Olive Oil: There is an enormous variety of good olive oil available today, even on the shelves of most supermarkets. Olive oil is produced in most Mediterranean countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, Israel, Portugal, France and Morocco, as well as in California. How to choose? Taste is part of the equation — every oil has a different flavor depending on the variety of olive, where it's grown and handled and how the oil is made. Buy an oil that tastes good to you.
There are several different grades of olive oils, but only two you're likely to run into: extra-virgin and pure.
Extra-virgin olive oil is from the first pressing of the olives and is the best quality. It also has the highest price tag. A tasty extra-virgin is best for salads; for drizzling on a finished plate of pasta, risotto or vegetables; or over a bowl of soup or stew as a final touch of seasoning.
Pure olive oil is from the second or third pressing of the olives, done with the aid of heat or chemicals; without the quality or flavor of extra-virgin, it's commensurately less expensive. Since heat destroys the flavor of the oil, it makes sense to use pure or an inexpensive, supermarket-grade, extra-virgin for cooking.
Supermarkets also sell various brands of "light" olive oil to appeal to an American market for which the taste of real olive oil may be too assertive. This oil has very little flavor. Don't be fooled into thinking it has fewer calories.
Vinegar: True balsamic vinegar is a long-aged product, far too expensive to be sold in grocery stores. The balsamic vinegars you'll find in supermarkets are actually just sweetened wine vinegars that nonetheless have a pleasant sweet-and-sour flavor. Pick up a bottle, as well as a bottle of red-wine vinegar for salads and cooked dishes.
Chicken Broth: Buy a few cans or boxes of low-sodium chicken broth for recipes that call for chicken broth; some labeled "organic" have a particularly good flavor.
Canned Tomatoes: Canned tomatoes are crucial to have on hand for cooking, and it's far better to use canned tomatoes than fresh if the fresh are under-ripe and tasteless. Buy whole, canned plum tomatoes, and when the recipe calls for chopped, chop or crush by hand; tomatoes for sauce may be pureed in a food processor. Plum tomatoes labeled "San Marzano" are a variety grown around Naples and are considered by many Italians to be excellent tomatoes for sauce.
Canned and Dried Beans and Lentils: Lentils and beans are used in soups, pastas, vegetable and meat dishes, antipasti and salads. It's great if you have the time to cook the dried beans yourself (the flavor and texture are superior to canned) but since most of us don't, canned make an excellent, quick substitute. Lentils take only 15 to 30 minutes to cook, so there's no need for canned — buy dried. Italian recipes are likely to call for chickpeas and white beans.
Jarred Pasta Sauce: When you don't have time to make your own, a jarred pasta sauce can be used as is, or doctored with a few favorite ingredients, to make a quick meal.
Dried Pastas: Most pasta in Italy is made from wheat (though buckwheat is used in some regional pasta dishes) and can be divided into two categories: dried and fresh. Lately Americans have gotten the idea that fresh pasta is somehow better than dried, but this is not so — they are simply two different products. Dried pasta is a factory-made product, using durum wheat. Fresh pasta was traditionally a homemade product, using a different type of wheat (or a combination of flours) and often, but not always, egg, to produce delicately textured pasta. Correctly cooked, dried pasta is chewier than fresh. Generally speaking, dried pasta has been a Southern Italian food, while Northern Italy tends towards fresh.
You can find factory-made fresh pasta in the refrigerator case of your supermarket. These pastas vary in quality and you're often better off just using dried pasta, if you don't want to make your own fresh.
As for shapes, there are simply too many pasta shapes to list here. Suffice it to say that it makes sense to stock several different shapes: something long and skinny (like spaghetti); something long and flat (like fettuccine); and a short, chunky pasta (such as ziti, fusilli or penne). Different pasta shapes are suited to different sauces, and the combination is often dictated by regional tradition in Italy. If you want to substitute in a recipe, use a similar shape.
Supermarkets now carry a selection of whole-wheat and whole-grain pastas as well. It used to be that whole-wheat pastas were grainy and tough, but textures have improved over the last few years. Give them a try.
Rice: You'll need to buy a special Italian rice in order to make risotti, those creamy rice dishes that are a staple of Italian cuisine. Like pasta, Italians serve risotto as a first course but it will make a fine main course, too. Several varieties of rice are used for risotto: arborio, vialone nano and carnaroli. Arborio is the easiest to find — most supermarkets carry it now — but if you find the other two, try them; each creates a unique texture.
Farro and Barley: Farro, or spelt, is an ancient grain that is used in soups, salads and risotto-like dishes. Barley is a good substitute if you can't find farro.
Polenta: Polenta is both an ingredient — cornmeal — and a porridge made from cornmeal. If you have the option, buy coarse-ground polenta. Since polenta takes a good long while to cook (about 40 minutes), you might want to stock up on instant polenta, which is a very acceptable product, though the texture is not quite as creamy as the original, or pre-made, polenta, which is sold in a cylinder in a refrigerated section of the market. Polenta is served in a variety of ways: soft and topped with a little olive oil, cheese or sauce, fried, grilled and baked with sauce and cheese.
Cheese: There are many wonderful varieties of Italian cheese, and you should taste as many as you can get your hands on. But a few are particularly useful to keep in the refrigerator because they will hold well. Buy Italian, rather than domestic, for better quality.
- You'll need a couple of hard cheeses for grating. Buy one cow's milk cheese: Parmigiano or Grana Padano (the best-quality Parmesan is called Parmigiano-Reggiano and is very expensive; Grano Padano is cheaper), and Pecorino, a sheep's milk cheese. Refrigerated, these cheeses will last months if you buy a good-sized chunk (and a chunk will taste better than pre-grated cheese).
- Fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheeses are used often in Italian cuisine but spoil rapidly; you're better off buying them as you need them.
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.
Dried Porcini Mushrooms: 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.
Olives: 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.
Capers: 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.
Onions, Carrots, Celery and Garlic: Many recipes in Italian cuisine start with these four aromatic vegetables. Store garlic and onions at room temperature, and carrots and celery in the refrigerator. Onions and garlic should be firm, with no green sprouts growing out of the bulb. Buy yellow or red onions.
Black Pepper, Hot Red Pepper Flakes and Dried Bay Leaves: These seasonings are used over and over in Italian cuisine. If you can, buy black pepper whole, and grind fresh in a pepper grinder.