Italian food is characterized by its simplicity, with many dishes having only four to eight ingredients. It is all about what you eat and the quality of the ingredients you use. Olive oil is not just oil. Tomatoes must be fresh. Garlic is good for the hearth and red wine is great as long as it’s good. Italian cooks rely chiefly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation. Ingredients and dishes vary by region. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated with variations throughout the country.
Broadly speaking, northern Italian food centers around butter, meat, potatoes, pork and Parmigiano (cheese) and other types of cheeses, while southern cooking is more focused on olive oil, tomatoes, eggplant, capers and fresh fish. There are many regional variations of cooking throughout Italy, but in general grain foods such as pasta, bread, rice, and polenta are mixed in a variety of interesting ways with vegetables, beans, fish, poultry, nuts, cheeses and meat.
Wheat is one of the most revered foods in Italian cookery. It's used to make a variety of interesting breads including ciabatta, focaccia and crusty whole grain bread. Pasta, which is made from wheat comes in dozens of different shapes.
Meat (beef, lamb, pork) never featured prominently in Italian dishes of the poorer southern Italy. Instead it was typically been eaten on festive occasions or used in small amounts as a flavor and texture enhancer. In the northern parts of Italy meat has traditionally been eaten more frequently, but still in moderation.
As Italy is largely surrounded by the sea, fish and shellfish are a traditional staple in most parts of the country. Poultry, especially chicken, is also eaten regularly. Eggs, which are a common ingredient in many Italian dishes such as frittata, are traditionally eaten regularly, but in modest amounts.
Other popular grain foods include rice such as arborio (which is a short-grain variety of rice popularly used in risottos) and cornmeal which is used to make polenta. Cheese is traditionally eaten regularly, but in moderation, throughout Italy.
Wine has been the most popular alcoholic beverage since ancient times. It's customary in Italy to consume wine with meals, and in moderation. Strong coffee is the most popular non-alcoholic beverage.
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