Matt Preston’s top Italian dishes.
Matt Preston dares to rank the best dishes in Italy and controversially excludes some classics.
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 delicious.com.au right now.
’MATRICIANA SERVES 4-6
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.