High-quality ingredients are essential to Italian cooking―the better your olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese, the better these simple dishes will be.
Olive oil: One of the essential ingredients of Italian cooking, olive oil is used not simply as a cooking oil but for the flavor it adds to a dish. For this reason, it's important to use only extra-virgin olive oil―it has the most flavor.
Tomatoes: When fresh, ripe tomatoes are not available, use good canned tomatoes (unless the recipe specifically calls for fresh). Choose whole, peeled tomatoes rather than chopped or crushed. Use imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them; they're the best.
Garlic: Use garlic judiciously so it's not an overwhelming presence.
Pasta: Use pasta imported from Italy. Premium brands of artisanal production will have a satisfying texture and the subtle flavor of semolina flour. For egg pasta, avoid the "fresh" pasta sold in refrigerated cases. Either use homemade or buy the dried noodles packaged in nests.
Rice: Arborio is the most common rice used in making risotto, but other varieties―such as Carnaroli or Vialone Nano―which are just now becoming available in America, are perhaps even better. One characteristic they all share is a translucent, starchy exterior that melts away in cooking to give risotto its distinctive creamy consistency.
Dried porcini mushrooms: Look for packages that have large slices of whole mushrooms. They add a wonderful rich flavor to risottos, pasta sauces, and stews, and can infuse cultivated white mushrooms with their robust flavor.
Parmigiano-Reggiano: Only cheese that is produced in a limited area surrounding Parma according to strict guidelines may be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's a cheese of incomparable flavor, texture, and richness that make it not only an excellent grating cheese but also one of the world's great table cheeses.