Italian cuisine prides itself on simple delicious combinations of the finest, freshest ingredients available. For example, fresh ricotta, mozzarella di bufala and prosciutto. Each Italian region and town is proud to have its trademark dishes and ingredients. It is important to be aware that the ingredients used by Italians are location specific. Everyone in Italy knows to get their balsamic vinegar from Modena, their mozzarella di bufala from Campania, their truffles from Piedmont or Umbria, their cannoli from Sicily, their artichokes from Rome, their pizza from Naples, their bolognese meat sauce from Bologna, their saffron risotto from Milan and their pecorino cheese from Pienza.
Italy has adopted strict country-of-origin labeling laws.
Italian food products are special. The Italian national government recognizes this, so, they’ve taken some steps to ensure that all traditional products are held to a strict standard for quality, excellence, and originality. This means that only real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is labeled and sold as such and that no “imposter” cheeses can be labeled Parmigiano. This form of branding actually helps promote the product worldwide and ensures that each wheel of Parmigiano is as good and authentic as the rest.
The heart and soul of Italian cuisine are found in the quality of its ingredients and that quality has long been assured by tightly controlled and regulated production standards. These standards fall within the jurisdiction of European Union law under the auspices of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). In Italy, these terms translate to Denominazione di Origine Protetta or DOP and Indicazione Geografica Protetta or IGP. Another system, known as the Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC is Italy’s system for ensuring quality wines.
D.O.P – Denominazione di Origine Protetta
Literally translated as “Protected Designation of Origin”, this label applies to various cheeses, meats, bread, and pasta from the regions throughout Italy. Examples of such products are Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, regional Extra-Virgin Olive Oils, and the famous Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
In the case of IGP, at least one stage of production or processing of the product takes place within the designated area. In addition, the product has a certain reputation. IGP designates a native product of the region/country whose qualities/reputation/features can be attributed to its geographic origin and whose production and/or processing take place within that area.
D.O.C. and D.O.C.G
Denominazione di Origine Controllata (e Garantita) means that the wine is from a “Controlled Designation of Origin” and is officially guaranteed by the Italian government. These two labels are the highest quality certifications given to Italian wines. Each designation means that the wine is grown in select quantities that the government mandates and is produced under traditional or government-specified standards. D.O.C.G. is the ultimate Italian wine standard, being given currently to a little over 30 wines from Italy. Each D.O.C.G. wine is produced in very small quantities and is given an official numbered government seal for each bottle.
While this title is reserved for olive oils, it is not exclusive to Italy (though, some Italian olive oils can also be given the D.O.P. designation, which is exclusive to Italy). Extra Virgin is a grade of olive oil that comes from the first pressing of olives and contains no more than 0.8% acidity – a key for determining the quality and usability of olive oil.
Protecting these products is not easy. See the following news story:
ROME, Dec. 6, 2013 (UPI) — The counterfeit food business is doing well in Italy, with peddlers selling items from watered-down olive oil to imitation cheese, a report indicated.
The annual report, issued Thursday by the Citizen’s Defense Movement and environment non-profit Legambiente, documented 500,000 government inspections that led to the seizure of 28,000 tons of counterfeit or adulterated products worth more than a half-billion dollars in 2012, the ANSA news agency reported. The highest rate of seizures, about 47 percent, occurred within Italy’s wine sector.
Authorities also seized 4.6 tons of tomatoes — another mainstay of Italian cuisine — that were fraudulently sold as organic or falsely labeled as a “Protected Designation of Origin” product, an EU designation for products whose claim to quality depends on the territory in which they were produced.
ANSA reported that Chinese tomato sauce was repackaged with a “Made in Italy” label.
“Consumers are still the unwitting victims of food fraud,” Citizens’ Defense Movement President Antonio Longo said. “We need severe penalties to be a real deterrent.”
“Guaranteeing food safety is not just healthy, but also crucial to safeguarding our gastronomic heritage,” Legambiente President Vittorio Cogliati Dezza said.
The agriculture association, Coldiretti, said unfair competition from foreign produce branded to look as if it were from Italy contributed to the failure of 136,351 farms and agricultural companies since the global economic crisis began in 2007.
© 2013 United Press International, Inc.
Consumers need to look for the DOP or IGP seals on authentic Italian products. In use since 2006, the new regulations introduced in May, 2010 utilize a color scheme. A red and gold seal denotes a DOP product while a blue and gold seal is found on IGP products.
You can buy authentic Italian food products in the United States. Much more so than in the not too distant past, when you had to seek out an Italian specialty shop in an Italian neighborhood in order to buy a bottle of olive oil. Italian grocery stores and delis are still thriving and one can easily find authentic Italian ingredients in most high-end supermarkets these days. You just have to know what to look for.
First stop, the cheese section. How can you even consider Italian food without Parmesan cheese, right? What Americans refer to as “Parmesan cheese” is produced only in a specific area of Italy; the area around Parma. The word “Parmesan” is actually the French word for that area. It is also the generic term under which cheap imitation cheeses may legally be sold in the United States. This often means reaching for the grated stuff in the green cans.
The only true, authentic, Italian “Parmesan cheese” is Parmigiano-Reggiano and it comes in a wedge. It is a DOP designated product produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and certain restricted areas of Bologna and Lombardia. It is made from raw, whole cow’s milk, not the “pasteurized part-skim” product found in cheap imitations. The only additive permitted in Parmigiano-Reggiano is salt. There are no chemical preservatives employed to protect flavor or prevent caking. It must be aged for a minimum of 12 months. The really good cheese is aged from 24 to 36 months. Look for the seals and, more importantly, since some stores hand-cut wedges from whole wheels look for some part of the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” on the rind. They have to be there in order for the cheese to be the real thing.
Besides Parmigiano-Reggiano, several other authentic Italian cheeses are available in supermarkets including Asiago, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano, Provolone, Fontina, Taleggio and Grana Padano. These are all DOP cheeses and should be identified as such. Many are domestically produced, so examine the labels carefully and remember that Pecorino cheese comes from sheep’s milk, not cow’s milk.
All mozzarella cheese is not created equal. And it’s not all created in Italian. If you want real, authentic Italian mozzarella, look for Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. Good luck. It’s not impossible to find, but since there are not a lot of herds of water buffalo grazing in American pastures, most of what passes for mozzarella in this country comes from cows. Technically, this makes it a fiore di latte, but it falls under the general category of mozzarella. There are some good fresh cow’s milk mozzarellas in supermarkets, but they are not authentic Italian. A good substitute for Americans is fresh cow’s milk mozzarella that comes packaged in moist balls.
Ricotta is literally the “recooked” by-product of mozzarella production, so what you’ll find on store shelves is closely related to mozzarella. There are DOP ricottas – i.e. Ricotta di Bufala Campana – but you will not find it in your supermarket.
Another staple of Italian cuisine is the tomato. If you want an authentic Italian taste from an authentic Italian product, look for canned tomatoes that are specifically labeled as “San Marzano” tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are a delicate, thin-skinned variety of plum tomato grown in an area near the Italian village of San Marzano Sul Sarno, which is located southeast of Naples in the fertile valley of Mt. Vesuvius. The DOP certification area actually involves 39,540 acres in three of the provinces of the Campania region, including a rough triangle formed by Salerno, Naples, and a small part of Avellino. It is said that San Marzano tomatoes owe their unique flavor to the rich volcanic soil in which they are grown. They have a deep red color and an unmatchable sweet taste. They are sought after and preferred by cooks and chefs around the world as the absolute best tomato for use in a tomato sauce.
There are dozens of brands of San Marzano tomatoes. The tomatoes packed by Cento are the ones mostly found in America. I’ve used several other brands as well, depending on availability. Authentic San Marzano tomatoes will bear the DOP seal on the label. Most will also carry authentication from the Consorzio di Tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano – Agro Nocerino Sarnese , a consortium dedicated to the protection of San Marzano tomatoes.
While in the tomato aisle takes a look at the tomato paste. Some sound really Italian. Check the label ingredient list and many say Tomato puree (tomato paste, water), high fructose corn syrup, salt, dried onions, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed), spices, hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy & wheat gluten proteins, grated Romano cheese made from cow’s milk (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), garlic, citric acid, yeast, soy flour.”
Instead, choose tomato paste in a tube rather than a can. Easier to use and easier to store. The most common is Amore Italian Tomato Paste brand. Amore is not DOP or IGP and is labeled as a “product of Italy.” What this means is that some component of the overall product comes from Italy. It may be the cap on the tube but the company’s literature says the tube contains “fresh Italian ingredients,” and the ingredients listed are tomato paste and salt. So is it better than the can?
Next, is the pasta. Can you find authentic Italian pasta on American grocery store shelves? If you go to the Italian specialty stores, you can. Supermarkets, maybe. De Cecco and Barilla are both noted Italian pasta makers. Both are headquartered in Italy; De Cecco in San Martino, and Barilla in Parma. Each has a corporate presence in the United States. The difference is that while Barilla bills itself as “Italy’s #1 Brand of Pasta,” its products are produced all over the world from local ingredients grown all over the world. In the US that means central Iowa or western New York. De Cecco, on the other hand, generates more than one-third of its total revenue through export. Pasta is not a DOP or IGP product. De Cecco is probably the closest to authentic Italian pasta available to the average supermarket shopper.
There are dozens of protected Italian olive oils. You won’t find many (if any) in your neighborhood supermarket, but they are available in specialty shops and online. Italy is the largest exporter of olive oil to the United States. So if you want real Italian olive oil, check the label for country of origin and the government seals.
Balsamic vinegar is a DOP product. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is DOP and consortium regulated and sealed. It is produced in either Modena or Reggio Emilia. Only balsamic vinegar from these regions may legally be described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. The real vinegar comes in very small bottles and is portioned out by the drop because it is very expensive. The balsamic vinegar found on most supermarket shelves is condimento grade and is a blend of various commercially produced vinegar. There are no official production standards or labeling requirements to designate condimento balsamic vinegar, although many of them are produced in the same area as the traditional varieties. Unless you see the seal, you do not have the real balsamic vinegar.
There are about 22 DOP meats and another 10 that are IGP. Here are a few of the protected Italian meat varieties you’ll want to look for at the supermarket: bresaola, soppressata and soppressata, capicola, cotechino, and mortadella. You won’t have to look for real authentic Italian pepperoni; there is no such thing. Pepperoni is an entirely Italian-American creation.
In addition to the mentioned meats, the two you’ll probably encounter most frequently are pancetta and prosciutto. Pancetta is Italian dry-cured meat similar to bacon, except that it is not smoked. There are a few DOP pancetta products in America, but you are unlikely to find them outside of Italian specialty shops. Boar’s Head makes decent pancetta. It’s not authentic, but it is good.
Prosciutto comes in two ways, Cotto and Crudo, (cooked and uncooked). Prosciutto crudo is the most commonly used and there are two basic prosciutti of this type familiar to most Americans; prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele. Each reflects the specific area where it is produced. The pigs in Parma dine on the leftover whey from the processing of Parmigiano-Reggiano, so the meat produced there tends to have a little nuttier flavor than that which comes from San Daniele, where the meat is a little darker in color and sweeter in taste. Just look for the seal to guarantee authenticity when you purchase these products.
In general, your best source for authentic Italian meats is a salumeria but they are found in the big cities where there are large Italian populations. If you live in small-town America, just try to find the freshest and best quality available.
Cooking with the D.O.P. Brands
Fettuccine with Prosciutto & Asparagus
- 1 lb fresh egg fettuccine
- 1/2 lb asparagus
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 4 oz prosciutto, cut into thin strips from an ⅛ inch thick slice
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Trim and peel the lower green portions of the asparagus. Cook whole in salted boiling water in a large skillet until tender. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Cut the asparagus, when cool enough to handle, into ¼ inch lengths.
Pour 4 quarts of water into a large saucepan and place over high heat.
Melt the butter in the empty skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens and turns a golden color. Stir in the prosciutto and saute’ until it has lost its raw color. Add the asparagus, raise the heat to medium-high and cook until it is lightly colored. Pour the reserved water in and cook until it has evaporated. Stir in the cream and cook, stirring frequently, until it has reduced by half. Remove the skillet from the heat and set it aside.
When the water for the pasta is boiling and the sauce is off the heat, add 1 tablespoon of salt to the boiling water and drop in the pasta all at once, stirring well. When the pasta is cooked “al dente”, drain it and toss it with the sauce in the skillet, adding the grated cheese.
Mozzarella, Celery, and Fennel Salad
Ingredients for 6 people:
- 10 ounces celery, use center stalks
- 10 ounces mozzarella di bufala
- 3 fennel bulbs
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Juice from 2 lemons
- Salt to taste
Thoroughly wash the celery and fennel, cut them into thin strips (julienne), place in a salad bowl, and add the mozzarella which has been cut into strips about the size of the vegetables.
Prepare the lemon dressing by slowly adding the lemon juice to the olive oil in a small bowl, add salt to taste, add to the salad and toss lightly.
Italian-American Meat Sauce
Sugo di Carne
Makes about 8 cups
- 2 35-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced (about 2 cups)
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
- 1 pound of ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 4 bay leaves
- 1½ teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
- 4 cups of hot water
Pass the tomatoes and their liquid through a food mill fitted with a fine blade. Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4 to 5-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Make a little room in the center of the pot, add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
Add the ground beef and pork and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring to break up the meat until the meat changes color and the water it gives off is boiled away, about 10 minutes. Continue cooking until the meat is browned about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaves and oregano then pour in the wine. Bring to a boil and cook, scraping up the brown bits that cling to the pot, until the wine is almost completely evaporated.
Pour in the tomatoes, then stir in the tomato paste until it dissolves. Season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, stirring often, until the sauce takes on a deep, brick-red color, 2 to 3 hours. Add the hot water, about 1/2 cup at a time, as necessary to maintain the level of liquid for the length of time the sauce cooks.
Skim off any fat floating on top and adjust the seasoning as necessary. The sauce can be prepared entirely in advance and refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
Strawberries in Balsamic Syrup with Zabaglione
- 5 egg whites, at room temperature
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 1 teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 5 egg yolks, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup dry sparkling white wine or champagne (Prosecco)
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 pint of strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and cut into small pieces
- 1 tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
Preheat the oven to 250˚F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Beat the egg whites with the salt until foamy. Continue beating, adding confectioners’ sugar gradually, until stiff and shiny. Beat in vinegar and vanilla. Spread meringue about 1/2 inch thick on parchment. Bake for 2 hours, then turn the oven off and allow to cool for 1 hour until crisp. Break into pieces. Keep in a dry place.
While the meringue is baking, combine strawberries, sugar, and balsamic vinegar and toss to coat. Set aside at room temperature.
Set up a double boiler or a pot of simmering water. Have a bowl of ice water ready to cool the custard bowl. Away from the flame, add egg yolks to the double boiler top or bowl and whisk with the sugar to combine. Place back on the stove and whisk continuously over the simmering water, adding the sparkling wine gradually. Cook until the zabaglione is thick and the whisk leaves a trace on the bottom of the bowl. Place the double boiler top or custard bowl in ice water to cool, whisking twice for even cooling.
Beat the cream to the soft peak stage. Fold into the cooled custard. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Assemble the desserts by dividing the berries and syrup among 4 glasses or bowls. Add a layer of meringue pieces, then a dollop of zabaglione. Garnish with more meringue.
- Italian American Culture – The Art Of Writing(jovinacooksitalian.com)
January 3, 2014 at 11:35 am
Great article and the featured picture had me salivating for some delicious italian food!
January 3, 2014 at 9:18 pm
Thanks Claire. Italian food is so appealing.
January 6, 2014 at 8:22 am
I agree with Claire above, this is a great article. It is difficult for a foreigner to get it right in the food jungle, but this text is a very informative guide. Yes, there are food scandals here in Italy every year (very often with mozzarella di buffala, unfortunately), but Italians are very picky with their ingredients and don’t come back if a shop does not provide excellent stuff.
And talking about mozzarella: the cow milk mozzarella from Puglia is less fat, and in my opinion much tastier. 😀
January 6, 2014 at 8:31 am
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and insight into Italian life. Cow’s milk mozzarella is all that is available in the US and, if I buy a good brand, I am not disappointed.
the nosh (@thenoshersdc)
January 9, 2014 at 10:41 am
Great Article! I recently discovered olive oil sold in the state not only not 100% olive oil but a mixture sunflower, sesame etc. mix together and packed in Italy. Thanks for the info!
January 9, 2014 at 10:49 am
You are welcome and thank you for reading this post.
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January 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm
It’s a shame that Cento doesn’t have D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes anymore. They decided to register the brand name “Cento San Marzano” and then pay a company – http://www.bioagricert.org/ – to certify regular tomatoes as being Italian to have the consumer think they’re getting D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. Putting the word “certified” makes them sound like you’re getting D.O.P. when the consortium in Italy doesn’t allow the word “certified” on D.O.P. tomatoes for over 4 years now.
January 25, 2014 at 5:36 pm
Things are always changing.
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