Your pantry should be stocked with these essential Italian ingredients
by E. Marsili
My family’s Italian pantry. Growing up in a small Italian seaside town, I was often asked by my mother or grand-mother to get on my bicycle and go shopping at their favorite Alimentari, a grocery store located 3 miles away.
The list would often include ingredients that have been proven to be essential in any Italian pantry, ingredients that will be necessary to create many Italian recipes including sauces, a quick meal, or an elaborate main-course.
When it comes to Italian food one of the main ingredients most people think of is Pasta.
Have dry pasta in different shapes, short and long, such as penne, rigatoni, spaghetti, farfalle, fettuccine, and so on. Pasta has always been a major staple in the Italian pantry, since it allows you to prepare even a very basic satisfying meal by just adding olive oil or butter, and some grated cheese on top.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is what you’ll find at most stores in U.S., and it’s excellent for salads or to add fine touches to any meal, including cooked vegetables and meat.
But if you are going to cook with olive oil, I suggest getting a bottle of Light or Extra-Light Olive Oil. The lighter oil will sustain higher temperatures while cooking.
If I cannot make my own tomato sauce from scratch using fresh tomatoes, I will buy canned organic tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, whole and peeled, a can or two of tomato puree, and tomato paste in a tube, if available, it’ll last longer than the one in the can.
I rarely buy ready-made sauces.
Once I have my main ingredients like tomatoes, olive oil, Chili Peppers, garlic and basil, I can make my own marinara sauce or any other sauce, it’s really not that difficult.
Note: I, like many Italians, do not use “sugar” when making tomato sauce. I simply leave the lid off a (large) saucepan in order to reduce the acidity of the tomatoes, or add a few drops of milk if really necessary.
Yes, Garlic should be in your Italian pantry as well, as it’s an essential ingredient for many recipes, especially the ones from Central and Southern Italy. Rarely garlic is cooked together with onions, but there are exceptions, especially in the U.S. Keep the garlic well aerated and in a cool place.
Onions will be necessary for the Soffritto along with fresh Carrots and Celery sauteed in olive oil, a base for a multitude of Italian dishes including tomato sauces. Italian Soffritto is similar in name but not the same as the Spanish “Sofrito“, in which garlic, onion, pepper, paprika are cooked in olive oil with tomatoes.
Herbs & Spices
Get a fresh Basil (Basilico) plant if you can find it, when you add Pine nuts (Pinoli), olive oil and cheese you will make pesto, or use the fresh leaves for your marinara sauce or a Caprese salad with mozzarella and tomatoes.
Other fresh spices and herbs to have in your Italian pantry are Parsley (Prezzemolo), Rosemary (Rosmarino) and Sage (Salvia), dry Oregano (Origano), Thyme (Timo), Nutmeg (Noce moscata), and White Pepper (Pepe bianco). Saffron (Zafferano) is a wonderful (and expensive) spice that it’s used to make Risotto alla Milanese and other dishes.
All kinds of dry or canned beans are OK but look for dry Borlotti (hard to find, also called Cranberry Beans in the U.S.) and Cannellini to best replicate an Italian dish. Red Kidney and White Northern beans can be substituted for the above. Other dry legumes to keep handy are Lentils (Lenticchie) and Chickpeas (Ceci).
Vinegar & Vincotto
In Italy there are two main types of vinegar, Wine vinegar, and Balsamic vinegar. Red or White wine vinegar is used for cooking, to make dressings and other sauce preparations, while balsamic vinegar is reserved to give that final touch to a savory or sweet dish. It can be enjoyed with strawberries, ice-cream, and other gastronomic creations.
Recently Vincotto has been gaining popularity among the culinary world. Unlike vinegar, Vincotto is, as the name indicates, cooked wine. It’s also used as a final flavoring to mostly sweet dishes but it can go well with pork and other white meat.
In the Italian pantry you would also find preserved food, in cans or jars. Tuna (Tonno) in olive oil is great in a salad with cannellini beans and scallions, or even in a pasta sauce with fresh tomatoes and Capers.
Anchovies (Acciughe) in oil are a delicacy when eaten over crostini lathered with unsalted butter, or used to give a little kick to any sauce, a chef’s secret to many dishes.
Finally baby Clams can be used to make spaghetti or linguine, with or without tomatoes.
Cornmeal flour is used to make polenta. You can also get a pre-cooked polenta that comes in plastic rolls. It’s delicious when sliced and sauteed or grilled with cheese and other toppings.
Polenta was introduced in Italy in the 16th Century, brought in from the Americas. It has been since a staple of every well-stocked Italian pantry, mostly in the Northern regions of Italy.
When you need to make a Risotto, a generic rice won’t quite make it. My choices are the Arborio or Carnaroli varietals. They’re both short-grain and release a fair amount of starch and creaminess. Another kind of risotto from Italy but more difficult to find is called Vialone. Your Italian pantry should always be stocked with risotto.
Some cheeses do not require refrigeration, however it’s up to you. I normally keep cheeses in the refrigerator and I take them out earlier to be enjoyed at room temperature as an appetizer with a Prosecco, after a dinner with fruit, or any other occasion.
Here’s a list of some common cheeses used in Italy: Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Pecorino Romano, Mozzarella, Ricotta, Mascarpone, Pecorino Toscano and whatever you can afford from the Italian cheese counter.
There are so many choices, I suggest that you try a few small samples first. I usually buy local fresh mozzarella, ricotta and mascarpone, but Parmigiano Reggiano or others must be from Italy.
Coffee is another staple of the Italian pantry that very few people in Italy won’t have it on their kitchen shelves. Often when someone’s visiting, you would offer them a caffè, made with ground espresso beans in a stove-top moka. Younger Italians have succumbed to the fast espresso machines using pods and capsules, nonetheless making a perfect caffè every time.
Prosciutto is nice to have and served with melon or figs or in a sandwich, Pancetta or Guanciale are used to make many Italian recipes including the famous amatriciana sauce.
You can certainly have some Italian sausages and Salami of different kind to serve as appetizers, to add to other Italian meat recipes and for a quick meal or sandwich.
Capers (Capperi) are fantastic in a seafood-based pasta sauce or whenever you want to add a little salty kick to a dish, but you might want to taste them first and eventually rinse them a bit.
Breadcrumbs (Pan grattato) are normally used to coat meat and vegetables when frying or sauteing and also when creating meatballs, meatloaf, or other stuffings. They’re often combined with other herbs and spices but you can make your own using dry Italian bread and adding your own flavorings such as dry oregano, thyme, and rosemary.
Wine (Vino) is another important Italian pantry essential as it’s used extensively in many sauces and main dishes. You should keep both red and white as well as a bottle of dry Marsala wine.
Time to shop…