The starting point for many Italian dishes is a battuto which is basically any finely chopped mixture of various raw ingredients which may include herbs, vegetables etc. prior to being cooked or perhaps to be used crudo, ie in their existing raw form. The most common battuto in Italy is a combination of onions, celery and carrots. Once added to a pan and gently sautéed this battuto is then called a soffritto. In France it’s known as mirepoix and in Cajun country in Louisiana it’s called the holy trinity but substitutes bell peppers for the carrots; so the starting point in Italy has many similarities with other cuisines.
The typical soffritto in Italy is used as the base for a ragù (the most famous of which is obviously the one from Bologna but every region seems to have its own version) as well as the base for many soups and stews where different flavors are subsequently layered into the dish.
From Tuscany south the soffritto is sautéed in olive oil whereas further north butter is often added but regardless of the type of fat used, the soffritto becomes the flavor base before adding meat to be browned or slices of pancetta or maybe just additional vegetables, so a lot of Italian meals especially in winter begin with a sharp knife (or traditionally a mezzaluna) and a cutting board.
Many Italian recipes, even those written in Italian for Italians, when involving either pancetta or guanciale tend to cook these fatty flavor-adding ingredients with the soffritto which in our opinion can result in too much fat left behind and not enough crisping. We prefer to heat the pancetta or guanciale separately, render the fat more completely, pour away any excess and leave behind a crispier cooked product for inclusion in the soffritto slightly later.
It comes down to a question of personal taste. Guanciale is a cured pork product made from the pig’s cheek or jowls and is an essential ingredient in the famous pasta dish all'amatriciana and pops up in lots of other recipes. It is somewhat interchangeable with pancetta and looks quite similar. The word “guanciale” is one of the words for “pillow” in Italian derived from “guancia” which means “cheek”, and “pancetta” is obviously from the belly. When not chopped into pieces and sautéed you often see whole slices of pancetta draped over leaner cuts of pork like loin or pork fillet to provide some fat for roasting.
These same three vegetables that are sautéed in the soffritto (onion, carrot and celery) are also used for a brodo (vegetable stock) and can be bought in every supermarket in a prepackaged quantity specifically for making a brodo at home. In their raw state they are known as odori and they are essential to the risotto process. (Note they are never referred to as a battuto or soffritto because they are neither finely chopped nor sautéed to make a brodo but instead just roughly chopped into a few large pieces then boiled, simmered and strained).
We always find that the prepackaged brodo ingredients in the supermarket look a bit like the sad leftovers of the vegetable sorting process so a quick brodo for us involves looking in the fridge for a couple of carrots, a few ribs of celery with some of the leaves, one onion and some parsley stalks and leaves, all roughly chopped and then put into about one liter of water and boiled/simmered for about 30 minutes while the rest of the dinner preparation is done.
All these ingredients are ever present in the Italian kitchen because they figure so prominently in a multitude of dishes. It doesn’t take much time or effort to make a good brodo and I haven’t been in an Italian home yet that buys vegetable stock instead of making it from scratch.
As people often ask what are the main differences between Italian cooking and French cuisine, perhaps two of the biggest would be how garlic is used and also the whole subject of sauces. No Italian chef would have ever made the same comment as the celebrated French chef Raymond Blanc when he said: “in France garlic is the heart of our culinary culture”. We don’t pretend to know all the ways that the French manage to infuse their food with garlic but the normal Italian way is to use the palm of your hand to slightly crush a clove of garlic in camicia (ie still with most of the papery skin attached) and put it in a pan with olive oil and heat it gently for a while and then remove it entirely. In other words, no chopping or completely pulverising the garlic but just the subtle hint of it in the cooking oil. Using it in camicia also helps to prevent it burning.
From time to time garlic has been controversial in Italian culinary circles. It has always been more common in southern Italian cooking and therefore associated with la cucina povera and as the Italian diaspora to the US largely came from the south this is probably why garlic is used much more in Italian American dishes in the US than in the equivalent dishes in Italy. In fact in 2007 the celebrity Sicilian chef Filippo La Mantia banned it from his Rome restaurant as an unnecessary relic from the time when Italians were poor. Not all of his peers agreed of course and we have to say that when you get home late and the fridge looks a bit bare there’s nothing better than the simple, classic and very quick spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino.
Giorgio Locatelli who runs perhaps the best Italian restaurant in London, Locanda Locatelli, has his staff prepare two basic things with garlic every morning in his restaurant: the first is a fresh parsley and garlic mixture made by crushing one garlic clove into a paste and then adding four handfuls of flat-leaf parsley and chopping it very finely together, thereby mingling the flavors. This mixture can then be added to a variety of dishes at the last minute or with some added fresh lemon zest becomes a gremolata. The second is a simple garlic oil which is a very Sicilian thing and is about 80% olive oil and 20% garlic, infused for a day in the fridge and then used over the next couple of days.
With regard to sauces we are not talking here about the sugo that goes with the pasta whatever that might be, but rather the classic French sauces that were codified by Escoffier like velouté, béchamel, hollandaise etc. Italy really doesn’t have those as its culinary traditions evolved from a poorer base and as a result the secondo piatto (second course) of meat or fish that follows the primo piatto of pasta or rice is typically prepared in a very straightforward fashion. Olive oil, a few seasonal herbs and perhaps a slice of lemon if it’s fish or chicken, and that’s about all. Then often just grilled or pan-fried with a side order (contorno) of one or more simply prepared vegetables.
Italy had its own earlier version of Escoffier in Pellegrino Artusi, author of the first true Italian cookbook called La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene. This was a seminal work of 790 recipes, techniques and anecdotes that was written in the 1880s only 20 years after Italy had become one country and which helped to establish a national Italian cuisine for the first time. It was eventually sold so widely in Italy that it helped to regularize the written Italian language.
On the topic of seasoning, herbs and spices, every Italian that cooks even a little knows the importance of properly salting food during the cooking process and even home cooks taste the pasta as it cooks or the sugo or the risotto to ensure the right amount of seasoning (the brodo is typically not seasoned so as you add it slowly to the risotto you need to add salt periodically). If you want to know the theory behind salting food properly while it’s cooking instead of afterwards I recommend Samin Nosrat’s excellent book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat but suffice to say we both agree with her and all Italians seem to understand it intuitively. So it is viewed as something of a defect if your guests have to reach for the salt once their food is on the table.
When you walk around towns in Italy it is easy to guess which are the favorite fresh herbs that Italians like to add to their food simply by glancing at the various pots arranged on every balcony or kitchen doorway that you pass. Basil is probably number one, growing in profusion everywhere in the summer, followed by rosemary and sage. Fresh thyme and mint are also quite common and the green feathery tops of the fennel bulb figure in a lot of recipes probably because fennel itself is a very popular vegetable here. Fresh parsley of course is always to be found in an Italian fridge but cilantro or fresh coriander doesn’t have any place in Italian dishes and is very hard to find. Oregano is mostly used in its dried form.
With regard to spices, fresh ground black pepper is normally the only thing that is added to meat and fish along with salt. There is no tradition of spicy food in Italy and in fact quite a low tolerance for it in contrast to the popular appeal of Mexican food in the US or Indian food in the UK. However Calabria, down on the toe of Italy, produces lots of chili peppers which are typically used much like garlic, ie a quick in and out of the pan and left whole in the process not chopped, and it also produces a marvelous thing called nduja which is a soft fermented pork product spiked with Calabrian chilies. It is a very versatile product and we always keep some in the fridge courtesy of Emanuela, a Calabrian friend who gets regular deliveries from family.