What are the essential tools that would make your kitchen truly Italian? After months and months of pondering, I'm ready to present you with my final list. It is based mostly on my personal experience as an expat, especially from the first year in Mr Bee's house, where I would search every drawer and cabinet for these little gems before calling my family in tears. Here they are, in all their indispensable glory.
1. MOKA POT
In Italian, la caffettiera. This beautiful, beautiful object appears in many formats in every single Italian household. The moka pot is the best and quickest way to have a strong coffee (just a little less concentrated than regular espresso) any time of the day, and especially in the morning. Just fill the bottom half with water, insert the portafilter, add espresso-grind coffee, and screw on the top half. Place on the stove, and you'll have your coffee in minutes. And, unlike an espresso machine, a moka pot is completely portable and requires minimal maintenance—just rinse in hot water after each use. In my opinion and that of many others, Bialetti makes the best.
2. GAS COOKER TRIVET
In Italian, la crocetta. This is a godsend if you're using a smaller moka pot on a gas cooker. It's a support to keep the moka pot in place on larger gas burners. It usually starts out much shinier than the one in the picture, which is by now well oxidated.
3. FINE CHEESE GRATER
In Italian, la grattugia. If you need to grate Parmigiano or Pecorino for your pasta—and it's completely acceptable to do it right at the table before you eat—you need this. The small holes and the rounded surface allows you to grate the cheese in fine and soft ribbons, so that it starts melting immediately on your dish in all its salty and creamy goodness. The large-holed cheese grater that you use to shred cheese is not popular in Italy, where I believe it's only used for vegetables. I use this small grater from Ikea, but in Italy people use a larger one.
4. CHEESE SERVER
In Italian, la formaggiera. When you're not grating cheese straight on your plate, you can use a cheese server, great for formal dinners but definitely used everyday on the traditional Italian table. It needs to be filled with fresh Parmigiano, and people pass it along and sprinkle one or two teaspoons of cheese on their pasta. When I was younger, my grandparents would ask me to grate a small mountain of cheese on a plate and then pour it in the server in time for lunch. This one is from Alessi.
5. CRUMB SWEEPER
In Italian, il raccoglibriciole. In my opinion, nothing else encapsulates Italy more than this plastic brush designed to clean up your tablecloth from breadcrumbs after a meal. The popularity of this object means two things: that Italians like to eat at a table covered with proper tablecloth, and that they are going to have bread with whatever their eating. After over ten years in the United States, I wonder whether Italians are keeping up with their social eating and bread dependency. I really hope so.
6. PASTA MACHINE
In Italian, la macchina per la pasta. I'm positive that Italians today do not make homemade pasta as often as their grandparents. However, this is a beautiful object that everybody who loves cooking should have. There are few things more satisfying than cranking your pasta machine on a floured table (and now that I have fresh pasta on my mind, I can't really think of any). Mine is a gorgeous red Imperia. Ask for one for you birthday.
7. PASTA CUTTER
8. DOUBLE-HANDLE MEZZALUNA
In Italian, mezzaluna ("half moon"). I was genuinely surprised that this was not a staple of American kitchens, too. It's perfect to chop herbs and nuts. Just rock it side to side, occasionally sweeping everything back to center for another round of chopping. You can object that a knife would be quicker, but that's true only if you have good knife skills (I don't). Plus, you'd be really missing out on all the fun, and I can't condone that.
In Italian, lo schiacciapatate. This is basically a gigantic garlic press for vegetables, and especially potatoes, that gives you the creamiest, fluffiest ribbons of potato you can ever dream of. Use a ricer to make puré, the (slightly) lighter and more elegant version of mashed potatoes, but also potato gnocchi, and my favorite fancy ice-cream creation: spaghetti ice cream.
10. CITRUS SQUEEZER
In Italian, lo spremiagrumi. In winter, mothers all over Italy spend the best part of their day squeezing juicy Sicilian oranges for their little ones, because you know, vitamin C. And let me tell you, you really get to respect your mother when you see her exerting tremendous force on a tiny squeezer to obtain even the last drop of orange for your morning breakfast. Small and easy to clean, it's an Italian must-have.
11. SOUP PLATES
In Italian, i piatti fondi. Don't be fooled by their English name, the piatto fondo is not only for soups. Rather, it is the plate where the first course, or primo, is served. On a classic Italian table, you eat your pasta, soup, or rice dish on the soup plate, and then your second course on a dinner plate. I was dumbfounded when I came to the United States and discovered you only use dinner plates for pasta. The soup plate is the perfect vessel so that your primo feels neither too crudely exposed nor too infantilized. (Makes sense, right?) Luckily, my MIL gifted me a set of 6 soup plates so I can feel a little better when I get a little homesick and make myself a megaportion of ravioli.