The Italian Pantry
Have you checked your cupboards lately? Do you know where to find the ingredients needed in your Italian recipes? By stocking your kitchens with a few basic ingredients, you will be ready to prepare many Italian recipes. These days, most major grocery stores carry many items imported from Italy, so spend some time looking and see what you can find. Other sources for those necessary ingredients would be Italian specialty stores in your area, or possibly you may consider online ordering.
Check the links offered on this site for a few sources. Just because your local grocery store may not carry an item, does not mean they won’t. You may want to introduce yourself to the grocery or produce manager, and see if they can begin to stock some of the items you may need. My grocery store began to carry arugula and broccoli rabe for me once I began asking for it.
In most good Italian kitchens, you will find most if not all of the following items in the pantry:
Olive Oil - If you splurge on any one item, I would suggest you buy the best extra virgin olive oil you can find.
Garlic - Buy firm, fat, fresh heads of garlic and store them in a cool dry place. If you keep them in the refrigerator use a paper bag. They will stay fresh for about two weeks.
Dried Pasta - I use good Italian brands like De Cecco or Barilla. Once in a while I’ll splurge, and buy a good quality imported artisan pasta also. Generally, any imported pasta products made from semolina flour are good choices. There are now some very good whole grain pasta varieties available at most grocery stores.
Canned Tomatoes – Mine have to be San Marzano from Italy. My local grocery sells Pomi, Muir Glen and Cento brands which are all very good. I prefer the chopped variety for the texture it adds, although I do keep a few boxes of the strained variety for my favorite pasta sauce with meatballs.
Tomato Paste - Buy in small cans or tubes. The tubes are great because you can squeeze out a little, and then reseal the tube and refrigerate it.
Cornmeal - For polenta I use a medium textured cornmeal. Keep it in a tightly closed container, and it will last for months. I also use cornmeal to dust my baker’s peel when making pizza, and to add texure to some of my baked goods.
Rice - For risotto choose good Arborio rice. Most groceries now carry a couple of different brands. Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are also great choices if you can find them. although usually, I have only found these varieties at Italian specialty stores.
Balsamic Vinegar – I have a variety of different balsamic vinegars in my cupboard. Depending on its age it can be extremely expensive, so I use an inexpensive one for salads, and save my twenty-five year old one to splash on special dishes.
Sun-Dried Tomatoes - You can buy the regular dried type that requires rehydration in water, or my favorite ones, which are packed in olive oil. You can even use this oil to add a hint of flavor to delicate dishes.
Saffron - Saffron is one of the worlds most expensive spice. The powder imparts the most flavor, but you can use the strands as well. Finely chop the strands before use. A little goes along way.
Anchovies - Although I’m not an anchovy fan, I keep a jar packed in oil in my fridge to add a special zip to certain dishes. You can now also find anchovy paste in a tube, which I find has a milder taste.
Dried Porcini Mushrooms – Although they can be an expensive item, a little goes a long way, and if kept in an airtight container, they’ll keep for a long time. Keep the water used to rehydrate them. Strained, it will add a depth of flavor to many soups, sauces and stews.
Capers - You can find two types of capers. The smaller ones that are pickled in vinegar, and the larger ones that come packed in salt. I prefer the flavorful larger ones, but they do require being rinsed of the salt before using, and tend to be a little more difficult to locate. A few chopped capers can add a punch of flavor to dishes that seem to need just a little something.
Olives - I keep both the black and green varieties, packed in brine and imported from Italy. I also keep a container of marinated mixed olives in my refrigerator to serve to guests.
Herbs and Seasonings - Although I generally prefer fresh herbs in all my cooking, I do keep dried oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage available. I also season all my food with a restaurant grade cracked black pepper, and use only seas salt. Of course, red pepper flakes are an important seasoning in my house also!
Flour - I usually have on hand both a good unbleached bread flour and all-purpose flour for making pasta at home. Semolina flour is also an important staple in my house.
Although these are the bare basics in my kitchen, stocking these basic staples in your pantry will ensure that you are ready to begin cooking Italian. All you’ll need to add is a few fresh ingredients and you’ll be all set to prepare gourmet Italian dishes that will impress your friends and family.
By Deborah Mele 2011