Friday, April 1, 2016

Traditions in Regional Italian Food Culture

The Northeastern Regions of Italy
Veneto, Trentino – Alto Adige, Fuili-Venezia Guilia

by Chris De Santis
photos by Chris De Santis

It might have been 10 years after my cooking days in the kitchens of southern Italian restaurants in New York that I finally discovered the unique differences in the cuisine of the northeastern regions of Italy – Veneto, Trentino – Alto Adige, and Fuili-Venezia Guilia.

My first visit to the northeast began in Venice.

My wife Mary and I arrive at our hotel late morning, and after our overnight flight from Chicago to Venice via Rome, in fear of collapsing, we venture out to explore our new neighborhood and discover our first meal in the capital city of the region of Veneto. The street is lined with shops, restaurants, trattorias and pizzerias. We opt for a trattoria with a friendly maitre d’ inviting us in to a table on the Grand Canal on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

We begin our meal with an antipasto of steamed clams and mussels, a simple recipe of a bit of fish stock, lemon and parsley. For the pasta course, Mary sticks with seafood and has an orecchiette (little ears) pasta with branzino (sea bass) that also has a simple sauce of butter, stock and parsley. I go with the gnocchi, actually gnocchette, little gnocchi, with thin slices of zucchini and speck, a traditional air-cured beef of the region. Our first meal portrays the simplicity of the food culture of the northeastern regions of the country.

The fruits of the Adriatic Sea are prominent in the cooking traditions of Venice and the eastern coastline of the region of Veneto. Along with polenta (cooked cornmeal), rice and beans, seafood becomes the foundation of Venetian cooking. Venice, being a primary port city of southern Europe in the early history of Italy, introduces corn from the Americas to the diet, beans arrive at the same time, around 1500, and rice is brought from the Arab world with the trade between the Venetians and the Orient. Along with these staples of northeastern Italian food culture come spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa that are introduced to the region’s cooking.

A very famous seafood dish, baccala, salted codfish, is served with polenta in almost every restaurant in Veneto. Many different versions of the recipe exist. I sampled the version baccala alla vicentina in a small seafood restaurant in Venice. I always talk food when I am in restaurants in Italy. Mary and I play a game of identifying the ingredients of a dish. Sometimes the waiter is very happy to tolerate my broken New Yawk Italian and explains the contents of the dishes. Sometimes I get really lucky and get invited into the kitchen to talk to the chef. And sometimes they look at me like I just asked for a top-secret government document.

I’m happy to share my rendition of baccala alla vicentina with you. Traditionally salted cod filets are used. You can find salted baccala at your local Italian deli like Tenuta’s in Kenosha, but believe me, it is quite an ordeal softening the cod and removing the salt. Culturally, the fish, I’m not kidding, is beaten with a wooden hammer, soaked for forty-eight hours in order to soften it and remove the salt, and then simmered in milk with onions, anchovies and oil. My suggestion? Buy some nice fresh cod filets at the local market and leave the hammer-beating to tradition.

In the smaller and lesser known Regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Fuili-Venezia Guilia – it is not uncommon to this day to hear German being spoken in outlying Alpine villages. It’s also not uncommon to see sauerkraut and cabbage soup on menus in restaurants, and of course, you will find Austro-Hungarian influenced potato dumplings – Italian gnocchi. Butter, milk and cow’s milk cheeses like Asiago are used in a variety of sauces that accompany homemade potato gnocchi.

Fresh fish from the northern lakes and rivers of the Alps, wild game, deer, rabbit and a variety of fowl simmered in sweet and sour sauces with hints of nutmeg and cocoa make up the hearty peasant dishes of the these regions.

The cool air of the Alps throughout these northeastern regions lends itself to the making of air-cured salamis and hams – most notably, sopressa, cured pork shoulder, and San Daniele prosciutto, the regions’ answer to the famed Prosciutto di Parma of the region of Emilia Romagna.

As you drive through the fields of the low lying areas and the foothills of the Alps you will find row upon row of the area’s celebrated salad plant, radicchio rosso. This bitter “green,” although red, a form of chicory, is prepared in many different ways, from baking to steaming, and adds a unique flavor to the dishes of the northeastern regions.

I hope you’ll discover more about, and enjoy, the unique food culture of these regions of Italy, and that you’ll search for some additional recipes that highlight their traditional regional cooking style. Enjoy.

Until next time, ciao.

Copyright © 2011, Chris De Santis. All Rights Reserved