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Italian for beginners

Italian food is just so easy to love. If not for the appeal of the basic ingredients – tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, cheese – then surely for the simplicity of the recipes, and the charm of the Italian food culture. It’s all about humble generosity, good flavour and minimal fuss. Pull up a chair to our chequered kitchen table and find out everything you need to know about Italian cooking, including vocabulary, ingredients, and classic and new recipes.

Important vocabulary

Al dente: Cooked ‘to the tooth’ so it’s still got a bite (referring to pasta or veg)
Al forno: Baked in a wood-fired oven
Aperitivo: A drink to get the appetite going, usually prosecco
Antipasto: A snack before the meal, such as olives, cured meats, artichokes and fresh cheeses (plural: antipasti)
Arancini: Fried breadcrumb-covered balls of risotto
Bocconcini: Small balls of mozzarella
Digestivo: A drink at the end of the meal to aid digestion, such as grappa or limoncello
Dolce: Dessert or sweet
Formaggio: Cheese
Frutti di mare: Seafood (literally ‘fruits of the sea’)
Funghi: Mushrooms
Grappa: Grape-based liqueur
Limoncello: Lemon liqueur
Melanzane: Aubergine
Pesce: Fish
Pollo: Chicken
Pomodoro: Tomato
Primo: The first course, usually a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, or soup
Prosecco: Dry white sparkling wine
Secondo: The main dish, usually seafood or meat

Important vocabulary

Important vocabulary

Ingredients checklist

With Italian cooking, it’s important to keep your pantry and fridge fully stocked with the following: good quality olive oil, tinned tomatoes, fresh cloves of garlic, fresh basil, mozzarella, parmesan, arborio rice, flour, eggs, balsamic vinegar, olives, pine nuts, dried oregano and thyme, mushrooms, aubergines, pancetta or prosciutto, white beans, sea salt and black pepper.

Fresh egg pasta

The rule is 100g of flour per egg – and that’s all you need! Try to use fine flour (‘00’ or doppio zero) to keep your pasta light. You don’t need a machine to roll your sheets out really thin – most Italian mamas make do with impressive rolling-pin action – but it will save you time and effort. Your pasta should ripple like a sheet when you blow on it from the side. Watch this video of Gennaro Contaldo (whom we met last year) demonstrating how to make the different pasta shapes.

Fresh egg pasta

Fresh egg pasta

Gelato

There’s no sense messing around trying to make your own Italian ice cream – just buy some from an expert, preferably in scoops of three. Our list of where to get artisanal ice cream has numerous options to get you started.

Gelato

Gelato

Gnocchi

These soft pillows of potato, flour, eggs (and sometimes cheese) are a comfort-food classic. Ideally the dumplings are light, not stodgy, and are served with a wet, glossy sauce. Start off with basic gnocchi, then move on to gnocchi with parma ham, butternut and pine nuts; roast butternut and sage; burnt sage butter; and then sweet-potato gnocchi with shredded lamb.

Lasagne

Proper seasoning is the key to pimping your layers of lasagne, so don’t be shy with herbs and red wine. Here’s a classic recipe to use as a foundation, with instructions for a rich bolognaise. If you’ve mastered lasagne already, experiment with this version with venison, parma ham and mushrooms, a South African take on vegetarian lasagne with cinnamon, pumpkin and feta, or earthy wild mushroom lasagne.

Lasagne

Lasagne

Minestrone soup

Making this hearty soup is a handy way to use up what’s in your veggie drawer. Start with a classic soffrito of carrots, onion and celery, then add your seasonal vegetables, such as zucchini, tomato and butternut. Sauté for a few minutes before adding green leaves and your stock, and simmer for a couple of hours. Tips: crush some of the vegetables against the side of the pot with your wooden spoon to thicken it, and serve with a dollop of pesto stirred in. If you feel safer with a recipe, try this minestrone.

Parmigiana

The traditional Italian dish of melanzane alla parmigiana features pan-fried aubergine slices layered with tomato sauce and cheese, and baked to perfection. The same concept applies for the chicken or veal version. Can’t argue with that!

Parmigiana

Parmigiana

Pasta variations

Every cook needs a handful of fail-safes at their disposal. Cacio e pepe is the simplest of all, made with parmesan and black pepper. Pasta puttanesca – or slut’s pasta – is so-called because the ingredients (capers, olives, tinned tomatoes and anchovies) can be found in the pantry of a lazy cook who hasn’t gone to market. The original spaghetti alla carbonara  is an intensely rich dish that calls for pancetta, eggs and pecorino (not cream), but you can also try Jamie Oliver’s chorizo version with rosemary.

Pasta variations

Pasta variations

Pizza

Everybody’s favourite. For a crunchy, airy, easily digestible crust (even for people with gluten sensitivity), try this recipe for 48-hour pizza dough. You will no doubt have your favourite toppings – we won’t tell the Italians you’re using pineapple and peppadews – but this is a light option with lemony baby marrows and chilli. Our story on 50 pizzas that are so hot right now should also inspire you.

Pesto

Pesto can take any dish to the next level, and it’s fabulously easy to make at home. Crush some pine nuts and a clove of garlic, finely grate a bit of parmesan, then add a splash of good-quality olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and handfuls of fresh basil. Blitz it up, season, and buon appetito! Here’s a good basic recipe, but if you tend to prefer the warmer-hued pestos, then try this recipe for roast tomato and red pepper pesto, or experiment with these versions calling for coriander or watercress.

Pesto

Pesto

Risotto

The secret to a perfect creamy risotto is great stock, the right rice, and stirring like you mean it. (Having a glass of wine in hand helps.) Read our feature on how to cook risotto like an Italian, or just scroll to the bottom if you want to get straight to the recipes.

Risotto

Risotto

Tiramisu

Round off your Italian feast with all the best things: coffee, mascarpone, liqueur (Amaretto or Marsala), biscuits and a sprinkling of grated chocolate. We managed to convince the owner of much-loved Massimo’s in Hout Bay to part with his secret tiramisu recipe.

Tomato sauce

Most people have their own version with garlic, herbs and a splash of this and that, but this game-changing sauce recently went viral. All you do is simmer tomatoes with butter – lots of butter – and two halves of an onion, which you remove later.

tomato sauce

Tomato sauce

If eating out is more your style, refer to our list of best Italian restaurants in your city. A must-try is our 2014 Best Italian Restaurant, La Sosta in Swellendam. Read about why they won.

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