Choosing Better Restaurants

Italian Food: Life Beyond Lasagna

You may love going out to eat at a nice Italian restaurant. But did you know there is far more to Italian cuisine than just ravioli and spaghetti? If you're interested in expanding your culinary horizons the next time you head to your favorite Italian restaurant, here are the basic dishes of two very different regions.

Venetian Cuisine

In Venice and the surrounding area, known as Veneto, the cuisine is quite different than what an American typically thinks of Italian food. Veneto has three distinct geographical areas: coasts, plains, and mountains. The food varies with the geography.

Venetian Lagoon is an enclosed bay that Venice sits on. Naturally, there is an abundance of fresh seafood in the area. Fried sardines and onions with vinegar, raisins and pine nuts is a popular dish, as is pasta with an anchovy sauce. Soft-shell crabs, brackish shrimp, and cuttlefish with squid ink sauce are also common dishes in the coastal area.

Moving out from the coast to the plains, this fertile agricultural area relies more on meat and less seafood. Entrees are in many ways very similar to American barbecue, with an abundance of mixed grilled meats and simple sauces. Frog legs, veal, pumpkin, asparagus, and polenta, which is made from corn meal, are also frequent favorites, with the polenta sometimes enriched with cheese and bits of meat.

In the foothills of the Dolomites, popular with tourists for winter skiing and mountain climbing, hearty dishes of beans and pasta, rice and peas, and risotto are common. Risotto is cooked in broth and other ingredients, like wild mushrooms, until it becomes a rich and creamy entree. Sausages, dried salamis, and asiago cheese are also frequently on the menu. Tiramisu, espresso-soaked ladyfinger cookies with mascarpone cheese and chocolate, is the region's most popular dessert.

Tuscan Cuisine

The Tuscany region in northwest Italy is all about simple cuisine. Mining and farming are the region's major industries. In addition to olives and grapes, potatoes, tobacco, and rice are grown. Typical Tuscan cuisine reflects the need for humble, easy food after long, backbreaking days in fields and mines. As a result, many Tuscan dishes only have a few ingredients.

Game meats, like wild boar, deer, rabbit, and pheasant are often hunted. These meats are usually made into a ragu, a thick stew, or tossed with pappardelle, a wide, flat noodle. Leftover beans and vegetables from the day before are used to make minestrone, a vegetable soup in a rich broth. The soup is never really the same as it depends on what needs to be used up, whether it be beans, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, or onions. Served with bread and cheese, soups and stews are a comment peasant meal in Tuscany.

High-quality beef is also raised in the region. Steak Florentine is common on restaurant menus. It is usually served with cannellini or white beans, lemon, and the region's most distinctive wine, Chianti, with cavalucci, an almond cookie with dried fruit and honey, for dessert.

The next time you visit Italian restaurants in your area, check out all the different offerings you may not have noticed on the menu before and try something new.