in almost every pastry shop. The elaborately flavored dough is rolled and shaped around a metal cylinder, then deep fried. When cool, the crisp cookie-like tubes are filled with a sweetened ricotta mixture enriched with candied fruits and small bits of chocolate. In one classic version the dough is made from flour, sugar, egg white, bitter cocoa, powdered coffee, Marsala, brandy, salt, and a tiny amount of lard, and candied pumpkin and orange are used in the filling. The origins of cannoli, also called Turkish hats, can be traced back to the Saracens or even to pre-Christian times. The tubelike shapes may have imitated the steles and menhirs common to the Druids, and were thought to be fertility symbols.
The name both of a cut of pork and a cured meat prepared in central and southern Italy from the upper part of the neck (collo means neck) and part of the shoulder of pork. Meat and fat are chopped into large chunks, flavored differently depending on the region, and cured for four months to one year. Initially, capocollo was made with mountain pigs, whose meat was leaner than that of farm-raised pigs. Umbria turns out the most characteristic capocollo of all, flavoring it with wild fennel seeds or black pepper and garlic. Calabria smokes its capocollo and uses more lean meat than fat. Apulia's capocollo is also slightly smoked. Capocollo is almost exclusively eaten raw, sliced thinly and presented as part of an antipasto selection or with a variety of cured meats. Other regions produce similar cured meats under different names: the most famous is the coppa from Emilia, a prized meat, followed by scammarita in Latium and mulette in Molise.
This Sicilian dish features cubed eggplants, celery, and onions - each one fried separately in a generous amount of olive oil - flavored with tomatoes, raisins, pine nuts, olives, a sprinkling of vinegar, and a touch of sugar for a characteristically sweet-and-sour flavor, a reminder of Arab influence in Sicilian cuisine. A more complicated version of caponata includes seafood (lobsters, shrimp, and the like). Caponata is usually enjoyed as an antipasto in its native Sicily, but it also makes a lovely side dish and is quite delicious spooned onto crisp bread for crostini. Caponata is not to be confused with Liguria's Cappon Magro (a towering seafood salad) or Capponalda (a dried bread salad with anchovies), although the words share a root.
The region of Emilia-Romagna offers a large and tempting selection of stuffed pastas, including cappelletti, the preferred pasta of Romagna. Cappelletti get their name from the shape of a hat worn in the Middle Ages, evidence of the ancient nature of this pasta; there are even references to cappelletti in thirteenth-century documents, indicating that the practice of stuffing pasta is a very old one indeed. Cappelletti resemble a tennis visor; they feature a ring-like band of stuffed pasta with a peaked, triangular point in front and are pinched together in the back. Various fillings are used to stuff cappelletti, but the two most traditional are a delicate meat purée and a subtle cheese stuffing. Cappelletti are usually served in a rich meat broth or sauced with a simple tomato or sage-butter sauce.
This robust stew hails from the northern region of Val d'Aosta but is also common in France, where it is called carbonade. (In the rest of Italy, it goes by the name of carbonata.) Traditionally carbonnade has been made with salted rather than fresh beef, for it was one of the region's staples. Today fresh beef is used instead, but the dish is salted heavily to retain its ancient character. To make carbonnade, lean stewing beef is cut into strips, dredged in flour, and browned in hot butter; onions are stirred in and browned, the whole is deglazed with a full-bodied red wine, and salt is stirred in. As the meat cooks and the sauce reduces, more wine and a generous amount of pepper are folded in; the end result is a rich, densely sauced stew best accompanied by steaming hot polenta.
Like the artichoke, the cardoon ("cardo") is a member of the thistle family and while it may look like strange silver-hued celery, its taste is indeed reminiscence of the artichoke, though with a slightly bitter taste. Cardoons take quite a bit of preparing as the outer stalks have to be removed and the sometimes prickly leaves have to be removed from the inner stalks but it lends itself so well to mouthwatering, bubbling gratins that the trouble is soon forgotten. It is usually parboiled to remove the bitterness before being used for gratins topped with bechamel sauce and Parmigiano cheese, or is simply served with butter.
It is also the star turn in the Piedmontese specialty, the "bagna cauda," a hot dip made with butter, garlic, anchovies and oil which is served with strips of raw vegetables like celery, fennel, etc., but which makes for an outstanding combination with "cardi."
Carnaroli is generally regarded as the best rice for risotto (except in the Veneto where they prefer Vialone Nano). Representing the apex of superfino, the top category of rice determined by the size of the grain, this short-grain rice is smaller than Arborio, which tends to be more popular for risotto in the U.S. It also has a higher starch content. Carnaroli can absorb a lot of flavorful liquid without overcooking, which makes it both lusiciously creamy and toothsome, everything you want in a great risotto. The supreme carnaroli comes from Baraggia Vercellese in the Piedmont lowlands north of Vercelli.
This celebrated beef dish was the invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, creator of Harry's Bar in Venice. One of Cipriani's regulars, a Venetian countess by the name of Amalia Nani Mocenigo, was under doctors' orders to consume plenty of raw beef. To liven up the countess' new diet, Cipriani came up with the idea of presenting her with a platter of paper-thin slices of raw beef filet. (Beef filet, or other lean, tender beef parts, are usually used to prepare carpaccio.) Cipriani seasoned the beef with a mayonnaise, mustard, and Worcester sauce, but carpaccio can also be seasoned with olive oil, mustard, lemon, and pepper, or with an herbed mayonnaise dressing. He called his creation carpaccio since the reds and yellows of the dish recalled the colors of paintings by fifteenth-century artist Carpaccio, whose work was on display in Venice at the time. To slice beef paper-thin for carpaccio, place the filet in the freezer 15 minutes before taking a sharp knife to it. Today the word carpaccio is used to describe all manner of raw fish and seafood, not just the beef carpaccio that was invented by Cipriani fifty years ago in Venice.
This is a treatment for freshwater fish that has roots in the Middle Ages, when fish was often preserved in vinegar sauces for lack of refrigeration. The fish is first fried in olive oil, then it is marinated with vinegar and aromatic vegetables for up to one week. Carp, trout, eel, and "chubs" are most typically prepared in carpione. The same procedure is used for saltwater fish, like sardines, and called saor in the Veneto. Like saor, carpione is usually presented as an appetizer.
CAR-tah dah MOO-see-cah
Often confused with pane carasau - a similar but thinner, crunchier bread - this bread is a staple in Sardinia and its name (literally, sheet of music) refers to its parchment-like appearance. Its preparation is lengthy and requires patience: a yeasted dough is prepared with durum flour and all-purpose flour, left to rise, kneaded, repeatedly stretched with a rolling pin, left to rise again, then shaped into very thin disks. The disks are left to rise again, baked, cooled, and baked again until dry and crunchy. Carta da musica keeps for months and has traditionally nourished shepherds on their seasonal journeys as they accompanied their livestock to faraway pastures.
A traditional Christmas sweet from Apulia, prepared both at home and in bakeries, cartellate are also called carteddate in dialect. Each family has its own recipe, but the common point is a yeasted dough flavored with olive oil and wine, shaped like a flower, and fried in hot olive oil. Once patted dry, cartellate are dipped into a hot syrup (usually grape must, sometimes honey) and cooked until they float to the surface. They are then dusted with cinnamon and confectioner's sugar and served at room temperature.
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Montefeltro marchigiano, the area that straddles the regions of Romagna and Umbria, rises up from the Apennine massif of Carpegna and slopes down toward the sea. Its most interesting center is Urbino, the historic capital of the Duchy of Montefeltro. Casciotta di Urbino, the cheese that is produced throughout the area, enjoys DOP status (Denominazione di Origine Protetta): it is made with sheep's milk (70%-80%) and cow's milk (20%-30%) and matured for 20-30 days in a cool environment. Casciotta really comes into its own in April (the best time to eat the cheese is between March 20 and May 20), in that during this period it is made with the milk produced by herds fed on the new grass of late winter and early spring. It is actually the grass that gives the cheese its unique aroma. Casciotta is a cheese with a semi-cooked paste and a cylindrical shape with rounded grooves. Its diameter ranges from 4½" to 6¼", the height varies from 2" to 2¾", and the weight from 1¾ pounds to 2⅔ pounds. It has a thin crust and the paste turns a deep straw-yellow when the cheese is fully mature. The texture is soft and crumbly, with some small holes; the taste is pleasantly delicate.
This traditional Milanese dish is usually prepared in late autumn and winter; its basic components are Savoy cabbage and pork. The best time to prepare this hearty stew is after the first frost, when the cabbage has frozen in the fields and requires a short cooking time, thereby retaining more of its flavor. Casoeûla has much in common with the French Potage and the Spanish Pote Gallego; some maintain that its roots can be traced to the Spanish occupation of Milan. Although it is impossible to pinpoint a precise origin for Casoeûla, meat and vegetable stews of its sort are common all over the world, since they are an economical way of stretching precious meat and providing nutritious one-dish meals at little cost. Casoeûla is usually accompanied by steaming hot polenta, another classic in Milan.
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This spectacular cake was born in Sicily, where it took its name from a deep, rounded bowl called quas at in Arabic (Sicily was under Arab rule for many centuries and a number of its sweets were elaborated in the pastry shops of convents after the Normans conquered the island). Abruzzo's cassata consists of four layers of sponge cake imbibed with centerbe, each spread with nougat, croquant, or chocolate pastry cream, and it is a specialty of the town of Sulmona.
For this old Roman Jewish dessert, fresh ricotta is beaten with sugar and eggs, then cooked like a pancake in a hot pan with a little olive oil until golden on both sides. Some people prefer to cook the top side under the broiler rather than flipping the cassola. When done, cassola is firm and brown on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside. Some elaborate variations include cinnamon, cognac, or grated lemon zest; one even calls for rice cooked in milk, to give the cassola a firmer consistency.
This is a Tuscan specialty made of chestnut flour combined with sugar, water, and olive oil, then baked in a round pan. Rather high and dense, castagnaccio is sometimes garnished with raisins and pine nuts; it has been the traditional after-school snack for generations of Tuscan children.
Apulia's classic pasta, made of durum flour and water, is similar to the rascatieddi of Calabria, the saffron-tinted malloreddus of Sardinia, and the gnucchiteddi of Sicily. Cavatelli are made of a hard dough, traditionally worked a few minutes by hand and shaped into one-inch long pieces with a long indentation along one side. They are sauced differently in the various regions which prepare them; in Apulia, they are often paired with arugula and a fresh tomato sauce. Industrial production of cavatelli has grown significantly in recent years, so you should be able to find some in upscale Italian markets across North America.
This is a very large fruit (weighing at least two pounds) that resembles a lemon. It is cultivated in Southern Italy and is thought to have come from Media, a large area of ancient Persia. The harvest is between October and December, but the fruit, prized for its aromatic peel and essential oils, is used year round. After candying, the cedro peel is used in a wide variety of desserts, especially in raised doughs, cakes and puddings. It is a classic ingredient in Christmas Panettone, the Easter Dove, and is found in regional specialties like cassata siciliana or panforte senese. The peel can also be macerated and used as a flavoring in summer drinks. Flowers of the cedro produce an essence similar to orange flower water which is used in syrups, candies, and a range of desserts.
Literally, "hundreds of herbs," centerbe is a digestive from Abruzzo made by infusing a variety of medicinal herbs, some say as many as one hundred (which explains the name), in alcohol. It has a very high alcoholic content, usually 32 proof. Homemade centerbe can be made by placing orange leaves, basil, chamomile, rosemary, sage, juniper, cloves, cinnamon, toasted coffee beans, saffron, mint, lemon leaves, mandarin leaves, thyme blossoms, and marjoram in a bottle, pouring alcohol over the whole thing, and letting the mixture macerate, covered, for ten days, then straining it and adding a sugar syrup. Aged at least one month, centerbe is an excellent digestive.
Stuffed pasta from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. There are numerous versions, including a very famous one from Carnia - often called agnolotti carnici despite the fact that their filling is very different from that of other agnolotti. The distinguishing feature of cialzons, and what surprises those unaccustomed to Friulian cooking, is the mingling of sweet and salty that is typical of so many Friulian dishes. The filling is a combination of boiled spinach (although plums and pears are common too), raisins, unsweetened cocoa or chocolate, lemon zest, nutmeg, cinnamon, and eggs beaten with sugar; once the egg pasta is filled with this mixture and boiled, the cialzons are layered with smoked ricotta from Carnia, butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Some cialzons are stuffed with sausage and potatoes, others still with mashed potatoes flavored with mint, cinnamon, cognac, sugar, and Parmigiano.
The city of Norcia in Umbria is home to the norcini, pork butchers who so perfected their trade that the word norcino has come to mean butcher in central Italy. The norcini - and the Umbrians in general - are very fond of pork, and they make an astounding number of specialties based on it, including ciauscolo. This unusual salami is originally from the Marche, but it is also prepared in Umbria, especially in the area that borders the town of Macerata. It is made by kneading very finely ground pork with a good quantity of fat until the mixture is very soft. The meat is flavored simply with garlic, salt, and pepper, and it is often smoked. Ciauscolo is meant to be spread onto bread rather than sliced, given its soft consistency; some versions from outside the Marche include a preponderance of pork liver, and are even closer to a pâté than to a salami. Ciauscolo resembles the rillettes of France, which differ because they are cooked while ciauscolo remains raw unless it is smoked.
A Tuscan stew of chicken giblets, very popular in nineteenth century cooking. According to Pellegrino Artusi's 1891 recipe, the giblets are stewed in broth with butter, salt and pepper, then topped with a sauce of egg yolk cooked with lemon juice, flour and broth. The origin of the name cibreo is unclear, but over the years it has come to mean mixture or combination.
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June is the month in which the cherries grown in Vignola, in Emilia Romagna, which are considered to be among the best in Italy, ripen and are ready to be picked. When speaking about the cherries grown in this area it is important to distinguish between the "mora" or "moretta" cherry, which is soft and dark, and a quality of cherry known as "duroni" (for example, the variety "Nero"), which is larger, firmer, and, in spite of its name, lighter in color. The "Nero" variety is further classified as Nero I and Nero II according to the period in which it is picked. Another variety of "durone" called "Anella," which is slightly lighter in shade, is also produced. The so-called "ciliegione" is obtained from the cross between a "moretta" and a "durone."
Cherries from Vignola should be fresh, clean, and free of any damp patches. The stems are green and the skin is a shining, deep red. The flesh varies from light red to dark red or black; the texture is firm and the taste is sweet and juicy.
When the cherries have just been picked, they can be kept in the refrigerator at 50°F-53°F (10°C-12°C) for short periods, up to a maximum of 72 hours. For longer periods, that is between 7 to 8 days, they should be stored at a temperature of 34°F-35.5°F (1°C-2°C); however, in this case the stalk must be dried.
This braised game dish is a classic of northern Italian cuisine. The favored meat for civet is hare, but venison, chamois, and young boar are also common. The indispensable step in the preparation of civet is the binding of the sauce with the animal's own blood; substituting pork blood is a permissible variation even in classic recipes if the animal's blood is unavailable. In some parts of Piedmont and Lombardy the same sort of dish is called salmì.
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One of the most famous dishes of Roman cooking is braised oxtail with celery, a typical example of the robust cuisine of this pastoral area. The work of butchering animals in Lazio was done by the vaccinari, or "cow men," who were compensated for their labor with the animal's hide, including the tail and cheeks. They created numerous dishes with the innards and frugal cuts of the animals, rendering them savory with herbs, vegetables, and spices, building an entire cuisine that can be savored to this day in Rome's traditional restaurants. To prepare coda alla vaccinara, the oxtail is parboiled, then simmered with celery, carrots, and herbs for two hours. Prosciutto, onions, and more herbs are browned, and the drained oxtail is added and cooked one hour longer with wine and tomato until the meat literally falls off the bone; at the end of the cooking time, more boiled celery is stirred in, and the whole is flavored with raisins, pine nuts, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
The best Coppa, an exquisite pork cured meat, is made in the area around the city of Piacenza, the result of a number of special climatic factors such as temperature, humidity, winds, and sunlight and of the fact it is aged for at least six months (prized Coppa made in other areas is aged for three months at most). The production zone covers the whole province, even though the best Coppa is made in the area of the hills.
Coppa piacentina has been awarded DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, corresponding to the DOC system for wines. It is cylindrical in shape, with slightly pointed or rounded ends. When it is cut, it is red in color with pinky white areas of fat. The smell is full and characteristic; when you taste it, you should get a "sweet" delicate taste.
Coppa should be sliced about 10 minutes before it is served. On the other hand, if you have bought it already sliced, you should take it out of the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving it. It should preferably be served with cooked vegetables or salads and not with butter or vegetables preserved in oil, which would make it too heavy.
A whole Coppa can be hung in a cool place or cellar. After you have sliced part of it, rub the cut surface with a thin layer of olive oil and then cover the cut part with plastic film to ensure that it keeps well. Then hang it back up, again in a cool spot. If you buy Coppa in slices, it should be eaten the same day: in the meantime, store it in the warmest and most humid part of the refrigerator.
A sausage which was first produced in Emilia and later in Veneto. Made from pork and lard, it was originally wrapped in pigskin. A favorite of Rossini and very popular in Rome, cotechino is most often served on lentils. Another classic preparation is cotechino wrapped in prosciutto and a thin slice of beef, then stewed slowly over sautéed onions in broth and Lambrusco. Cotechino lasts very well, from three weeks in hot weather to three months in the winter. When serving it unadorned, cotechino should be steamed rather than boiled.
Somewhat similar to Turkish Delight, cotognata is an ancient sweet, mentioned in Italian cookbooks as early as the fourteenth century. It is made from a purée of quince cooked in water, which is mixed with sugar, and then carefully cooked, until it obtains a rosy color and becomes clear. A strip of foil is then oiled and the cotognata is spread out on it to dry for two days (it can also be dried in the oven). It is then cut into cubes or lozenges, rolled in crystallized sugar, and stored in glass jars or wooden boxes with each layer separated by oiled paper.
A cousin of Stracchino, Crescenza is a mild, fresh cow's milk cheese from Lombardy with a lower fat content than most other Italian cheeses but a delectable, creamy taste and texture nevertheless. It has no crust and is eminently spreadable; it's also delicious as a topping for pizzas or as a filling for focaccia, and is used in the cheese-stuffed focaccia that has made the Ligurian city of Recco famous throughout Italy. Originally Crescenza was made only during the cold winter months, but today it is produced and enjoyed throughout the year. Crescenza keeps poorly (barely a few days even when well-wrapped) and must be consumed immediately after purchase or it will quickly turn sour.
The French have their crêpes, the Italians their crespelle. Crespelle are made from a simple combination of eggs, milk, flour, and a touch of melted butter or olive oil, then cooked into nearly transparent disks on an ungreased griddle; when used in sweet preparations, a little sugar may be stirred into the batter. Abruzzo is renowned for crespelle, locally called scrippelle, which are most often rolled around grated cheese and served in meat broth or layered in a stunning timballo. Campania uses crespelle much like lasagne, wrapping them around a savory stuffing for mock cannelloni. And in Florence, crespelle recipes dating back to the Renaissance call for a ricotta-spinach filling and a creamy béchamel sauce.
While they are most often associated with Tuscany, these appetizers are a staple throughout Italy, served with drinks or as finger food before a meal. The term refers to bread that has been sliced into rounds or squares, toasted or grilled, and topped with various spreads and sauces. Crostini can feature all manner of raw or cooked vegetables, cheeses, bits of seafood, and cured meats, and they can be served at room temperature, warm, or hot. Common toppings include chicken liver pâté, puréed beans, sautéed mushrooms, and tomatoes with slivers of onions or basil. In Latium, Crostini di Provatura are a specialty, and marry a fresh mozzarella-like cheese called Provatura with a warm anchovy sauce.
This is the Piedmontese term for cotognata, a quince and sugar paste made in many regions of Italy (especially Sicily and Apulia). In the Piedmont area, particularly Asti, cugnà is prepared at the time of the wine harvest and is more complex than the cotognata from other areas. It includes grape must, quince, walnuts, sugar, and various fresh and dried fruits, and it is served more as a fruit relish than a sweet. It is a perfect accompaniment to roasted meats and poultry.
A very expensive and rare cured meat, culatello is a product of Parma. Generally formed into an oval, and weighing as much as seven pounds, culatello is made using a posterior muscle of a pig's haunch (the same haunch that is used for prosciutto). Culatello is made from very lean meat and requires, during its very long aging, a humid climate - just the opposite of prosciutto, which has much more fat and needs to mature in a very dry atmosphere. Since a genuine culatello ages for a year and other types of sausage must be made from the discarded parts of the haunch, the cost is considerable and some lesser grade culatello is found - either made commercially by a faster process or using shoulder meat, which is fattier. Once cut, the culatello must be wrapped in a damp cloth to prevent it from drying out.
These Sardinian ravioli are stuffed with potato, pecorino cheese and mint, then sealed with their telltale "pleated" seam, which stems from the island's skilled bakers, who fashion intricately designed breads and cakes. Traditionally, culingionis are served with a simple tomato sauce or meat ragu.
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