Join Flava on a grand gastronomic tour of Italy, as some of Cayman’s leading Italian-born chefs and restaurateurs share a taste of their homeland.
From limoncello and gelato on the sun-drenched Amalfi Coast to the Venetian lagoon’s briny tentacular delights, or even cheese-laden dumplings fueling snowy winters in the Dolomites – across Italy’s 20 regions you’ll find a dazzling variety of cuisines. Rooted in local produce, history and terrain, these authentic dishes go far beyond the standard pizza and pasta offerings we’re used to seeing on restaurant menus.
“Venice is a magical place – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. The Venetian lagoon is abundant with seafood and shellfish, celebrated in typical dishes like ‘Baccala’ (air-dried codfish mouse), ‘Saor’ (pickled fish, usually sardines) and ‘Seppie in nero’ (cuttlefish cooked in its own black ink), to name just a few. For drinks, we have Prosecco, Recioto, Amarone… not forgetting the famous aperitif, Aperol Spritz!
The Venetian Republic, ‘La Serenissima’, was the major point of commerce between Europe and Asia between 1200 and 1600, and a very strategic port; spices such as cinnamon, peppercorn and even sugar were used as currency for international trades and this had a major influence on its cuisine.
My mother used to make homemade gnocchi on the kitchen table on Sundays, and from when I was about four years old I would ‘help’ her. The meals she cooked were always fresh and hearty, a minimum three courses for lunch and dinner any given day of the week. When I was 12 I started to hang out occasionally in my uncle’s kitchen – he was a chef and introduced me to the professional side of cooking.
The seafood from the Adriatic Sea is what I miss the most now I’ve moved away: Crab, all sorts of clams, seabass, sea bream… The list is endless. I’d love to eat risotto with ‘cappe longhe’, which are bamboo clams.”
“I can never forget going with my parents to the local market and experiencing all the typical smells, from the tempting aroma of the bakery to the street food. Things like ‘Pani Ca Meusa’, a typical dish in Palermo that consists of a soft bread with sesame crust stuffed with chopped veal’s lung and spleen, which has been boiled and then fried in lard. Another typical dish is called ‘Stigghiola’: Lamb’s stomach seasoned with parsley, onion and other herbs, then rolled around a leek and cooked on the grill. You can’t stay emotionless when the smell of this dish reaches your nose.
But the most famous and popular of all is the ‘Arancina’. Well, let me rest a bit on that dish. Arancina is a fried rice ball, a delicacy so vitally important for us that we dedicated a day of the year to celebrate its glory. On December 13, we eat at least 10 arancini and the city is dominated by the smell of fried oil, and the levels of cholesterol and happiness rise above normal limits. That’s what we call heaven!
Another meal that reminds me of my childhood in Sicily is ‘Spaghetti alla Carrettiera’, pasta dish sautéed in garlic olive oil and fresh chili, topped with fresh parsley and shaved Caciocavallo cheese. A very quick dish, but honestly my favorite because of his simplicity. We used to match this with a local red wine called ‘Corvo’, a very full-bodied, intense and fruity wine, from the wine cellar ‘Duca di Salaparuta’ – this was one of the oldest in Sicily, and they made great wines with Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Pignatello grapes.
Let’s not forget dessert! Sicilian Cannoli (ricotta-filled pastry tubes) and Cassata Siciliana (liquor-soaked sponge cake layered with ricotta and chocolate chips) are the most traditional. But my favorite has to be brioche with artisanal Sicilian gelato in a heavenly dessert-like sandwich.”
Marcello Piacentini, Chef de Cuisine Andiamo at The Ritz-Carlton
“When I was little, every Saturday my grandmother invited the family for dinner. She used to bake lasagnas and make her own pizzas in the kitchen oven. I remember smelling the food from the building entrance, and her apartment was on the second floor! My mom forced me to eat vegetables and fruit every single meal – there was no way to escape! Cooked, raw, in the pasta, soup or cakes. It was delicious, by the way, but I couldn’t tell her or she would have given me more. Only now I really understand how important food education is; I ate my first burger and fries when I was 18.
Lombardy’s cuisine is influenced by the neighboring countries (France, Switzerland, Austria) and due to the very cold temperatures in winter and the proximity to the mountains, many of our recipes use heavy animal-based ingredients not found in the traditional Mediterranean cuisine: Gorgonzola and Taleggio cheeses, Bresaola, pork, veal… “La Cassoela” (pork and cabbage stew) and the famous “Cotoletta alla Milanese” (breaded veal cutlet) are much loved, too. During winter, we go searching for mushrooms and chestnuts in the forest. It’s also known for all kinds of risotto, from Milanese (with saffron) to Monzese (with local sausages).
In addition to wine-making areas like Franciacorta, Oltrepo’ pavese and Sforzato di Valtellina, we have many craft beers and liquors such as Grappa, Amaretto Disaronno and chestnut blueberry liquor. My favorite drink is the Negroni Sbagliato, a typical Milanese aperitivo made of Prosecco, Campari, Red Cinzano and orange zest.
I started at the Culinary Institute when I was 14, thinking it was the best way to find a job after school. I was right. When I joined my first real kitchen in Milan, I understood how many opportunities this job could offer me.”
“Calabria prides itself in chili peppers. Often, we would bite into chilies with each forkful of pasta. The region has a large costal area as well as land further inland to grow food. That, along with some good sun, is a melting pot for great ingredients and so our dishes are nothing fancy yet full of flavour. For example, you might have ‘Capretta con patate al forno’ – baby goat baked in the oven with potatoes, garlic, olive oil and rosemary – or ‘Cavatelli al Pomodoro’ – tomato sauce with little pasta shells that look like miniature hot dog buns.
Food is a big way of showing hospitality to guests. Pride is taken on the freshness of ingredients and saying you grew it yourself. It is also very seasonal and much is preserved to eat throughout the winter months. Wine is typically homemade.
I was born and raised in Papasidero, an isolated town in the province of Cosenza between the rivers Lao and Santo Nocajo. Being such a small community everyone knows each other and helps each other out, much like culture here in Cayman. My mother did most of the cooking. Mealtimes were spent together and consisted of two or three dishes (salad, meat and pasta); fruit was always eaten after a meal.
One piece of Calabrian produce I’d love to have right now is goat’s milk ricotta from my home town. As for dinner, it would have to be ‘Fusidi con carni crapa’, which is fusilli with goat meat cooked in tomato sauce. Or ‘Frittolata’, another typical dish from Calabria, made with pork neck, fresh peppers, onions, garlic and rosemary. I can still smell it now just talking about it…”
Emilia-Romagna is a beautiful region in the North-East, home to Parmesan cheese, Parma Ham and Balsamic vinegar of Modena – as well as countless famous brand names like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati. I’m specifically from Ravenna. People from all over the world come just to see our mosaics, a legacy of the Roman Empire (when the Roman Empire fell they moved the capital from Rome to Ravenna).
My parents separated when I was three, so I grew up with my father and my grandmother (nonna). She was in charge of the house and the kitchen, and did an amazing job on both. I remember her making fresh homemade pasta. The dough was so good, even raw, that I used to steal some pieces and hide under the kitchen table to eat them. Sometimes I helped her; she taught me how to knead the dough. It was such an amazing feeling to create food with my bare hands.
I would consider Emilia-Romagna the most prominent culinary region of Italy, at least for pasta… We have Bolognese sauce, Cappelletti [“little caps”], Garganelli [tube-shaped], Tagliatelle, Gnocchi [potato dumplings], Passatelli [breadcrumb pasta in chicken broth] and Tortellini. Sangiovese is definitely the most popular wine in the area. We also produce Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine, and Cagnina, a really sweet young red wine
Using fresh local produce is the basis of our cuisine. The land is fertile and produces a great variety of fruit and vegetables… Eating is not just a daily habit; it’s a social gathering, a tradition. A lunch can last hours and a holiday meal in the family can go on throughout the day.