Matt Pre­ston’s top Italian dishes.

Matt Pre­ston dares to rank the best dishes in Italy and con­tro­ver­sially ex­cludes some clas­sics.

delicious - - CONTENTS -

LET’S AD­DRESS THE big ques­tion first. Lasagne is, with­out doubt, the great­est Italian dish ever made. Sure, it’s a lot of work and, sure, it changes as it moves through Italy, gain­ing an ‘a’ at the end in­stead of an ‘e’ as it moves south. I love it, from the lux­u­ri­ous pro­sciutto and porcini rich­ness of the Marche re­gion’s ver­sion, vin­cis­grassi, and the meat over­load Cal­abri­ans (and some Neapoli­tans) love to the ri­cotta and spinach stuffed can­nel­loni of Si­cily, but it’s the clas­sic Cen­tral Italian combo of besci­amella sauce, pasta sheets and ragu that is the bench­mark for me.

Now we’ve sorted that out let’s work out what other dishes al­most took out top spot so you can re­mon­strate with me over so­cial me­dia.

By the way, I’m look­ing for the real dishes of Italy. I’ve bru­tally dis­qual­i­fied more re­cent dishes adopted from over­seas or cre­ated by Italophile­s from else­where, but that we still see as Italian – I’m look­ing at you, spaghetti bolog­nese, won­der­ful though you are. Any­way, my game, my (to­tally ar­bi­trary) rules.

PIZZA On an­other day this bril­liant com­bi­na­tion of in­tense tomato sauce, puffy light but elas­tic dough, and milky cheese or salty anchovies would have re­placed lasagne as my pick for Italy’s best dish. And, even though lasagne is said to have orig­i­nated in Naples, I know that pizza is the greater source of culi­nary pride for my Neapoli­tan friends.

RAVI­OLI From sim­ple en­velopes of fresh ri­cotta and porcini for­aged in the hills above Flo­rence, or the thumb­nail-sized tortellini in brodo (the tiny pasta said to per­fectly re­sem­ble the belly but­ton of the Ro­man god­dess of love, Venus), to Valentino Mar­cat­tilii’s much-copied egg-yolk ravi­olo, top tech­nique both in mak­ing and cook­ing filled pas­tas is what makes them so spe­cial. Lasagne shades ravi­oli be­cause even an av­er­age lasagne is a tasty treat while av­er­age ravi­oli is a tragedy to ri­val Romeo and Juliet. There’s also an aw­ful lot of bas­tardised, Sh-Italian ravi­oli out there.

PORCINI AND WHITE TRUF­FLE SALAD The sliced white truf­fle and raw porcini salad of Bologna might not be as uni­ver­sally well-known as lasagne – the ingredient­s are ex­pen­sive and have to be pris­tine given they’re adorned with noth­ing more than lemon juice and shaved parme­san – but this is a dish to push lasagne for the ti­tle. It’s an ex­pres­sion of how sim­plic­ity, re­spect for pro­duce and the love to search out the best from the forests and hills de­fine so much of the best Italian food.

TUS­CAN BEAN STEW Italy has a few great stews, from chicken cac­cia­tore and the boiled meats of the me­dieval bol­lito misto to the Mi­lanese tan­ners’ treat of osso buco (the cowhides came into tan­ner­ies with the shanks at­tached and this perk of the job saw the cre­ation of this dish some 200 years ago), tra­di­tion­ally served with that city’s famed risotto. For my money, how­ever, there’s some­thing bril­liant about how Tus­cany can turn the hum­ble bean into the most no­ble of rib-stick­ing meals. Like osso buco, it’s a per­fect ex­pres­sion of cucina povera. I like to eat this bear-hug of a dish awo­ken with a few dabs of well-aged bal­samic vine­gar.

PORCHETTA Whether that porchetta is served as a plated main or stuffed into a late-night bread roll, noth­ing com­pares to the uni­ver­sal car­niv­o­rous ap­peal of stuffed and rolled pork with a crust of golden crack­ling. The town of Aric­cia, about 25 kilo­me­tres south-east of Rome, claims this dish, even though ver­sions are found across Italy. Rome and its sur­rounds have many other claims to culi­nary fame, led by pas­tas such as car­bonara, the adopted ‘ma­tri­ciana (or Ama­tri­ciana, to give it its full name) and the pasta dish of the hour, ca­cio e pepe.

To dis­cover the next five dishes in my Real Italian Top 10, and why the great dishes like car­bonara, panna cotta and bolog­nese didn’t make my top five, head to de­li­ right now.


2 tbs ex­tra vir­gin olive oil

350g streaky ba­con (or guan­ciale or pancetta), cut into ba­tons 1 red onion, finely chopped

6 gar­lic cloves, crushed

2 x 400g cans cherry toma­toes

Finely pared zest and juice of 1 lemon

400g riga­toni or penne

150g grated pecorino (or parme­san, or tasty cheese, if you

are a bo­gan like me)

To make the sauce, heat oil in a large, deep non-stick fry­pan over medium heat. Add the ba­con and cook, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally, for 10-12 min­utes un­til golden and crisp. Us­ing a slot­ted spoon, trans­fer to pa­per towel to drain. Set aside.

In­crease heat to medium-high and add the onion and gar­lic to the ba­con pan. Cook for 4-5 min­utes un­til onion be­gins to soften. Stir in the toma­toes and lemon zest. Sea­son to taste and sim­mer for 8-10 min­utes un­til slightly re­duced.

Mean­while, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally, for 2 min­utes less than the packet in­struc­tions. Drain and re­serve 1 cup (250ml) pasta water. Set aside.

Throw the pasta into the tomato sauce with a lit­tle of the pasta water and toss to com­bine. This will coat the pasta beau­ti­fully. Taste and sea­son with salt and lemon juice.

Di­vide among bowls and scat­ter with the crisp ba­con pieces and loads of grated cheese to serve.

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