Ingredients for a well-stocked Italian pantry will make an awesome Italian meal in minutes. And its no secret that most Americans love Italian food, whether its a pizza slice from the food court, a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs at a red-checkered tablecloth joint, or a high end meal featuring pastas lovingly made by hand paired with just the right glass of wine. But Italian food is at its heart a rustic cuisine, honed lovingly at home by generations of men and women who make the most of simple, seasonal ingredients. If you’re looking to follow in that tradition, starting with some high-quality basic ingredients will instantly improve your favorite Italian recipes at home. Read on for the must-have pantry essentials, and what to look for when purchasing them. Buon Appetito!
San Marzano Tomatoes
San Marzano Tomatoes are prized by Italian cooks for their sweet profile and exceptionally low concentration of water, which means they make for some ultra flavorful sauce. This is thanks in large part to the volcanic ash soil they’re grown in high up in the San Marzano region as well as the breed itself, also called San Marzano (confusing, we know). Due to their popularity in Italy, most canned San Marzano tomatoes you find on the market in the U.S. are grown domestically. That’s not to say they can’t be just as great (in fact, some taste testers can’t tell the difference between domestic and imported) but just know that if you’re looking for the real deal, you’ll pay a premium and will definitely want to check the can for a D.O.P. certification before tossing it in your cart.
Herbs & Spices
Herbs and spice play an important role in Italian cooking. Simple dishes are pointed with an herb to make a dish come alive. Raviolo with Butter Sage Sauce, Tomato and Mozzarella with Basil. Pasta and Pecorino Cheese with Black Peppercorns – dishes so simple, yet become so fantastic with a simple herb or spice.
Dried Oregano: You can use oregano in a ton of sauces, choosing a good one makes such a difference. Buy a bunch of dried oregano that you can often find in Italian specialty stores rather than in jars but if you can’t find that go for organic.
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes: Using crush red pepper flakes to taste in some of your dishes, can spice up sauces and add some heat.
Fennel Seeds: Fennel is often found in a lot of seasonings for sausages and pork roasts. It can be used pasta sauces too, as it adds a really special flavor.
Other Pantry Basics:: Basil, oregano, sage, parsley, saffron, rosemary, chili peppers, black peppercorns
Flour, Polenta & Rice
Flour: When it comes to flour always have type 00 on hand. Why? Because it makes the most amazing pizza bases! You can also use the same flour for making focaccia.
Polenta: When it comes to polenta you can get two types fast cook polenta that’s ready in 5 minutes or traditional polenta that takes around 30 minutes to cook. You can serve polenta with stews and sauces dishes such as meatballs. You can also let it set and use it to build lasagna type dishes, gnocchi or top bakes with it.
Rice: Without a doubt, there is always rice in my cupboards because risotto is such an easy weekday dinner to whip up when you’re hungry. It takes around 20 minutes to make and can be made with anything you like BUT the most important thing to remember is to use arborio rice. It’s extra creamy and gives the perfect texture to risottos. Favoured in Venetian cooking, Vialone Nano is a semi-fino rice with an unpolished oval-shaped grain. Its starchy exterior helps to create risotto’s creamy texture.
Semolina: This is something you can use to dust baking sheets or baking stones when cooking homemade pizzas. It keeps the base nice and crispy and stops the base sticking so always have it on hand.
Literally translating to ‘The King of Cheeses’ in Italian, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the one cheese we think every home cook should have on hand. Like San Marzano tomatoes, real-deal Parmesan cheese enjoys protected designation of origin status, and you’ll know you’re holding a wedge of the stuff thanks to its pedigree being stamped right on the rind. It costs considerably more ounce per ounce than the stuff you get in the green shaky jar (c’mon, you know the one) but the difference in flavor it brings to your cooking is thanks in large part to the abundance of glutamates in its chemical structure. In other words? Umami-central. Pro tip: Don’t discard your rinds! Instead, freeze them and add them to your next pot of Minestrone for a depth of flavor that will have everyone asking you what that special something extra is.
Cold-Pressed Olive Oil
These days olive oil comes in all price points and from a dizzying array of destinations – not to mention blends, filtered and unfiltered, and light versions (just say no to that last one). While it isn’t necessarily true that the best olive oil comes from Italy (sorry, Nonna!) exceptional olive oil is a must for the Italian pantry. Like wine grapes, olives grown in a specific area will carry the flavor of the land to the finished bottle, a flavor profile also known as terroir. Look for single-origin varieties when your budget allows, and don’t buy more than you think you can use in six months’ time, as unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. If nothing else, follow olive oil expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ advice and always go with extra virgin cold-pressed oil: It’s not a guarantee that the oil will be the best, but at least it will probably not be among the worst.
Aged Balsamic Vinegar
As with Parmegiano-Reggiano Cheese and San Marzano Tomatoes, there’s a lot of imitators on the market vying for your dollar (sensing a theme here?). According to Michael Harlan Turkell, author of Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar, if one of the following three words appears on a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar, you’re making a decent choice: D.O.P., Condimento, and IGP. These terms are akin to quality tiers, with D.O.P. indicating the finest and longest aged Balsamic vinegar coming from Modena, Italy and Condimento ensuring at least a few years of aging, albeit less supervision. But like San Marzano tomatoes, there realistically just isn’t enough top-tier stuff to fill the world’s appetite for this sweet, syrupy vinegar. Because of that, he recommends that you be on the lookout for IGP, which indicates that some quality standards like ideal grape varieties and a marginal amount of aging have been met before the bottle hit the shelves. Drizzle it on roasted vegetables, whisk it into the perfect salad dressing, and whatever you do, just promise us you’ll try it with strawberries and vanilla ice cream.
Beans are an important, but often less celebrated, staple of the Italian diet. Whether it’s a hearty bean dish like the well known Pasta Fagole from the Veneto region, or chickpeas and fava beans used in antipasto in the South – don’t overlook bean dishes from Italy. These two varieties are the bare minimum for an Italian pantry.
Pantry Basics: Lentils, Garbanzo beans, Cannellini beans , Red Kidney beans
Canned Anchovies, Sardines and Tuna
You can put together some terrific, quick weeknight pasta dishes with canned tuna, sardines or anchovies. If you can find it, imported tuna packed in olive oil has the best flavor. The best-quality anchovies are those that are packed in salt; they must be rinsed very well before using, and may need to be deboned. If salt-packed are not available, look for oil-packed anchovies packaged in glass jars.
There are many varieties of good-quality olives to choose from. Look for imported olives in jars or in the deli section of the supermarket, but for best flavor, skip the domestic canned variety. Olives are easily pitted by quickly smashing with a large knife and pulling the pit away from the flesh.
For a taste of authentic Italy, nothing quite smacks of Sicily like the salty and sweet flavors of cured or marinated olives. Here’s how you can tell the types of olives apart.
Curing vs. Marinating: Brine-cured olives have smooth, plump skin while salt-cured olives (sometimes called oil-cured) are lightly coated in oil and have wrinkled skin.
Baresane: These brine-cured olives from Puglia range in color from yellow to green to light purple. Delicate, fresh flavor.
Bella di Cerignola: Also known as Cerignola olives, this brine-cured Puglian variety can be green, red or black. Large, mild and buttery.
Castelvetrano: A vibrant green Sicilian olive also called Nocellara del Belice. Instead of brining or salt-curing, these are treated with lye before rinsing and storing. The result: very mild olives with a salty-sweet flavor and buttery texture.
Gaeta: These popular black or dark purple table olives from the Lazio region are typically brined before storing in oil. Tart, citrusy flavor.
Saracena: An ancient olive cultivar from Sicily, also called Minuta. These small black olives are brined or salt cured.
Taggiasca: Grown on the rocky slopes along the sea in Liguria, these small, deep reddish-black olives have a sweet, fruity flavor.
The best-quality capers are packed in salt, but you’re more likely to find them brined and bottled. Before using, rinse under cold water to remove some of the salt (salt-packed must be rinsed very well). Refrigerate both; brined have a much longer shelf life.
Nuts and Dried Goods
There are so many things could be include here, but consider these the must-haves. Pine nuts will make sure you can always make a traditional pesto, and porcini mushrooms will make sure you’ve always got a beautiful risotto within reach. Dried porcini mushrooms add an earthy, woodsy flavor to soups, pastas, risotti and sauces; they’ll last practically forever in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator. To use, soak dried mushrooms in warm water for 30 minutes to soften. Drain; strain and reserve the soaking liquid. Add liquid to foods along with mushrooms — much of the intense flavor of the mushroom is in that liquid.
Basic Pantry Items: Pine nuts, hazelnuts, dried figs, dried porcini mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes
Poultry & Meat
Pork is an important staple of the Italian diet. Make sure to always have cured pork on hand. It’s a flavouring and also perfect for any charcuterie board. Beef and different cuts (whether making a Bolognese sauce or an ossobuco) is important. If possible, keep a cut of beef in the refrigerator that you can then grind or cut depending on the dish.
Basic Pantry Items: Cured Italian pork, Genoa or Tuscan salami, Beef
Visit the coasts or the South of Italy, and you’ll taste some of the freshest seafood of your life. Fruitti di mare – or fruits of the sea, are plentiful in Italy, as well as in the United States. Lean how to make a traditional Fruitti di Mare also known as Seafood Pasta by following this link. from Olio & Formaggio.
Basic Pantry Items: Shrimp, squid – mussels when in season, fresh anchovies if you can find them.
And then there is pasta, glorious pasta! You could probably make a wonderful sauce out of some of the previous ingredients and toss it with just about any pasta out there and be pretty happy – but why not go for the gold? It’s a misunderstood notion that any self respecting Italian cook would never use dried pasta. In fact, only certain types of pasta are made and eaten fresh on a regular basis, namely those with egg traditionally in the dough. So rest assured that by starting with dry, you’re not at a disadvantage. There’s a huge quantity of varying quality pastas on the market, not to mention shapes – but what you want to look for is pasta that’s been extruded from a bronze-cut die. This artisanal method produces pasta with a rough surface you can easily see through the packaging, and what it means for you is that once it’s boiled up (al dente, of course), the sauce you so lovingly simmered will actually cling to each noodle. As far as shapes go, it’s up to you! There’s tons of advice on how to pair pasta shapes and sauces out there, but when it comes to short shapes, we recommend looking for rigate (ridged) on the label. This will ensure better sauce cling than lisce (smooth) varieties.
And last, but certainly not least – wine. Aside from wine being critical to several Italian dishes, it’s just as important on the dinner table. Make sure to keep a variety of beautiful Italian wines in your cellar. They don’t have to be expensive. Very good Italian wines are plentiful. Some varieties to keep in mind include Chianti Classico, Pinot Grigio, Lambrusco, Gavi, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and Brunello for a special treat.