It’s no secret that as Americans we love Italian food, whether its a pizza slice from the food court, a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs at a red-checkered tablecloth joint, or a high end meal featuring pastas lovingly made by hand paired with just the right glass of wine. But Italian food is at its heart a rustic cuisine, honed lovingly at home by generations of men and women who make the most of simple, seasonal ingredients. If you’re looking to follow in that tradition, starting with some high-quality basic ingredients will instantly improve your favorite Italian recipes at home. Read on for our top five must-have pantry essentials, and what to look for when purchasing them. Buon Appetito!
San Marzano Tomatoes
San Marzano Tomatoes are prized by Italian cooks for their sweet profile and exceptionally low concentration of water, which means they make for some ultra flavorful sauce. This is thanks in large part to the volcanic ash soil they’re grown in high up in the San Marzano region as well as the breed itself, also called San Marzano (confusing, we know). Due to their popularity in Italy, most canned San Marzano tomatoes you find on the market in the U.S. are grown domestically. That’s not to say they can’t be just as great (in fact, some taste testers can’t tell the difference between domestic and imported) but just know that if you’re looking for the real deal, you’ll pay a premium and will definitely want to check the can for a D.O.P. certification before tossing it in your cart.
Literally translating to ‘The King of Cheeses’ in Italian, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the one cheese we think every home cook should have on hand. Like San Marzano tomatoes, real-deal Parmesan cheese enjoys protected designation of origin status, and you’ll know you’re holding a wedge of the stuff thanks to its pedigree being stamped right on the rind. It costs considerably more ounce per ounce than the stuff you get in the green shaky jar (c’mon, you know the one) but the difference in flavor it brings to your cooking is thanks in large part to the abundance of glutamates in its chemical structure. In other words? Umami-central. Pro tip: Don’t discard your rinds! Instead, freeze them and add them to your next pot of Minestrone for a depth of flavor that will have everyone asking you what that special something extra is.
Cold-Pressed Olive Oil
These days olive oil comes in all price points and from a dizzying array of destinations – not to mention blends, filtered and unfiltered, and light versions (just say no to that last one). While it isn’t necessarily true that the best olive oil comes from Italy (sorry, Nonna!) exceptional olive oil is a must for the Italian pantry. Like wine grapes, olives grown in a specific area will carry the flavor of the land to the finished bottle, a flavor profile also known as terroir. Look for single-origin varieties when your budget allows, and don’t buy more than you think you can use in six months’ time, as unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. If nothing else, follow olive oil expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ advice and always go with extra virgin cold-pressed oil: It’s not a guarantee that the oil will be the best, but at least it will probably not be among the worst.
Aged Balsamic Vinegar
As with Parmegiano-Reggiano Cheese and San Marzano Tomatoes, there’s a lot of imitators on the market vying for your dollar (sensing a theme here?). According to Michael Harlan Turkell, author of Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar, if one of the following three words appears on a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar, you’re making a decent choice: D.O.P., Condimento, and IGP. These terms are akin to quality tiers, with D.O.P. indicating the finest and longest aged Balsamic vinegar coming from Modena, Italy and Condimento ensuring at least a few years of aging, albeit less supervision. But like San Marzano tomatoes, there realistically just isn’t enough top-tier stuff to fill the world’s appetite for this sweet, syrupy vinegar. Because of that, he recommends that you be on the lookout for IGP, which indicates that some quality standards like ideal grape varieties and a marginal amount of aging have been met before the bottle hit the shelves. Drizzle it on roasted vegetables, whisk it into the perfect salad dressing, and whatever you do, just promise us you’ll try it with strawberries and vanilla ice cream.
Dried Pasta, Long + Short
We’ve saved our favorite pantry staple for last – pasta, glorious pasta! You could probably make a wonderful sauce out of the previous four ingredients and toss it with just about any pasta out there and be pretty happy – but why not go for the gold? It’s a misunderstood notion that any self respecting Italian cook would never use dried pasta. In fact, only certain types of pasta are made and eaten fresh on a regular basis, namely those with egg traditionally in the dough. So rest assured that by starting with dry, you’re not at a disadvantage. There’s a huge quantity of varying quality pastas on the market, not to mention shapes – but what you want to look for is pasta that’s been extruded from a bronze-cut die. This artisanal method produces pasta with a rough surface you can easily see through the packaging, and what it means for you is that once it’s boiled up (al dente, of course), the sauce you so lovingly simmered will actually cling to each noodle. As far as shapes go, it’s up to you! There’s tons of advice on how to pair pasta shapes and sauces out there, but when it comes to short shapes, we recommend looking for rigate (ridged) on the label. This will ensure better sauce cling than lisce (smooth) varieties.