Tuesday, March 8, 2016


15 foods to bring back from your Italian vacation: pasta, cheese, chocolate, tomato, pistachio, panna cotta, etc.

 I just came back from a very fulfilling vacation in Venice where I was surrounded by family, friends, and amazing food around the clock. It was also Carnival, my favorite time of year to be home, and I'm happy to report that I consumed as many traditional treats as humanely animally possible (check out this post on traditional Carnival fare). As I stuffed my luggage with delicious foods to bring home to the States, I thought it would be great to share with you some of my go-to culinary imports so you're prepared for your next trip to Italy. My list is definitely not exhaustive, but it still is a useful starter that can be customized regionally anywhere you go along the sunny Boot. All of the items are approved by U.S. Customs (no meat, no fish) and presented here in random order.

Let's start.


I know you can buy saffron in the United States, but in Italy saffron is sold in these adorably colorful and font-gorgeous packets that are cheap and super easy to stash in your luggage. One sachet will suffice for a risotto alla Milanese or a 6-portion batch of saffron gnocchi.


Dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms, eggplants, olives, artichokes... You can find these items in the United States, but often in name only. Italian condiment jars can be so delicious and packed with so much fresh flavor to shock you into shame for whatever you had been eating before. What you see in the picture is a jar or Sicilian semi-dried cherry tomatoes in extra-virgin olive oil. Yep.


Every single region in Italy, and possibly every single town, has its own traditional cookie. My region is Veneto, and our cookies are crumbly and often made with corn flour like these Zaeti I wrote about some time ago. And if you travel around the rest of Italy, you'll find cookies made with almonds, walnuts, figs, pine nuts, marzipan, honey, wine, lemon, and whatever else, coming in a heart-stopping variety of sizes, shapes, and textures. A final note: Italian cookies are called biscotti, all of them, and as far as I know, they're never chewy. Give that up.


I'll always slip a couple of boxes of tagliatelle paglia e fieno ("straw and hay") in my bag because it's MiniBee's favorite pasta and one that makes him literally squeal with joy when I make it. Egg pasta is heartier and more flavorful than regular pasta and comes in many different shapes. Serve it topped with butter, sage and loads of Parmigiano or with a bolognese sauce, and be happy. The pasta in the picture is very delicious but not particularly high-quality, but you can find fresh pasta in many alimentari (small grocery stores selling fresh cheese, cured meats, etc.) if you need to add some wows into your life.


Every region has its biscotti, but also its pasta. What can I say? I'm trying to promote #glutenwild on Instagram, just so you know where I stand on carbs. Pasta is a great import because it's beautiful and universally beloved, and because there's almost an infinite variety of shapes to choose from. Bassano, a beautiful town north of Venice, makes some superb pasta that tastes amazing and has a great bite. Plus, the pasta boxes look great, which makes it a great gift, too. This one I'm keeping, though.


You can definitely find dried porcini mushrooms in many U.S. stores, but let me tell you once again, IT'S NOT THE SAME. High-quality, authentic Italian porcini mushrooms smell like heaven and come in big, beautiful, leathery slices to be softened in warm water to enrich anything from your bolognese sauce (that'd be a Tuscan ragout) to a mushroom lasagna. Dried porcini mushrooms are not cheap, but they are a cooking game-changer and another amazing gift to bring home to a dear friend.


So sue me. Not everything on this list is regional and fresh and approved by Slow Food. I don't care if you make all of your panna cotta and crème caramel yourself—sometimes it's nice to just heat some milk, dump in a concoction of flour, sugar, and powdered gelatin, and enjoy. Dessert boxes are fun all over the world, and I have a total soft spot for the ones that try to be fancy. They're dirt cheap at 2 euros each, and since they are foreign, nobody has to know you didn't make your dessert from scratch.


Can you believe I put cheese in the eighth position? Neither can I, but really my photo is not that great. That said, the United States might reject all foreign cured meats (WHY, OH WHY?), but they do accept cheese, and I can live with that for the moment. Italian cheeses come in an almost absurd variety and they are so much cheaper than in the U.S. that it almost hurts. And with a little research, you can easily find a grocery store willing to seal-package your cheese for maximum shelf life and casein enjoyment. Cheese, of course, makes the greatest gift ever, but it's so hard to part with it, I won't condemn you if you keep it all for yourself.


I've learned there's a $1000 fine on Kinder Eggs, so I don't recommend you buy those, but next time you're in line at an Italian grocery store or buying bus tickets at a tobacconist's, get something from the candy display. Pocket Coffee (in the picture) are chocolates filled with actual espresso. You need to be a little careful when you bite into them not to spill their content, but the effect is so gratifying you'll be glad you tried. These are also dirt-cheap and make for some great stocking-stuffers for the espresso-lovers in your life.


It's not a secret that I could eat ravioli and tortellini every day. And for a time I did, to the dismay of my sister who was living and dining with me then and who still maintains I caused her an aversion that lasted well over a decade (boo-hoo). Ravioli and tortellini for me are the perfect meal: A thin layer of pasta cradling a soft heart of perfectly-paired ingredients, to be topped with the simplest of sauces: butter and sage, olive oil and Parmesan, cream, tomato sauce, etc. You can definitely find both ravioli and tortellini in the United States, but the good ones are often absurdly expensive, and the bad ones do not really deserve the name. I'm talking about gummy and thick pasta and mysterious "three cheeses" filling where no good cheese can be identified and accepted as such. When you're in Italy, get your hands on some local-brand ravioli with a fancy filling, and eat them in the couple of weeks after you get home to make your return less traumatic.


When the UE was formed, one of the first points of contention that Italy had was that the Italian market was suddenly flooded with crap chocolate made with cheap vegetable oils. It was a bitter war that gained prominent real estate on all Italian newspapers and that I believe fueled the rise of the Slow Food movement in my country. The chocolate in the photo is from the Sicilian town of Modica, and it's famous for its deliciously crunchy texture due its "cold" preparation inspired by an alleged pre-Colombian recipe. But really, there are so many amazing chocolate varieties in Italy (gianduiotti, anyone?). Just get some.


I already talked about cheese in #8, but I do need to give a special mention to Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of cheeses. Not only Italian Parmigiano is about half the price compared to what you buy in the United States, but it's usually a nicer cut. The very common and very dry "double-crusted" Parmigiano you find here is rather depressing to me, so I'm always happy to bring home either a more central cut or a more aged piece (it goes up to 30+ month). Grate it on your best pasta or risotto, or see it disappear in a millisecond when you cut in chunks and serve it to guests. Also great to turn your kids into cheese-snobs.


You might need to do some research here because the best pesto is usually fresh, but there are specialty pestos in jars that are totally worth purchasing. The one in the picture is made with pistachios, which makes it decadent and lavish enough to be placed in a proper altar in your pantry. Attention, though: This is the kind of treat that runs the risk of never being tasted because you always wait for the right occasion. Don't fall into this trap. Find those pistachios a home on your plate.


Am I repeating myself? Check #5 again and tell me you don't want to bring home more regional pasta. These bigoli are almost like thick spaghetti (but not as thick as bucatini) and might be my favorite pasta on the planet. So forgive me for posting them, but I could stare dreamily at this box for hours.


If you still have room, then you have to try more Italian cookies. In many supermarkets, you'll find a huge variety of cookies that Italians usually consume for breakfast. There are not as sweet as American cookies, and they are small enough to be eaten in clusters of threes. Kids will love them, and you will, too. These ones are made with chocolate and orange. Yum.

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