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La cucina italiana, with its appetizing medleys of aromas, flavors, colors and textures continues to gain magnitude as the

western world's favorite cuisine. Italian food is doubly appealing for its healthful nature, for the olive oil, grains, vegetables, herbs, fish, cheese, fruit and wine of the ancient Mediterranean diet that is increasingly esteemed as the ideal modern way to eat. By now the pleasures of pasta, pizza, risotto, balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano, Mozzarella, gelato and espresso are so familiar to foreigners that they might not realize that Italy doesn't have a stereotyped national cuisine. Instead, cooks over the monumental repertory of recipes and dishes that vary from region to region and town to town. It's this local individuality that makes la cucina italiana so original, so diversified, so delightful.

Fresh produce is essential to Italian cooks, with their legendary knack for making things look easy. But menus also rely on specialty foods - cheeses, pasta, cured meats and fish, baked goods, olive oil, vinegar, condiments and sauces - crafted by artisan in Italy following age-old techniques. Their excellence can't be duplicated, yet copies abound. The gap in quality between Italy's authentic artisan foods and the widespread fabrications continues to grow. Italians trace their culinary heritage to Romans, Greeks, Etruscans and other early Mediterranean peoples who elaborated the methods of raising, refining and preserving foods. But dining customs acquired local accents in a land divided by mountains and seas into natural enclaves where independent spirits developed during the repeated shifts of ruling powers that fragmented Italy from Roman times to the Risorgimento. Still, despite the different attitudes about eating expressed from the Mediterranean isles to the Alps, Italian foods have points in common. Consider pizza which migrated from Naples to become what must rank as Italy's - and the world's - favorite fast food. Every Italian town has a gelateria making ice cream sherbet and shaved ice granita. And every piazza has a bar or two where tiny cups of densely aromatic espresso are brewed rigorously to command. Pasta is a national institution, and it comes in so many shapes and sizes and carries so many names that there is no way of documenting all the different types. Still, pasta falls into two basic categories: the dried, made from hard wheat semola flour and water, and the fresh, made from soft wheat flour and eggs, often with other ingredients in the dough or filling. Dried pasta prevailed in the south and fresh pasta in the north, in territories similar to those long described as "the Italy of olive oil and the Italy of butter." But barriers fell as spaghetti and maccheroni gained ground to the Alps and beyond and ravioli and

tortellini (with their northern partners risotto and polenta) won admirers in the Mezzogiorno. Meanwhile, extra virgin olive oil has triumphed everywhere as the essence of the Mediterranean diet. Each province of Italy has its salumi - cured meat products, usually from pork but also from other animals, in the forms of salame, sausages, prosciutto, mortadella, bresaola and more. Italians produce some 450 different cheeses, from the milk of cows, sheep, goats and even water buffalo. The best known is Parmigiano Reggiano, used universally for grating but savored at home in bite-sized chunks. Gorgonzola, Grana Padano, Mozzarella, Provolone and Pecorino Romano also have international followings. But most Italian formaggio remains proudly local. The same can be said for breads, which range in type from hefty loaves of unsalted pane toscano to Emilia's tawny coppiette rolls to Alto Adige's dark Schwartzbrot to Turin's stick-like grissini to Sardinia's brittle "music paper" and on to a vast assortment of flatbreads or focacce. The national inventory of pastries, biscuits and cakes is equally awe inspiring. Italian meals may progress through multiple courses, from antipasto to primo and secondo and on to dolce. But even a simple repast would not be complete without vino. Italy makes more wine than any other country in the greatest variety of types and styles. Each of the 20 regions provides distinctive foods and wines, which, needless to say, have an inherent affinity for one another. Today, in a world of ever more uniform tastes, Italians retain their customary loyalty to local foods and wines. This region-by-region review of the cucina begins in the south, in the islands, in those antique Mediterranean lands where the roots of Italy's culinary culture were formed.

Sicily
This island crossroads of the Mediterranean, endowed as it is with sunshine on fertile volcanic soils, has been the source of many good things to eat. Sicily's exotic array of foods bespeaks the influences of prominent pasta con le sarde settlers. Greeks, who baked flatbreads that were forerunners to pizza and focaccia, used the snows of Mount Etna to make gelato, heralding Sicily's reputation as a treasure island of sweets. Italy's first pasta industry was founded near Palermo in the 12th century by Arabs using grain from fields planted earlier by the Romans. Sicilian menus rely on vegetables, herbs, spices, olives and olive oil, capers and fish. A noted first course is pasta con le sarde (noodles with sardines and wild fennel). Vegetable stews called caponata (based on eggplant and tomato) and peperonata (based on peppers) may accompany freshly caught tuna or swordfish. Popular cheeses are Pecorino Romano and Caciocavallo, though creamy soft ricotta is used in pasta fillings and pastries. Oranges, lemons, sun-dried and candied fruits and nuts (notably almond paste for marzipan) go into the dazzling array of sweets, led by cassata (a chocolate-coated sponge cake of lavish decor). Sicily is renowned for dessert wines - toasty Marsala and sweet Moscato Passito di Pantelleria and Malvasia delle Lipari. But its growing reputation is for dry table wines.

Sardinia
Modern Sardinia is known for seaside resorts, where summer crowds feast on fish from the island's rocky coasts and sip cool white Vermentino and Nuragus. The main port of Cagliari offers a piquant fish stew called burrida. Alghero carta da musica boasts aragosta (rock lobster). Near Oristano they dry mullet eggs as the pungent bottarga, to slice thin over pasta or salads. Yet it's said that the real Sardinian cooking is the rustic fare of the hills and the open hearth - roast lamb and kid, suckling pig called porceddu, sausages, savory Pecorino Romano cheese and red wines of the weight of Cannonau. Outsiders, from Phoenicians to Spaniards, who ruled the island for centuries, lent their accents to the foods. Specialties include su farru (mint and barley soup), malloreddus (semolino gnocchi with meat or tomato sauce), favata (fava, beans stewed with pork), sebadas (pastry with Pecorino Romano and bitter honey). Each village has its own styles of bread, though bakers everywhere share a liking for the flat pane carasau and its crisp variation called carta da musica (music paper).

equally prized. The Tyrrhenian renders ala longa (baby tuna) and swordfish. Pitta chicculiata is a type of pizza with fish, tomato and capers. Calabrians make delicious pastries and sweets, using grapes, honey, citrus fruit and dried figs, which may be covered with chocolate. Among wines, the mursiellu ancient Cir is exported, though the luscious white Greco di Bianco is hard to find beyond its sunny vineyards.

Basilicata
The people of this sparsely populated region share with their southern neighbors a taste for lamb and pork, whose variations include sausage known as luganega (after the region's alternate name of Lucania). Other specialties include pasta tubes known as fichi secchi, minuich, lasagne with beans ammandorlati and a stew called ciammotta (with eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes). Basilicata's cooking is fiery, thanks to liberal lacings of chili pepper, here called diavolicchio. Fichi secchi, ammandorlati (fresh and dried figs and almonds) are popular in the region, which boasts a grandiose red wine in Aglianico del Vulture.

Calabria
The ancient Greeks dined sumptuously in Calabria. But the mountainous toe of the Italian boot remained mostly isolated for centuries after, as its foods took on the tasty simplicity of an old country tradition. The diet relies on soups and pastas laden with vegetables, especially eggplants and peppers, which are stewed with pork and tomatoes in what is called mursiellu. Pork prevails in ham and salame, though lamb is

Apulia
This long, slender region whose tip, the Salento peninsula, forms the heel of the Italian boot, is noted for rolling plains, as a source of cereals and the nation's largest volumes of wine and olive oil. The Apulian diet draws from abbacchio e funghi land and sea to achieve an enviable balance. Lamb prepared in many ways, such as abbacchio e funghi, (lamb and mushrooms) is the preferred meat, though pastas, soups and vegetables, such as fava beans and artichokes, provide sustenance. Specialties include the pasta shells called orecchiette and cavatieddi (the first served with turnip greens, the second with rocket), tiella (rice and potatoes layered with meat, cheese or fish) and ciceri e tria (noodles with chick peas). The Adriatic and Ionian seas provide cozze (mussels) and ostriche (oysters). Among cheeses, the buttery soft burrata of the town of Andria stands out. Notable wines are the crisp white Locorotondo in addition to the reds and ross of Salento and Castel del Monte.

Capua yields the finest of Mozzarella di Bufala and Provola. The hills provide lamb and pork, as well as Campania's best wines: white Greco and Fiano, and red Taurasi from around Avellino. But Naples, in spite of its noble resources, reigns as a paradise of street food. The primadonna, of the byways is pizza in versions called Marinara (with tomato, garlic and oil) and Margherita (with tomato, basil and Mozzarella). Neapolitans are equally devoted to maccheroni dressed with pummarola (tomato sauce), though even spaghetti were once eaten standing up. The city is justly famous for ices, pastries and seductively sweet espresso.

Abruzzi
The people of this mountainous Adriatic region have long been noted as some of Italy's heartiest eaters - and some of its best cooks. The sea provides the fish for brodetto (a peppery soup), though many Abruzzesi look to the land for nourishment. The brodetto vaunted pasta is maccheroni alla chitarra (quadrangular strands formed by the strings of what resembles a guitar), dressed with tomato, olives and diavolino, the pepper that enlivens many a dish. The singular scrippelle 'nfuss is cheese-coated crepes in broth. Lamb and pork prevail in Abruzzi and Molise, which also share cheeses: Caciocavallo, Pecorino Romano and Scamorza (fresh or grilled). White Trebbiano, goes with fish, though the wine of choice is the supple, and sometimes superb, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.

Campania
The ancient Romans, who called it Campania Felix, marveled at the fertility of its volcanic soils, which today supply Naples and its region with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and fruit of unmatched flavor. The gulf abounds in fish. Buffalo grazed near Salerno, and

pizza Margherita

Molise
Until 1963, Molise and the Abruzzi were one region. Although they are now separate entities, the cooking in both is extremely similar. Except for a short stretch of flat coastline along the Adriatic and a few narrow river valleys, Molise is peperoncino ruggedly mountainous or hilly. The steep slopes provide rich pasturage for sheep and hogs, the sources of most of the region's succulent meat dishes. As in other parts of the Apennines, the porchetta (roast pork), flavored with mountain herbs, is superb. The Molise cook also shows a deft hand with lamb, turning out dishes that are simple but extraordinarily savory, such as agnello alle olive (lamb stewed with black olives) and agnello brodettato (lamb cooked in white wine and served with a sauce thickened with egg yolks and flavored with lemon juice). The region's flocks also supply ewe's milk cheeses that are used in many ways. Ricotta, for example, is combined with raw ham and Provolone to create a stuffing for calcioni, pastry envelopes that are deep-fried and served as part of a frittura mista. Scarmorza is a mellow cow'smilk cheese that is popular throughout the region and is usually toasted over a wood fire or roasted in the oven. Wild greens, like mountain asparagus, are widely consumed and among the regional specialties is a soup made from nettle shoots, collected in the fields in early spring. As in the Abruzzi, peperoncino (hot red pepper) is freely used to spice numerous preparations.

Marches
In this peaceful region, cooks draw from sea and hillsides, and with equal ease put the best of both on the table. The Adriatic provides the choicest of sea creatures - of which 13 are required in the broth of Ancona's brodetto - to coniglio in porchetta be complemented by Verdicchio, the paragon of fish wines. Fish or fowl may be cooked in potacchio (with tomato, onion, garlic and rosemary). Special treats are the giant green olives of Ascoli, stuffed with meat and fried, and vincisgrassi, an elaborate lasagne with bechamel cheese and truffles preferably the white variety, which abound in the Marches. Succulent anatra (duck) and coniglio in porchetta (rabbit roasted with wild fennel and garlic) call for a local red of the class of Rosso Conero.

Umbria
The green heart of Italy is a compact, landlocked region whose recipes suggest simplicity but whose dishes may be little short of sublime. Umbria makes a major share of dried pasta, though its fresh tagliatelle with prosciutto di agnello ragout can rival the best of e dindo affumicato Emilia. It produces some of Italy's finest olive oil and most of its black truffles. These come from beds around Norcia, a town whose pork butchers are noted for the art of making salumi

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and the roasting of porchetta (whole pig) in woodfired ovens, a specialty of the central Apennines. Equally admired are the region's Chianina beef, lamb, poultry and rabbit. Umbrian cured meats, like prosciutto di agnello e dindo affumicato (lamb and turkey "hams" are famous.) The wine of renown is the white Orvieto, though also worth seeking out are the reds of Torgiano, and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Tuscany
Tuscan cooking attests to the innate goodness of seasonal produce and splendid extra virgin olive oil. In Florence's region bread baked in wood-fired ovens upstages pasta. Slices of pane toscano may be toasted with garlic and panzanella oil as fettunta or bruschetta, crumbled into panzanella (with tomatoes and onions) or spread with chicken liver paste as crostini. Bread sustains the thick vegetable soups called ribollita and pappa al pomodoro (literally tomato pap). Tuscans, who relish vegetables, herbs and wild mushrooms, have a weakness for fagioli, stewed white beans that are indispensable with bistecca alla fiorentina, thick steak from native Chianina beef. Fish excels along the coast, where Livorno's cacciucco is a zesty soup. But in the land of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, all red wines, meat rules in roast and grilled pork, poultry and game (ranging from stewed wild boar to pigeon turned on the spit). Pecorino Toscano is the most savory of sheep cheeses. Preferred sweets are Prato's cantuccini, almond biscuits and Siena's panforte, fruit and nut cake, served with sweet vin santo.

Latium
As a perennial melting pot for foods from far flung places, Rome offers cosmopolitan menus. Yet the Eternal City boasts many a tasty dishes of its own. Tempting arrays of antipasti may be followed by spaghetti alla carbonara antipasti (with eggs, bacon and cheese), bucatini alla matriciana (tubes with tomato, salt pork and pungent Pecorino Romano) or the popular fettuccine al burro (egg noodles with butter, cream and Parmigiano Reggiano). Latium's gardens grow the tastiest of peas and artichokes, the latter flattened and fried in the style of the Jewish ghetto as carciofi alla giudea. Seafood of every sort is served, but a local favorite is cozze alla marinara (mussels steamed with tomato). Meat dishes include tender abbacchio (milk-fed lamb) and zesty coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew). Latium's hills provide mainly white wines, led by the versatile Frascati and Marino. Roman meals often end with a glass of sweet sambuca liqueur, sipped with three coffee beans to munch on.

Emilia-Romagna
Emilia (to the west of Bologna) and Romagna (to the east) flaunt their differences, but together they share Italy's most luxuriant tables. Pasta - by definition fresh and rolled by hand by a sfogliatrice - triumphs as tagliatelle, tortellini, tortelli, cappelletti and lasagne (to name a few). Pork reigns supreme in Prosciutto di Parma, Modena's zampone, Piacenza's

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coppa, Bologna's mortadella and delectable salame. Emilia is the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, king of cheeses, and the aceto balsamico tradizionale of Modena and Reggio, which must be aged at least 12 years in wooden barrels to become dark and dense and almost too divine to be prosciutto e melone called vinegar (imitations, naturally, abound). The perfect foil for Emilia's lavish fare is vivacious red Lambrusco - dry, however, not sweet. Romagnans snack on the flatbread called piadina, stuffed with ham or cheese and washed down with tasty red Sangiovese. They also relish fish from the Adriatic, served with dry white Albana di Romagna.

other pasta. Pansti are a type of ravioli dressed with salsa di noci (walnut sauce). Meats of choice are rabbit and veal. Farinata is baked chick pea paste sliced and eaten like pizza. Wines to seek out are red Rossese di Dolceacqua, and white Vermentino and Pigato.

Piedmont
Piedmont's staunchly traditional cooking hits peaks in autumn, the season of game and mushrooms and, above all, the white truffles of Alba, which emit magical aromas when shaved over pasta and risotto. Alba's hills produce grissini majestic Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as Dolcetto and Barbera, reds that flow with fonduta (fondue of Fontina cheese), carne cruda (marinated raw veal), tajarin noodles with truffles, meat-stuffed envelopes called agnolotti, brasato (beef braised with Barolo) and tasty cheese called Toma. Piedmont's capital of Turin is noted for grissini, (yard-long breadsticks) good munched with bagna cada ("hot bath" of oil, garlic and anchovies into which raw vegetables are dipped). Other delights are bollito misto (boiled meats) and fritto misto or fricia (deep fried meats, vegetables and cheese). Flatlands near the Po are Europe's leading source of rice for risotto, especially prized Carnaroli, cooked with beans in panissa. Piedmont's renowned whites are the dry Gavi and Arneis and the sweet and bubbly Asti Spumante to accompany desserts or torrone, nougat candy. Turin is the world capital of ver-mouth, fortified wine flavored with herbs and spices.

Liguria
The Mediterranean diet takes on touches of genius along the Riviera that flanks the busy port of Genoa. Restaurateurs demand sea bass and prawns and the makings of cappon magro, a pyramid built with a salsa di noci, pesto dozen types of seafood, including oysters and lobsters.Yet Ligurians seem just as fond of ordinary fish in soups called buridda and ciuppin and salted and dried cod called bacal and stoccafisso, stewed in tasty sauces. Cooks seem to be deftest with produce from their terraced hillsides: pale golden olive oil, vegetables, nuts and herbs, above all with basil as the base of pesto, the green sauce that glorifies trenette and
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Valle d'Aosta
Italy's tiniest region is tucked into the loftiest angle of the Alps, bordering on France, Switzerland and Piedmont, whose influences can be tasted. Yet the foods of Frenchspeaking Valle d'Aosta polenta have a rarefied character of their own. Thick soups and polenta outrank pasta, though meat is the essence of the hearty cuisine in salami, sausages, hams and stews of beef, pork and venison. Fontina cheese is the base of fondue. Wine, such as Blanc de Morgex and Torrette, are so rare that they have to be sampled locally. Meals conclude with the passing of the grolla, a pot containing coffee and grappa sipped from numerous spouts.

polenta with tiny birds cooked crisp. The Alpine Valtellina is noted for bresaola (air-dried beef) and the buckwheat noodles called pizzoecheri. Lombardy shares with Piedmont the delight of vitello tonnato (sliced veal with tuna and caper sauce). The region's grand tradition of cheeses takes in Gorgonzola, Grana Padano, Taleggio, Stracchino and the Valtellina's Bitto. Wines range from the fine bottle-fermented spumante of Franciacorta and Oltrep Pavese to Valtellina's dignified aged reds.

Veneto
Venice, as a seafood haven, exalts razor-shell clams called cannolicchi, granseole (Adriatic crabs) and risotto nero (blackened with cuttlefish ink). But the Venetians also dine on the earthly likes of risi e bisi (rice and peas), fegato alla veneziana (liver fegato alla veneziana with onions) and Carpaccio. That raw beef dish seems to have originated in the canal city, as did the chocolate covered dessert called tiramis. The Veneto's rich and varied diet reflects an enviable balance of sources. The plains supply grain, Vialone Nano rice for risotto, corn for polenta and livestock. The Alpine slopes provide game, wild mushrooms, air-dried prosciutto and the cheeses of Asiago and Montasio. Delicacies include pastissada (beef stew with potato gnocchi), Vicenza's bigoli con l'anara (thick spaghetti with duck ragout), Treviso's sopa coada (pigeon and vegetable soup) and Padua's pasta e fasioi (pasta and bean soup). Beyond Verona's renowned Soave, Valpolicella and opulent Amarone, the region's vineyards proliferate in Merlot and Cabernet and the bubbly white Prosecco that delights Venetians.

Lombardy
Cooks of Milan's affluent region produce some of Italy's most elaborate dishes and most esoteric tastes. Milanese adore the saffron-tinted risotto alla milanese, it's often served with ossobuco (a braised veal shank), as well as taleggio, mustard fruit such tasty fillers as busecca (tripe soup) and casoela (pork stewed with beans and cabbage). The city's panettone Christmas cake is a national best-seller. Pavia is noted for risotto with frogs and snails. At Mantua tortelli envelopes are filled with sweet pumpkin pasta. Cremona offers you mostarda (mustard-flavored candied fruits) with boiled meats. At Bergamo they often serve the
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FriuliVenezia Giulia
In Italy's northeast corner, the country fare of Friuli (the Alpine area to the north) contrasts with the more delicate diet of Venezia Giulia (the Adriatic coast taking in frico Trieste). Friulians grill meats and sausages at the open hearth fogolar and savor such curiosities as jota (liquidy polenta with pork and cabbage), frico (crunchy fried cheese), cialzons (sweet-sour pasta packets) and muset con la brovada (pork rind with turnips steeped in grape pressings). The hills render Montasio cheese and the exquisite Prosciutto of San Daniele. Coastal dwellers favor pasta and seafood: prawns, squid, scallops, spider crabs called granzevola and the tangy chowder called boreto alla gradese. Menus also echo the tangs of Austrian and Slavic neighbors with the likes of gulasch and the apple strudel called strucolo. Italy's most admired white wines come from Friuli's hills - Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and sweet Picolit - though red Merlot, Cabernet and Refosco dal Penducolo Rosso are also eminently drinkable.

Trentino-Alto Adige
Amid the towering Dolomites of this northernmost region, Italian and Germanic cultures mingle. In Alto Adige (or Sdtirol, the German-speaking province of Bolzano), Tyrolean customs prevail speck in wursts, potatoes, rye bread and soups. In Trentino (the province of Trento to the south), Venetian traditions of pasta, polenta and gnocchi take on Alpine accents with butter, cheese, game and a dazzling array of wild mushrooms. Trentino's best include blood sausages called biroldi and buckwheat cakes called smacafam served with sausage and cheese. Alto Adige makes fine smoked bacon called speck and loaves of deliciously dark Schwarzbrot. Still, in these days of cultural exchange the South Tyroleans may dine on pizza or spaghetti just as readily as the Trentini eat Kndel (liver dumplings) or kraut. Red wines tend to prevail throughout the region. Yet notable whites such as Gewrztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon as well as the Pinot and Chardonnay used to make firstrate sparkling wines have a way of flourishing in the crisp Alpine air. With those qualities in mind, Trentino-Alto Adige makes an excellent closing argument in any well constructed case for the unmatched diversity of cucina italiana.

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