If you had a Nona or Mama that taught you everything you know about cooking, or perhaps you are just a great cook who loves Italian food, I will bet your pantry and refrigerator looks like this…
There are always at least two types of olive oil. One for cooking, the other for dressing salads and dipping. There are many medical and beauty uses for olive oil as well.
Vinegars – red wine varieties, white for pickling (and cleaning) and balsamic. Balsamic is one vinegar where price does matter. The older, and often the more expensive, is the way to go. The difference is just amazing!
Pasta of all shapes and sizes. Duram wheat, vegetable, squid ink and whole wheat types. On Christmas Eve we need the fat rigatoni, but with a clam sauce, thin spaghetti works best. I could go on and on, name a dish and I could match a pasta (from valid research, of course).
Having noted pasta of all sorts and sizes, I have to create a separate sub-heading just for pastina. Those little pasta balls of joy soak up everything around them creating some of the best soups and side dishes ever made. My favorite pastina dish is served topped with butter, salt, pepper and parmesan cheese. My son, and many other babies born into Italian-American households, were fed this as a first food and something to ease stomach aches and colds as they grew. How many of us came home as a teenager late at night to discover that pastina was the best midnight snack ever?
Polenta, rices, both Arborio and other long-grain varieties, for risotto, sides and even desserts. Canned beans of all varieties – cannellini, chick, lentils etc. – for quick meals and salads. Soaking and rinsing the bagged, dried varieties make great healthy dinners boiled with a bit of garlic and spices.
Good, canned tuna (not the popular brand names). These days, good tuna (in oil) is available in local markets. Salted capers (must be rinsed first), anchovies, as well as jars of artichokes (also in oil), and jarred peppers for cooking and quick snacks, the sweet as well as hot varieties. Grab some good provolone cheese and stuff the cherry peppers! Use both varieties to create a wonderful and easy pork chop dish that is made on the stove. Simply brown the chops and then let them cook in the sweet and spicy brine and peppers with their flavors melding together.
Spices of every sort. Nuts, especially pine nuts. If your container is halfway down run to the Italian import store for the good quality ones, as this is another item where cost matters.
For medical purposes, each pantry needs to have some anisette tucked in. A bit in your tea will take any new breath of germs away. Call it our version of Zicam. My 83-year-old mother pours a quarter in a glass of water first thing in the morning when she feels a cold coming on and sips it all day until she goes to bed (or so she tells me). And of course, we can’t forget onions and garlic.
The refrigerated items
When the garden is done for the season, canned or jars of San Marzano tomatoes are the only way to go. Yes, the cost is higher than the 10 for $10 tomatoes, but we would have a revolt without them. Sun dried tomatoes should also be on hand; they are an easy item that enhances so many dishes.
Olives! Perhaps not all varieties, but like pasta, keep a few good ones on hand for cooking, salads and snacking. I love the oil-cured for everything.
Blocks of cheese (not the already-grated kind) – parmesan, pecorino romano and provolone for eating with olives and cheeses. Veggies are plentiful and pack the shelves whatever season. During the summer months, our fridges resemble a farm stand, but even in the winter months we have greens such as kale, broccoli rabe and escarole; fresh peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce and fresh anise (fennel). Eggs are also a must for quick meals and for baking. I have chickens, so our eggs are always fresh, and I enjoy sharing them with friends and family.
Finding the things you need to cook Italian-style is getting easier and easier. While local import stores are terrific sources, the supermarkets are getting competitive and offering much more variety. Our close proximity to NYC offers the ease of taking a day trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx or the trendy Eataly and Chelsea Market in Manhattan. You might not want to make the pilgrimage, but it is like visiting Disney World to some of us.