The Essential Steps to Mastering Italian Cuisine

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Learning a new cuisine is a lot like learning a new language. With a language, there's a grammar and vocabulary that together allow you to form sentences and express yourself. With a cuisine, there's a body of techniques that function much like a grammar. When they're combined with the cuisine's "vocabulary" of ingredients, dishes and meals can be made. Learning this grammar and vocabulary is the first step toward fluency—the ability to think and cook like a native.

The challenge for those of us seeking to understand the "language" of a cuisine is figuring out where to start. Cooking classes are a great way to get some hands-on experience, but unless you enroll in a school full time, you're unlikely to get more than a quick tour of a few recipes—the culinary equivalent of memorizing a handful of useful expressions from a phrasebook. You may be able to ask where the bathroom is, but you also may not understand the answer.

Books are some of the best resources, of course, but there are so many, each loaded with dozens of recipes, that perusing them can quickly start to feel daunting. What's needed is a road map of sorts, to help home cooks explore the most essential elements of a cuisine. That's what this is, for Italian food. Cook your way through the recipes below and read the supporting articles, and you'll have a good base from which to dig deeper.

To make this guide, I started by drafting a list of what I thought to be some of the most essential components of Italian cooking. I then asked for input from chefs, like Mark Ladner of Pasta Flyer and Sara Jenkins of Porsena. They gave me their own thoughts, which I then used to revise my list.

The goal isn't to be comprehensive. This list won't teach you everything you need to know about regional Italian styles, nor how to make every important dish. But it will get you started with some of the most basic grammar and vocabulary that Italian cooks rely on, from the heel of the boot all the way up the calf to the knee.

The result, below, includes some of the most obvious subjects, like learning to cook pasta properly, but with more information than most guides tend to offer (like how salty the water should really be, and how to use the starchy pasta water appropriately). But you'll also see topics that will stand out as being strangely specific, like learning to work with artichokes. That's because, to understand a cuisine on even a rudimentary level, it helps to tune into some of its subtleties right away. That's how you develop a real taste for it.

Upgrade Your Produce

The Italians have a saying: Al contadino non far sapere quant'è buono il formaggio con le pere. Translation: "Don't tell the farmer how good cheese is with pears." There's a lot to parse in that one little rhyme—in fact, I once read an entire book dedicated to analyzing its societal and class implications. But, putting those more academic questions aside, the saying hints at something very basic yet critically important to all Italian cooking: It's only true if those pears are goddamned delicious.

It's also true of just about all the produce used in Italian cooking. The techniques tend to be simple, the dishes straightforward. If the ingredients are bad—and, in particular, if your produce isn't stellar—you're going to have a hard time making great Italian food. And, though I hate to say it because of how elitist it sounds, the reality is that much of the produce sold at supermarkets in the United States just isn't at a level of quality that can deliver good enough results.

Instead, try to visit your local farmers market, food co-op, grocery, or another vendor that puts real effort into its produce selection. Be mindful of what's in season, and take the time to learn to recognize the good stuff. It's not an easy skill to learn, but it's one we should all continuously work to improve.

Ready for some recipes? In the summertime, make a classic Caprese salad that's great because the tomatoes and mozzarella are, not because you doused them with balsamic. Next, try panzanella, the Tuscan tomato and bread salad that can be either the best or most repulsive creation ever, depending on what you put into it. Ripe fruits, whether juicy and sweet pears with cheese (as the saying recommends), silky melon with prosciutto, or a variety combined into a simple fruit salad, will never fall short when the fruit is good.

Make Soup From Nothing

Ribollita.

So much of Italian food relies on making the most out of very little. They even have a specific name for it, cucina povera—peasant cooking. There are countless dishes that fall under this title, but perhaps the quickest route to understanding it is to make some soup. After all, the soup pot was traditionally the daily recipient of whatever vegetables one could gather for the day, even when that was nothing more than a meager handful of grass and weeds. I'm not joking; in Tuscany there's a soup called acquacotta, which translates as "cooked water," and on the most miserable days, it was hardly more than that.

You don't have to make a lean and watery acquacotta to express your solidarity with Tuscan peasants, but you can cook up a basic minestrone, which can, and should, vary with whatever seasonal produce you're able to find. Making minestrone should be less about the recipe and more of a practice, one that can be as complicated or as straightforward as you desire. Simply sauté some vegetables in olive oil, add water, then add other vegetables to simmer. Herbs, beans, pasta, or whatever you want can round it out.

When you're done with that, move on to ribollita, a Tuscan bread soup that was originally a method of stretching yesterday's leftover minestrone into a hearty meal for the next day, simply by adding stale bread. Today, you can make it all at once from start to finish, without doing the whole leftover-soup thing first, though there's no reason you couldn't actually extend your minestrone dregs if it happened to work out that way.

Pappa al pomodoro.

Beyond that, another bread soup, tomatoey pappa al pomodoro, helps to underscore just what a powerful weapon bread can be, while a classic bowl of pasta e fagioli demonstrates both how delicious nicely cooked dried beans can be and how a single ingredient can do double duty, with the beans acting as both the thickener of the broth and the chunky bits suspended in it.

This is the resourcefulness that makes Italian food tick.

Explore Tomato Sauce

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I always marvel at how the tomato, an American crop that didn't reach Italy until the turn of the 15th century, has come to define Italian cuisine today. Of all the tomato-based preparations that have developed in the Italian kitchen since, tomato sauce is the most important. There are infinite ways to make it, using fresh or canned tomatoes, a full assortment of aromatic vegetables or none at all, and every shading of herb imaginable. There are spicy tomato sauces, quick-cooked tomato sauces, and long-simmered ones with flavors that are deep and sweet.

There's no one right way, so you might as well make as many as you can; over time, you'll settle on one or two approaches that will come to define the tomato sauce in your kitchen, and there's hardly anything more Italian than that.

Here are some to get you started:

Cook Pasta, the Right Way

Pasta aglio e olio.

Where do you begin with pasta? I'd argue that the starting point should be the dish called aglio e olio ("garlic and oil"), one of the most basic of all pasta recipes. It's not just a beloved classic in homes throughout Italy; it's also one that teaches several critical pasta-saucing skills.

Because it's so basic, there's no hiding bad technique. The pasta has to be cooked just right, its water seasoned perfectly (and no, that doesn't mean it's as salty as the sea). The starchy pasta water then becomes a key component, helping to emulsify the olive oil coating into an actual creamy sauce that's rich but not greasy. This dish also teaches you to take your time, lest the garlic burn and turn the oil acrid and harsh. As Mark Ladner points out, "There's value in knowing how to gently cook the garlic in the olive oil, and infusing it with red chili flakes."

Aglio e olio is also an ideal jumping-off point for so many other oil-based pasta dishes, which, in a sense, are all just variants on the aglio e olio theme. For some next steps, try alle vongole, which is basically an aglio e olio sauce with clams and white wine added. After that, follow Sara Jenkins's advice by going south to Sicily for its sardine-studded and saffron-infused pasta con le sarde. As she put it, "Italians like to think God came down and created them from scratch, but in fact they are a pastiche of millennia of conquerings and interminglings: Greeks, Berbers, Franks, Lombards, Etruscans, Carthaginians. I love the food that has roots that go into those traditions."

Master Ragù

Along with tomato sauce, a good ragù is a basic in the Italian kitchen. Made from minced or ground meat and often (but not always) reddened with tomato sauce, in a technical sense it's nothing more than a stew or braise. Learning to make a good one involves balancing two factors: the deep and intense browning of both the meat and the vegetables, which leads to richer, more profound flavor, and leaving some portion of the meat un-browned to maintain tenderness and a sweetness of flavor. We like to accomplish that by browning a portion of the meat deeply, and leaving the rest more gently cooked so that the final sauce doesn't end up excessively gritty, with overcooked bits of meat.

The first ragù to master is probably Bolognese, which hails from Emilia-Romagna and is arguably one of the greatest meat-based sauces of all time. As with many Italian dishes, there are many, many valid ways to make a Bolognese. But, based on my time spent cruising around the internet, I've noticed that there's also a lot of confusion around what Bolognese is.

The term has clearly been abused. Many people find it odd that dairy and wine are added to the sauce, but both are classic components that lend it a luxurious texture and balanced flavor. Others seem to think it should be a tomato-heavy sauce studded with meat, but it's usually not—the tomato is more of an accent, not the bulk of the sauce. Still more people seem to want a sauce that's heavily flavored with herbs or spices, both of which can go into a Bolognese but shouldn't dominate it.

I like to make a version that's rich yet delicate, with a rounded, almost sweet beefiness and a silkiness that seems nearly opulent. But even I slip in a few tricks of my own, often boosting the sauce's texture with additional gelatin and enhancing the savory flavor even more with a tiny dose of fish sauce (though you could easily use anchovies, or omit this entirely if you don't like the idea of breaking with tradition).

Once you've cooked up a pot of Bolognese, one other dish you should absolutely make is a true lasagna Bolognese. Unlike American lasagna, which is typically loaded with thick layers of ricotta, the Bolognese version is simply the sauce itself and some creamy béchamel, plus some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's a masterpiece that, in my opinion, makes the American version seem dull and clunky.

Once you've gotten familiar with Bolognese, it's worth trying other Italian ragù types, like the famed Neapolitan version, which is more tomatoey and more heavily spiced and herbed than Bolognese (maybe this is the ragù some people think they're making when they make Bolognese?). It also uses a wider variety of meats, and leaves them in larger chunks, not ground.

Consider Risotto

Italians eat way more pasta than they do rice, but the rice they do prepare is unlike most other rice dishes in the world—fat grains suspended in a creamy sauce. The secret to this effect is to use the rice's own starch to act as a thickener. Traditionally, the process starts by toasting short-grain rice in oil and/or butter to develop its flavor, along with some minced onion for flavor. After that, some wine often goes into the pot and is cooked off, followed by incremental additions of stock, with the cook stirring much of the time to keep the rice moving. The constant movement ensures that all the grains cook evenly in the small amount of liquid, and helps develop the starchy sauce.

Kenji did a deep dive on risotto and the science of starch some years ago, and he came up with a new method that inverts much of the traditional one and requires far less stirring. He starts by rinsing the rice and saving the starchy rinse liquid; then he toasts the rice and adds back the rinse liquid after that. The reason is that toasting weakens the thickening effect of the rice starch. By removing much of it before toasting, then adding it after, he gets the flavor benefit of the toasting step while maintaining the full thickening power of the starch.

It's Kenji's reengineered method that we mostly use on Serious Eats, including in his alla parmigiana recipe and my recipe for risotto alla milanese. But, to be totally honest, I continue to use both at home and am still a big fan of the traditional method. I don't mind standing and stirring, per the original method; frankly, it doesn't take nearly as long as some people claim, and I'm still able to get thick and creamy results even with fully toasted starch.

In the end, it's good to have both methods in your pocket: one that's more involved but allows you to fine-tune as you go (and just enjoy the sensory experience of the dish developing before your eyes), and another that you can bang out with less attention and fuss and still get excellent results.

Try for yourself, then see what you think.

Mash With a Mortar and Pestle

We live in a world of motor-powered kitchen gear, a technological development that has largely improved our cooking lives. Food processors and blenders have mostly taken over the jobs of antiquated equipment like the mortar and pestle. Our arms hurt less, and the speed with which we can whip up a dish is faster than ever, but we've lost something in the process.

A mortar and pestle may require enough elbow grease to make your arm ache, but it creates pastes and sauces that are better than what comes out of a spinning-blade machine. That's because the mechanical action of chopping with blades is different from the crushing power of the mortar and pestle. It changes how a pesto sauce comes out, for the better. But maybe even more important than that is the way it allows you to experience the flavors and aromas as they're released under the pestle's weight. It's sensory heaven, and well worth the physical effort—at least some of the time.

Become Fluent in Artichoke

Cleaned artichoke hearts floating with lemon halves in a metal bowl of water

How does a list with topics as general as "learn to make pasta" include a section devoted entirely to the artichoke? Because understanding all the ways to cook and use an artichoke is a window into the Italian kitchen. Since doing anything to an artichoke beyond just steaming it whole requires some skill, most home cooks in the United States rarely bother, but if you want to cook Italian food, you need to know how.

Mark Ladner had more to say about this when I talked to him about forming this list. "I think artichokes are widely considered one of the most luxurious of vegetables," he said. "I love how versatile they are and how they perform equally well no matter which way they're handled: raw, poached, baked, grilled, fried, et cetera. They also require some skill in preparation, which is intimidating for many."

The first step in working with an artichoke is to learn the different ways to clean and prepare them, which I've documented in my guide.

After that, carciofi alla romana is the perfect starter recipe. It requires properly trimming the artichokes down to their hearts, but the rest of the recipe—braising the hearts in olive oil with plenty of herbs—is easy as can be.

If you're up for a little deep-frying, carciofi alla giudia (artichokes in the Roman-Jewish style) is another thing of beauty. It's also a reminder that a lot of the common wisdom about not using olive oil for high-heat cooking is just plain wrong.

Understand Polenta

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Polenta is yet one more starch in the Italian canon of carbohydrates, popular enough in Northern Italy that other Italians sometimes call Northern Italians (lovingly or disparagingly) polentoni, "the big polentas." Polenta itself is nothing more than a basic gruel, typically made from cornmeal and not all that different from American grits.

Good polenta should be smooth and soft, without any hard or grainy bits. Achieving that result requires using enough water to hydrate the cornmeal properly. In my experience, that's more water than most recipes ever call for. Using more water means cooking the polenta for longer (so that the water ends up fully absorbed and/or evaporated), but it's a far better option than settling for undercooked polenta.

I also recommend starting with just water and olive oil—as good as polenta can be when cooked in milk and loaded with cheese, those "creamy" polentas tend to be too rich when served with toppings. When made well, polenta cooked with water will have a creamy effect and a clean flavor that supports but doesn't overshadow whatever you serve with it.

To serve, try Sara Jenkins's suggestion: garnished with olive oil, fried bread cubes, and a sprinkling of grated cheese. It's very simple, but when made well, it's deeply satisfying. Once more, good basic ingredients and a solid understanding of a basic technique lead to incredible results. Get any part wrong, though—bad supermarket olive oil, improperly cooked polenta, dusty pre-grated cheese—and anything that would have been special about the dish is lost.

Develop a Taste for Bitter Greens

Few things make me sadder than the limp salad mixes that come out of plastic clamshells. They may offer convenience, but they're rarely as fresh as they should be, and, despite the variety, there's almost never much of a flavor difference from one leaf to the next.

To improve them, take a page out of the Italian playbook by making misticanza, a Roman salad of tender, fragrant herbs and bitter greens. It packs so much personality into each forkful that you'll wonder how those supermarket options ever seemed acceptable. The bitter greens, of course, take some getting used to, especially if you're accustomed to less intense lettuces. As Sara Jenkins says, "From Rome on down it's all about eating your greens, whatever is available or foraged and hopefully bitter."

Learning to love the intense bitterness of some vegetables is one approach. Another is to learn how to tame that bitterness. The best broccoli rabe, to my mind, is not briefly blanched so it remains bitingly bitter. Instead, it has the vigor cooked out of it—part of a vast and wonderful Italian tradition of cooking vegetables to death in the best possible way—until all its harsh edges have softened and grown faint.

Never Forget the Small Fish

Italians love fish of all sizes—a whole roasted fish is as at home on the Italian table as it is anywhere else. But that's also why whole roasted fish isn't on this list. As important as it is, it's not specific enough to Italian cuisine to warrant inclusion here.

But small fish? Italian cooking wouldn't be what it is without them, and, of course, no fish better represents this than the humble anchovy. Many folks are still scarred by encounters with unfortunately fuzzy anchovy fillets on a slice at their local pizzeria. But those anchovies are to the good ones what a green tomato is to a ripe, red one, picked straight off the vine in August. I always keep a jar of good-quality, oil-packed anchovy fillets in my refrigerator. If I have the time, I even de-salt and fillet them myself—you can save a lot of money doing it this way.

A bowl of bagna càuda dip on a wooden cutting board, with crusty bread and a bowl of colorful assorted vegetables nearby

Bagna càuda.

There's possibly no better expression of the Italian love of anchovies than bagna càuda, the warm Piedmontese vegetable dip that's made from olive oil (and sometimes butter) with an obscene amount of anchovies and garlic melted into it. It sounds offensive, but it's anything but.

Plenty of pasta sauces are rich with anchovy, too. One classic is a puttanesca, loaded with anchovies and other briny ingredients, like olives and capers.

Or, keep it simple by going with Sara Jenkins's advice: "Everyone should eat anchovies and mozzarella—really good mozzarella and beautiful Cetara anchovies, or shitty, dry pizza mozzarella on a grilled piece of bread with the anchovies cooked into it. Just so they know, sometimes cheese and fish do go together."