What to eat in Italy
Born and raised in the UK, Louis Korovilas developed a deep appreciation for Italian food under the best of tutors: his godfather Giorgio Locatelli. Between their Italian travels uncovering the best produce each region has to offer and Louis’ work in some of the best restaurants in London, here are a few things worth knowing, from the best techniques for some staples of Italian food to a few tricks for the cook keen to make them at home.
The best region for bread in Italy is Liguria – but their style for making focaccia is very specific. If you’re making it at home, don’t overwork the dough as it’s very different to typical bread doughs and just needs to be brought gently together – otherwise you will be left with a dense focaccia rather than a light and fluffy loaf.
Pasta – if we’re talking dry pasta to cook at home, la Pasta di Gragnano is king, hands down. The people of Gragnano have been producing pasta for over 1000 years – they originated and mastered the bronze die method. Their high-quality pasta releases a lot of starch into the water which is great for loosening sauces, and I never cook pasta without using cooking water, ever. A good technique is to remove the pasta 3 minutes before the al dente stage and add it to the sauce on a low heat to finish cooking. Keep it moving with a wooden spoon and add more cooking water if the sauce gets too thick or the pasta starts to stick. You will see the rough pores in the pasta take on the flavour of the sauce and the sauce take on a creamy starchiness you can only get with this amazing pasta. It’s a give and take thing…
Pasta – in my opinion, northern Italy is champion of fresh pasta – long, short or filled. It’s always best made on the spot and served on the day. It’s not ‘fresh pasta’ just because it’s not dry; if it’s not been made on site, it’s just soft egg pasta.
Pizza – personally, my favourite pizza is pizza Romagna with its thin base and fresh toppings – even with a beer you don’t feel as if you’ve eaten something that isn’t good for you but still feel satisfied. Neapolitan pizza has become quite a trend in London and when done right (like the guys at 50 Kalo) it is amazing. There are a lot of inexperienced pizzaiolo out there too though, serving hot floppy pizza – sometimes raw – which defeats the point of good Neapolitan pizza, known for being highly digestible (when done right).
Sicilian seafood is some of the best on the planet. The only thing I would recommend with ingredients this fresh and special is salt and lemon and nothing more. If you come by raw Sicilian red prawns in Sicily and you are eating by the sea, don’t be a chicken and order it! Urchin roe is also a game changer…
Herbs and spices – we use an oregano off the branch from Calabria. I prefer using herbs off the branch because once they’ve been through all the various sieves and meshes and eventually made their way into the packet or jar, they have typically lost so much aroma and flavour you have to use loads, ending up with a sauce or ragu that tastes like an English grandmother’s spag bol.
Ragu – every region has its own ragu – Naples has salsa Genovese (surprisingly not from Genova) where the meat is used as a flavour base for a mountain of thinly sliced onions then removed and eaten (or even used as base for another ragu). Time is key to good ragu – if it’s coarse minced meat ragu: low and slow on a barely bubbling heat for 3 hours minimum. But when braising rabbit in red wine or duck legs in moscato (my recipe) you must keep a closer eye on the meat to get it as it just starts to break down. That’s when you need to take it off the heat to allow the meat to finish cooking in the residual heat of the cooking liquid, so the texture is that of confit and you can see the individual muscles fall apart. What you don’t want is stringy meat with the consistency of pulled pork that can end up dry and chewy.
Polenta is a staple of northern Italian cooking. Traditionally cooked in a copper pot over an open fire, the people of the time are said to have been so poor that they would just touch the polenta with lardo a little to flavour it. It is a extremely versatile ingredient, as it can be cooked with milk or different stocks, grilled, fried, served as a light crispy puff or stuffed with different soft cheeses and served with wild mushrooms – look out for this at Tavolino come the autumn when mushrooms are in season. In the meantime, I love panelle chips as a more interesting alternative: a deep fried chickpea fritter which is a staple of Sicilian street food (and a great bar snack).
Arancini – it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the Sicilians, and their cuisine – the street food scene in Sicily and Palermo most of all – has so many influences: in some ways it’s the original fusion food. They have barbecues, fry shops, liver and spleen sandwiches dipped in fat, grilled spring onion wrapped in intestine – all kind of amazing and clever stuff. Arancini is the best of these and is known the world over. Typically saffron rice stuffed with pork ragu and peas, but there are many variations: cheese, mushroom, even seafood. A young chef at Locanda called Matteo who came from Sciacca told me once of a woman from his town who would bake a whole parmigiana just to chop it up fine to fill arancini. I’ve never stopped thinking about it.