True Story. Living in Italy has spoiled me for life.
I took my “job” of travel planner & food explorer very seriously while living in Italy- learning and trying as much as I could. As soon as we moved back to America, I started the hunt. An edible treasure hunt. I was missing Italy like crazy, and the only way I knew how to cope with that was to make some of our favorite foods.
I found it fun and challenging to find the ingredients I was wishing for here in Idaho. Some I found online, others in stores near me. (I LOVE looking for ingredients at World Market- they have a great selection of pasta and olive oil, tomato paste and more) Turns out that stocking my pantry with good Italian ingredients is one of the best remedies combating Italy-Homesickness.
6 ingredients that I love to splurge on
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an aged hard cheese, appropriately known as the “King of cheese“. It is very carefully made within only 5 provinces of Northern Italy and must pass rigorous tests from a Consortium of local experts. The best cheeses are then marked with the coveted DOP stamp. The cheese that doesn’t pass the test is still delicious, but cannot be labeled as Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Tips for buying the real deal in America.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano imported from Italy is widely available at higher end supermarkets in the US. It will be a (usually) hefty wedge, that isn’t perfectly shaped with the words Parmigiano-Reggiano on the rind.
- If it says “parmesan” on the package, it’s not the real thing.
- It must be imported from Italy and should say where exactly it’s from.
- There are varying degrees of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, labeled in months. (24 mo, 36 mo, etc.) One time I saw 96 mo at Eataly in Milan. Oh my word, I would love to taste that sometime!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
There have been many books written about the delicious and complicated world of olive oil. The most delicious (in my opinion) is the fresh oil from Italy which is highly celebrated in late Autumn all over the country.
This is one of the reasons I always bring oil back in my suitcase or order it from my friends Letizia and Corinna who have their own olive groves and AMAZING olive oil. If you are not able to do that, or just want to buy something good but easier to get your hands on- I’ve got you covered!
I have found some good true Extra Virgin Olive oils- (the ones I like are from Italy or California) but honestly, it really takes a bit of sleuthing to weed out the fakes.
Here are my tips for shopping for good quality extra virgin olive oil in the USA.
- Read the label. Look for these 3 Important words = FIRST COLD PRESSED. This means less processing and no heating (which changes the oil and often depletes it of all of the health benefits.)
- Look for the origin written on the label- you want SINGLE ORIGIN. i.e. from Italy only (not a mix of Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Greece, etc. etc.) Not because those countries produce bad oil, but because it means it’s a blend which means the oil has had more steps (and miles) between Olive >> Oil. And it’s most likely the “scraps” of the good stuff- blended together.
- The best oils have not only First Cold Pressed, Single Origin but also the PRODUCTION DATE on the label. Not an expiration date, so many things must be considered for oil expiration (light, heat how it’s stored, etc) but a production date- meaning the date the olives were actually pressed. This simple detail is the key to an amazing bottle of oil.
- The words on the label are more important than the cute design the label might have. Many so-called “extra virgin” oils are packaged with a pretty Italian looking label but they are really not Italian AT ALL. Several of the big named (read mass produced) olive oils are using substandard ultra-processed olive oil, or even dilute it with other types of oil. Avoid these brands: Star, Bertolli, Colavita, Pompeiian, Carapelli. (I’m sure there are many more- so be sure to read your labels.) Last time I looked, even my beloved Trader Joe’s didn’t have my 3 requirements.
Brands I like and trust:
- The last few years I have ordered Extra Virgin Olive oil from Corinna Tonti in Umbria. It is excellent quality delicious oil. She has a limited quantity each winter but you can email her and get on her list if you are interested. (This is where we do our Olive Harvest Celebration every October- come with us and see and taste the olive oil for yourself!)
- I also love Bariani Olive Oil, from California. (order online)
- Frequently found in grocery stores but excellent quality = California Olive Ranch and Lucini.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
The world of Balsamic Vinegar is possibly more complicated than that of olive oil. True Balsamico Tradizionale is amazing, complex and syrupy. It is only produced in Reggio-Emilia, is aged for a minimum of 12 years and must have the DOP seal on the bottle.
This gourmet item is worth its weight in gold (sometimes literally!) and excellent drizzled over fruit, cheese, meat, vegetables. My friend and fellow blogger Sarah at Italy Food Project recently wrote a fantastic article all about the differences between all the different types of balsamic.
(also, Read about our trip to Reggio-Emilia and our delicious day tasting Balsamico Tradizionale.)
Aceto Balsamico di Modena is more commonly found in stores, and must have the IGP seal on it. It is still good quality, but more simple and more of an “everyday” vinegar. There are varying qualities of that we bought in Italy (you should see the vinegar aisle at the grocery store!) to use for salads and cooking.
There’s something about Italian tomatoes you can’t find anywhere else. TRULY. One of the common comments from guests that we got during our time living in Italy was “OMG these tomatoes!” I have done tons of research since returning to America to find good quality canned tomatoes- the base of so many of our favorite meals.
You truly get what you pay for when it comes to canned tomatoes and here are my tips for finding good quality ones.
- Again- READ THE LABEL. You want just 2 ingredients. Crushed tomatoes, tomato puree. No added salt, no added flavors.
- Just say no to the ones with garlic and basil already added. Add your own fresh herbs and see what the difference in flavor is.
- Be careful with those sneaky Italian looking labels- you can not trust that you are getting Italian Tomatoes just because it says San Marzano. A popular brand where I live has super cute labels with drawings of “San Marzano” tomatoes but when you read the fine print- it says “San Marzano style” tomatoes, grown in California.
- Brands I like at my local grocery store- De Lallo whole peeled Italian Plum tomatoes, Bella Terra Whole Peeled San Marzano Tomatoes, and Simple Truth Organic Crushed tomatoes (love this for pizza sauce)
Good dried Pasta
Pardon me while I get on my soap box. Friends, if you can- please spend money on good pasta! I am in no way telling you that you have to spend tons of money to get the good stuff- but sometimes a mere .50 -.99 cents more per package makes the difference between just ok pasta and great pasta.
You can find great dried pasta at many of the food resources I’ve listed below. I have ordered and cooked with many- but they are pricey and occasionally for a special meal I’m willing to fork out the money- but I wanted to find something easily accessible to me (at my local stores) for every day and not $10 a package!
Pasta Buying Tips!
- Bronze Cut always wins, in my opinion. It will say this on the package, and simply means the factory uses bronze dies instead of nylon to shape + extrude their pasta and man does that little change make a big difference.
- You can tell through the package by the color of the pasta. Bronze cut pasta has a dusty white color to it- the more mass produced nylon die pasta looks shiny and gold. This makes a huge difference in how the sauce adheres to the pasta which is super important- as well as the texture of the pasta, I like the “bite” that bronze cut pasta has.
- 2 more things to look for in a higher quality pasta are slow dried and Durham wheat. Did you ever realize reading labels was so complicated with pasta? Avoid pasta with flavors or claims of being quick cooking- those are just things that show how extra processed it is.
Brands I love + trust:
There are 4 brands I regularly buy. My favorite reasonably priced but great quality pasta at my store is called Pastificio G. di Martino, from Naples.
De Cecco, Garofolo, and Barilla (in that order) are my backups when I can’t buy di Martino. I would avoid grocery store brands altogether.
I LOVE Faella, Rustichella d’Abruzzo and Martelli for special occasions.
Carnaroli or Arborio Rice
Risotto is one of my favorite things in the world. Living in Milan surrounded by rice fields will do that to you… 😉 Risotto is not an everyday dish in my house, although I do make it fairly regularly.
Using good quality rice for risotto is worth the time and money- no sense in buying mediocre rice to make such a lovely and decadent dish. Arborio is commonly found in Italy and really good for risotto- but Carnaroli is what you want for the creamiest most delicious risotto.
I always find it worth seeking out both of these rice varieties from Lombardy + Piedmont. Check the resource list below for shops that sell it.
Ok friends, I’m curious! What ingredients do you love to splurge on?
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