Italian food. Most Americans who've never been out of the country don't know it. Just about everyone thinks they do. You do not get Italian cuisine at the Olive Garden, or anywhere there is a fetid hint of garlic powder. In fact, garlic and oregano, the icons of American Italian food, are very lightly used in most Italian cooking.
That said, there's really no such thing as Italian food. Italy, after all, is a fairly young country. The Italian regions, however, are a whole other thing. They've been regions for a long time and have been ruled by lots of rich and powerful people, many from other parts of the globe.
Of course, the reality is that every decent sized town offers slight variations on their region's cuisine.
So Italian cuisine is regional. In general, up north the cuisine is based on rice and butter, where in the south the cuisine is based on grains, usually made into pasta, and olive oil. It can be spicy in the south, seldom so in the north.
While the foods served in a typical Italian meal are regional or local in scope, the general structure of a formal Italian meal is recognizable all over the peninsula:
Antipasto is optional. Some regions, like Puglia or traditional territories like the Lunigiana, have big antipasti traditions. Here you can just order "antipasti" and the small plates just keep coming to the table. The antipasto list at a restaurant in the Emilia Romagna, for example, tends to be short and simple. Each region has its tradition.
So while the antipasti in Emilia might be lacking culinary imagination, the pasta of Romagna, glowing with the bright yellow of the sun from the special eggs of the region from chickens specially fed, is superb when you get it made by a master, as in this case Nonna Violante of the Hotel Eliseo in Bellaria-Igea Marina right on the sea. Don't miss her cooking classes.
Bread, of course, is fundamental to the cuisine. From the humble pane comune to breads using unique strains of wheat like the DOP Pane di Altamura from Puglia, you'll find a bewildering array of breads in a bakery. We ask for "pane al forno di legno" or bread from a wood fired oven when we're not sure what to ask for.
And of course, as a variation, there are the grissini, the bread sticks that Turin became famous for.
Italian food is also heavy on the preserved meats that evolved from the combination of cucina povera and lack of refrigeration. It used to be that just about every farmer made his own prosciutto and salami. Now, there are a bewildering array of preserved meats, collectively called salumi, in every market. The tourist would do well to buy some and eat al fresco, out in the fresh air. Here's some help if you're not fluent in Italian: Buying Salami in Italy.
Italian food can also be eaten outside at a sagra, or food festival. You look at brightly colored signs along the sides of the road announcing them, then go to the ones that interest you, usually on weekends. Of course, the signs are in Italian, but they're not hard to interpret. See our page on Reading Sagra Posters for more. The best festival food? For my money it's Truffles, and in November you can taste the little gems at a Truffle Festival.
If you are really into Italian culture and Italian food, you'll want to rent an apartment or vacation house in Italy so you can shop, cook, and sample. You might be interested in Buying a Chicken in Italy, for example. If you want something more exotic, well then: pheasant, guinea fowl, and quail are generally available everywhere, and at a price that's far more reasonable than in the states (unless you hunt, of course).
If you're sticking with restaurants, you'll be amazed at the variety as you move from region to region. Pastas all have local varients. Lombrichelli allo Scoglio may be something you're completely unfamiliar with, but the spaghetti family tree is tall and wide and includes a fat pasta made simply with water and flour called Lombrichelli in Lazio and Umbricelli in Umbria. In either case, the name means "worms" in the local dialect, and in this case it's a pasta with shellfish from the reef or shoal. If you don't know of the variety of food you'll find on restaurant menus, try our Italian Menu Master to see some of the classic and modern dishes restaurants offer today.
Olive oil is pretty much at the base of Italian food from Tuscany south. We have Italian Olive Oil Resources for you, including our video on harvesting olives.
One of our favorite local dishes is Torta d'Erbe, a sort of vegetable pie--real cucina povera. It can have a crust, or be simple like our neighbor Francesca makes it, with a bread crumb topping. The link above leads you to her assembly of the dish, which really doesn't have a recipe, since it depands upon what you're pulling out of your garden at the time.
I write quite a bit about food on the Wandering Italy Blog. Check out our Food Category for more.