A glimpse at the country's huge culinary range
Italy is made up of 20 different regions, each with its own culinary traditions. And though the country is relatively small, the difference in the food from one region to the next is extraordinary.
The cuisine in northern Italy, for example, tends to rely more on dairy products such as butter, cream, and cow's milk cheeses because the land is flatter and better suited to raising cattle. It's also one of the more affluent parts of the country, which makes for richer food with more expensive ingredients, such as Lombo di Maiale Coi Porri (Pan-Roasted Pork Loin With Leeks). Northern Italy produces creamy, rich cheeses such as mascarpone and Gorgonzola from Lombardy, fontina from Valle d'Aosta, and Taleggio from the Veneto. The region of Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna, is known for its homemade egg pasta and what is considered by many to be the king of Italian cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's also the region famous for prosciutto di Parma, as well as countless other exquisite sausages and cured meats.
In central Italy, the food becomes heartier with the wonderful bean soups of Tuscany and the savory roasted meats of Umbria and Abruzzi, where lamb, wild boar, and game can be more prevalent than pork, beef, and veal. Zuppa di Farro e Fagioli (Tuscan Bean-and-Barley Soup) is typical of the region.
In southern Italy, there's more reliance on olive oil than butter, and the cheeses used are more likely to be made from sheep's milk. The further south one goes, the less affluent the population is; hence you'll find fewer fancy ingredients, a more sparing use of meat, and a greater reliance on local, seasonal foods. Sicilian and Sardinian cooking are not heavy, as is often thought. They are delicate, fragrant dishes like Risotto Alle Vongole (Risotto With Clams) that emphasize the flavors of the fresh ingredients and seafood with which they are blessed.