25 Essential Ingredients in the Italian Pantry
To help spark your creativity in the kitchen, we've created a handy list of the 25 most common ingredients you'll find in the pantries of home cooks from Italy.
A Peek into the Italian Pantry
Oregano: Used liberally in Italian cuisine (particularly pizza, spaghetti sauces and other tomato-based sauces), oregano is strongly aromatic and slightly bitter. Its pungent flavor is composed of earthy/musty, green, hay and minty notes. Try it in Exquisite Pizza Sauce.
Basil: Used in tomato sauces, pestos, pizzas, cheeses, and Italian seasonings, basil is slightly bitter and musty--tea-like, with green/grassy, hay, and minty notes. Early Romans made basil a symbol of love and fertility; young Italian suitors wore sprigs of it as a sign of their marital intentions. Try it in Classic Pesto.
Rosemary: Popular in seasoning blends for meats and Mediterranean cuisines, rosemary has a distinctive pine-woody aroma and a fresh, bittersweet flavor. Try it in Rosemary Pasta in Roasted Garlic Sauce.
Fennel: Used to flavor fish, sausages, baked goods, and liqueurs, fennel has a sweet, licorice-like flavor similar to anise but less intense, with slight menthol and musty/green flavor notes. It is also one of the few plants where the roots, stalk, seeds, fronds and pollen are all used. Originating in the Mediterranean, fennel was carried north from Italy by monks, and today it is used in nearly every cuisine. Try it in Baked Fennel with Parmesan.
Sage: Highly aromatic, with piney, woody notes, sage is ideal for flavoring pork, beef, poultry, lamb, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, rice, pasta and much more. Traditionally, sage was used for its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Try it in Italian Pork Tenderloin.
Flat-leaf parsley: Also known as "Italian parsley," its flavor and aroma profile is green and vegetative. It is popular in egg dishes, soups, stews, stocks and with other herbs to bring out their flavor. Parsley also adds visual appeal to many dishes. Try it in Andrew's Herb Risotto.
Semolina pasta: Most good pasta is made from semolina, durum wheat more coarsely ground than regular wheat flour. Try it with Fresh Semolina and Egg Pasta.
Polenta: This cornmeal mush is a staple of northern Italy and can be eaten at any meal. For something different, fry up squares of chilled leftover polenta. Try it in Vegan Polenta with Ragu.
Arborio or Carnaroli rice: The high starch content of these chubby, short-grained rice varieties is essential for risotto. The slow cooking and steady stirring allow the grains to gradually release starch, thickening the dish and resulting in a creamy textured risotto. Try arborio rice in Gourmet Mushroom Risotto and carnaroli rice in Risotto a la Pavese.
Olive oil: Ranging in color from grassy green to pale champagne-gold, olive oil adds flavor and luscious mouth feel to foods. Extra-virgin olive oil is delicious and redolent, best in salads and marinades or poured directly over pastas and other foods. Try it in Olive Oil-Poached Tuna.
Balsamic vinegar: A special vinegar from Modena, Italy, that achieves its beautiful color and depth of flavor only after spending years in wooden barrels, where it concentrates into a complex syrup. Drizzle balsamic vinegar over figs, strawberries, or Parmigiano Reggiano for fantastic flavor combinations. Try it in Balsamic Bruschetta.
Tomatoes: Delectable raw or cooked, tomatoes pair beautifully with so many foods and flavors: cheeses, meats, onions, garlic, peppers and herbs; pizza, pastas, salsas, salads, soups, stews — and on and on.
Eggplant: A very versatile veggie, eggplants can be baked, boiled and fried. However, they can really sponge-up while frying in oil. To avoid excess absorption, coat eggplant slices well with batter or crumbs before sliding them into hot oil. Try them in Italian Baked Eggplant with Parmesan (Parmigiana di Melanzane).
Porcini mushrooms: These wild mushrooms are usually found in dried form and have a meaty texture and woodsy flavor. They are particularly good in soups, stuffing and stews and with braised meats. Before using in recipes, soak dried porcinis in hot water for about 20 minutes — and use some of the soaking water in your recipe. Try them in True Italian Porcini Mushroom Risotto.
Lemons: Lemons add bright flavor to such a wide range of dishes, from sweet to savory. This juicy, acidic fruit is also an important ingredient in drinks, including limoncello, the famous lemon liqueur from southern Italy. Try lemons in Lemon Chicken Piccata.
Parmigiano-Reggiano: This is the real deal, the pinnacle of Parmesan cheeses, whose rich, complex flavor comes from the aging process. Made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard, grating cheese with a light golden rind and a straw-colored interior. Try our collection of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Recipes.
Mozzarella: This mild white cheese is tops for pizza, lasagna, and other classic Italian dishes. Fresh mozzarella has a more delicate flavor and is not as elastic as the drier semi-soft kind typically sold pre-packaged. Fresh mozzarella is generally made from whole milk, packaged in water or whey and labeled "Italian style." Check out our collection of Mozzarella Recipes.
Ricotta cheese: An important ingredient in classic Italian dishes like lasagna and manicotti, ricotta is a moist fresh cheese that's rich and smooth. The word "ricotta" means "re-cooked" in Italian and refers to the fact that ricotta is made by draining the whey off of other cheeses and heating it. So, technically, ricotta isn't cheese but a byproduct of cheese-making. Try making your own Sicilian Homemade Ricotta Cheese. And explore our collection of Ricotta Cheese Recipes.
Capers: These are the tiny flower buds from a bush that grows in the Mediterranean. They're typically pickled in vinegary brine or sometimes packed in salt. For something so small, they add big pungent flavor to sauces, condiments, and meat and vegetable dishes. Try them in Chicken Piccata with Capers
Pine nuts: Italian pine nuts have a delicate flavor and are used in sweet and savory dishes. They are probably best known as an ingredient that lends big flavor to Italian pesto.
Almonds: Available whole, sliced, chopped, candied, smoked, in paste, blanched, roasted and salted, almonds are loaded with good stuff. They contain calcium, fiber, folic acid, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin and vitamin E. Toast them to intensify the flavor and add a satisfying crunch. Try them in Almond Biscotti.
Prosciutto di Parma: Another classic ingredient from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy in the province of Parma. Proscuitto means "ham" in Italian and salt-cured prosciutto di Parma is tops in the field. The secret is the pig's diet of chestnuts and whey. Try it with Prosciutto e Melone (Italian Ham and Melon).
Anchovies: Real anchovies are found only in the Mediterranean. They are typically filleted, cured in salt, and canned in oil. Anchovies can be soaked in cool water to dilute the saltiness. Use sparingly to add depth of flavor to sauces, salads, and pizza. Try it in Puttanesca Pasta.
Olives: Along with grapes and bread, olives were part of the sacred triad of Roman ingredients. They remain an important ingredient in Italian cuisine, appearing in everything from antipasto plates, to pasta and secondi dishes. Try them in Sicilian Olive Chicken.
Check out our collection of Italian Recipes.