A taste of Italy…but not in Italy

I’ve been to Italy once, and I hope to visit again. It is a carb and gelato-lovers dream – a place where all my favourite foods are plentiful. I had a sandwich in Florence that was rolled up like a burrito, but instead of a tortilla wrap, it was rolled up in a thin sheet of mozzarella. A sandwich WRAPPED in cheese. Sometimes you don’t even know what your dreams are until you are marvelling at it right in front of your face.

Earlier this week I was invited to take part in an interactive cooking event with Chef Massimo Bruno where he showed off some of his Italian cooking tips and favourite Italian products that are easy to find at Loblaws.

I was perfectly happy with the boards of Italian cheese and charcuterie but we were going to make pasta, sauces and have a full Italian dinner.

When I did my food trip to Italy a few years ago, I stayed at an agriturismo (essentially a farm house that takes part in agricultural tourism) where the farm owner stressed to us the importance of looking for the DOP designation when we’re shopping for Italian ingredients. DOP basically translates into Protected Designation of Origin – it means the products were grown and packaged locally. Our farmer host said a lot of products masquerade as Italian like olive oil and balsamic vinegar and Massimo echoed these sentiments during the cooking class.

Massimo also used some of his favourite Made in Italy products like Delverde pastas, Mutti canned tomatoes, and Rio mare canned tuna (in water or olive oil). My new quick no-cook pasta sauce that we made in the class is now: a can of Rio mare tuna, olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, pepper, torn basil and salt (or grated parmesan or romano cheese) tossed over hot pasta.

Things I learned while cooking with Massimo:

  • You might think you’re putting enough salt into your pasta cooking water; you are not. Have you ever taken a gulp of water in the ocean (hopefully by accident)? That’s what your pasta water should taste like. Add more salt.

  • There is never too much basil.

  • There can be too much lemon (I did not know he was shouting “That’s enough lemon!” at me in Italian. His tone was very encouraging.)

  • Don’t skimp on the olive oil.

  • If you are doing a baked pasta dish with passata (a tomato puree found in jars) make sure you add about a cup of water to the sauce or it will dry out when baking and resemble more of a tomato paste. I didn’t know what passata was until I worked on a cooking show with an Italian chef and we used it as a base in many dishes. It’s now a staple in my pantry along with canned tomatoes.

It wasn’t until I was in Italy that I realized good balsamic vinegar is thick, sweet and syrupy – I did drag a bottle back from Rome with me but it’s very easy to a range of authentic balsamic vinegars in the grocery store. The PC Black Label brand has an Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena with the DOP label. Use it drizzled on roast vegetables, on salads, or try a splash on fresh fruit or vanilla ice cream. In the summer, I drizzle it on fresh strawberries (this is especially great if your berries are just a tad less sweet than you had hoped.)

Looking for an authentic taste of Italy to bring into your kitchen? You’ll find popular Italian brands and PC label Italian ingredients at your nearest Loblaws store. Have a favourite product? Let me know!

If you live in the Toronto area – check out one of Massimo’s Supper Clubs where you’ll be fed the most fantastic meal from different regions of Italy.

*Just letting you know – I partnered with Loblaws as a guest of their event.

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