Italian cuisine: A celebration of rustic yet elegant flavours
Vincenzo de Luca, Ambassador of Italy to India gave us an insight into this delightful fare that lays out the essence of godere la vita (enjoying life)
Italian cuisine, one of the world’s most celebrated culinary traditions, boasts a rich history, steeped in diverse cultural influences. From the iconic pizza of Naples to the seafood of Sardinia, and the risotto of Milan, the second edition of The Ambassadors Kitchen brings you a flavourful fare that warms your soul with its hearty, handcrafted preparations.
We joined the Italian Ambassador to India, Vincenzo de Luca for an evening of traditional Italian delights and learnt how to make some of the famed classics.
Generous at heart
Italian cuisine is loved for its simplicity, quality ingredients, and the country’s passion for protecting its traditional culinary heritage—which soon might get the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage tag. But one of the lesser-known characteristics of Italian cuisine is generosity that plays an important role in adding ‘heartiness’ to the dishes. “You must remember to be generous with the mozzarella,” insists de Luca, as he puts together the classic Neapolitan pizza or the Naples-style pizza.
“The tradition and art of Neapolitan pizza making has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity because there is a tradition, expertise, and the quality of the products. For this recipe, we have Italian tomato, Italian mozzarella and olive oil here, and of course, fresh basil that we get from our garden which is just zero kilometers from us,” he says places freshly-plucked basil leaves on the pizza.
The making of the pizza comprises four different phases of dough preparation and its baking in a wood-fired oven, involving a rotatory movement, explains the ambassador.
The art has its origin in Naples, which has nearly 3,000 Pizzaiuoli (chefs trained to make pizzas). “The families in Naples also recreate the art in their own homes,” he says.
The simplicity of this recipe is the hallmark of a great Italian pizza, backed by a strong tradition and geographical legacy.
Roots and regional diversity
Italian cuisine can be traced back to the 4th century BC, long before the unification of the country in the 19th century. The significance of food and culture during this period is unmistakable, as showcased in the ancient cookbook ‘Apicius’, which dates back to the first century BC.
“Today, each region of Italy has its own distinctive culinary style, with ingredients and cooking techniques varying greatly,” says de Luca.
For example, Tuscan beef is from the north, while mozzarella cheese is a staple of the south. Pizza originated in Naples, while tortellini is from Bologna and risotto is a Milanese dish. Italian cuisine has been influenced by ancient Greek, Roman, and Arab cultures, and has incorporated exotic ingredients like spices, wheat, and wine from around the world.
The core ingredients in the cooking include extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, pasta, pasta sauce, tomatoes, oregano, capers, porcini mushrooms, basil, Italian cheese, and red and white wine. Herbs such as parsley and basil are commonly used, while bay leaves add a kick of flavour to soups, sauces, and stews. Sage is popular for its anti-inflammatory and digestive properties, while rosemary adds a peppery, woody flavour to roasted vegetables and meat. Oregano is more flavourful when dried and is commonly used in southern Italian and Sicilian dishes. “It’s the quality and freshness of the ingredients that make the best of the flavours come alive. Age- old culinary traditions that are treasured and passed on from one generation to another help ensure that the classics remain relevant in the modern world,” says the Ambassador.
Pasta’s introduction in Italy in the medieval period was a major influence on Italian cuisine and continues to be a staple, made from durum wheat, which thrives in the country’s warm climate. Carbonara, a pasta dish from Rome, made with spaghetti, eggs, Pecorino Romano cheese, pancetta, and black pepper is the perfect dish to get a jumpstart on the pasta trail. Gnocchi is another traditional Italian dish made with potato, flour, and eggs, the soft dumplings are boiled and served with various sauces.
Then, there is risotto, a traditional Italian dish made with Arborio rice, broth, and various ingredients such as mushrooms, seafood, or vegetables. The rice is slowly cooked in broth and stirred until it reaches a creamy consistency. It is then finished with Parmesan cheese and butter for added richness.
Tiramisu is a classic Italian dessert that is enjoyed all over the world. Ladyfingers (known as “sponge fingers” in British English) are traditional finger-shaped pastries soaked in coffee and layered with a mixture of mascarpone cheese, sugar, and egg yolks. The dessert is finished with a dusting of cocoa powder.
“These long-standing classics remain a testament to the commitment of the country to proudly preserving its food traditions and culinary heritage,” says the Ambassador.
Spaghetti carbonara recipe
Spaghetti: 300 gm
Egg yolks: 5 to 6
Garlic cloves: 2-3 peeled and squashed
Pecorino Romano cheese: 1 cup (hand shredded or grated)
Pepper and salt to taste
In a pot, bring salted water to a boil and add spaghetti and heat up another pan alongside it to fry the squashed garlic cloves until they turn brown and crispy.
Cook until al dente, then drain the water and let the spaghetti cool. Save some pasta water for later.
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, half of the grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and some pepper until it becomes smooth to create an egg mixture.
Add the cooked pasta to the garlic, pour in the egg mixture, and the reserving pasta water and stir until it becomes creamy. Top it off with the remaining cheese and some black pepper.