Italian Food Explained




Bresaola is cured beef, a treat from the Valtellina, a major Alpine valley that extends east for close to a hundred miles from the top of Lake Como. The Valtellinesi have been making it for long enough that they etymology of the word is uncertain; some say it derives from sala come brisa, a reference to the use of salt in preserving meats, and others say it derives from brasa, the brasiers that were once used to heat the chambers where the meat was cured.In any case, bresaola is now made by slat curing beef with spices, and then air drying it for several months.

Unlike most cold cuts, which are usually served with bread, bresaola is finely sliced, and seasoned with a mixture of olive oil, salt, and pepper, to which many people add some lemon juice. Some also add flakes of Parmigiano.

In addition to beef bresaola, one can also find bresaola made from horse meat, and I have seen bresaola d’asino (from an ass) too. As a general rule, a piece of bresaola made from beef (pictured here) will be slightly larger and a bit lighter in color than one made from horse, while bresaola d’Asino is almost black.

Capocollo, or Coppa


Cured Pork Shoulder Also known as coppa, this is cured pork shoulder: Raw, and prepared with salt, herbs, and spices.

Cotechino and zampone

cotechino and zampone

In 1510 the people of Modena formed an alliance with Venice and flew the Venetian standard; Pope Giulio II, who was known as the Warrior Pope, took offence because he considered Modena to be in his sphere of influence, and besieged them. With no food coming in the Modenesi had to preserve what they had, and someone hit upon the idea of boning pigs’ forelegs and stuffing them with a mixture of ground pork, pork rinds, and spices. As far as the Modensi are concerned the zampone was the only good thing to come of the siege — the Pope won — and they continued to make them.

Zampone remained a local specialty until the advent of more intensive pig farming in the late 1800s, when people realized that it goes very well with the lentils almost all Italians eat to greet the New Year, at which point it rapidly became popular throughout the Peninsula.

There are two kinds of zampone: Raw and precooked, and though most Italians buy the precooked kind, which comes in a foil packet one gently boils for 20 minutes, the raw ones are much tastier. They do take more work, however: Soak it overnight in cold water to soften the skin, wrap it in gauze, and simmer it for 4 hours in water to cover in a fish pot. Come serving time, remove it from the water, slice it into half-inch rounds, and eat it at once with lentils because it’s not good cold (nor does it reheat well).

When eating a zampone one generally eats everything including the rind, which takes on a delightful gelatinous consistency. There are, however, people who find this gelatinous consistency abhorrent, and if you fall into this category there is also the cotechino, a 3-inch (8 cm) thick, 9-inch long sausage made with the same stuffing used for the zampone. The cooking time is about the same, and for those who would rather not watch a pot for hours there are precooked versions.

Cotechini and zamponi are not limited to New Year’s; both are popular throughout the winter in Northern Italy, especially during cold snaps. They play an important role in bollito misto, a boiled dinner consisting of boiled meats and vegetables (the more variety the better) served with sauces that vary from place to place, though one can usually expect salsa verde and mostarda di frutta, among other things. They can also stand alone; see, for example, cotechino fasciato.



A unique Italian specialty, “lardo” is a cured meat made from the layer of fat found directly under the pig’s skin. This layer is cut into rectangular pieces and packed into large vats for salting and curing. Various seasonings, which usually include garlic and pepper, are added between each layer and the lardo is left to soak in brine for three months to a year. Lardo can also be smoked, and often includes the strip of lean meat found near the bone. While the name may not sound very appealing to English speakers, lardo makes for a delicious antipasto. It has a very soft texture and a delicate flavor with overtones of whatever herbs and spices it was left to mature in. As an antipasto, lardo is served thinly sliced on dark bread, though it can also be used in cooking, on pasta, as a substitute for pancetta or as an ingredient in stuffings for cuts of meat. There are two places in Italy that are particularly famous for their lardo. Colonnata, a village in Tuscany, produces a fine lardo which is cured in huge vats made from the local Carrara marble and seasoned with pepper, cinnamon, whole cloves and rosemary. Arnad, in Valle D’Aosta, produces a slightly different, though equally mouthwatering, version. Here the lardo, which is without the rind, is seasoned with sage, rosemary, juniper, pepper and garlic and put in a brine and white wine solution. In English, the term “lard” is used for the softer layer of fat found just above the lean part of the meat, which is rendered down or melted. Known as strutto in Italy, it was used extensively in the past for deep-frying. It gives very crisp and flavorsome results, but the smell of frying strutto is pervasive and pungent!

Note on substitution 

If you can’t find lardo, an acceptable substitution would be fatty unsmoked bacon. Obviously only when it’s used as an ingredient. I wouldn’t recommend eating raw bacon 🙂

For those of you in the Czech Republic, Anglicka slanina is a sort of low-rent version of lardo.

Mortadella di Bologna


Mortadella is the city of Bologna’s signature cold cut, from whence the name of its American offshoot, Bologna.

Mortadella di Bologna is a cooked pork sausage made from pork ground fine, traditionally in a mortar (mortaio, from whence the Italian name), with spices and cubes of fat. Mortadellas range tremendously in size, from little ones for home use to monsters a foot in diameter and ten long for delicatessens. There are also variations, for example mortadella with cubes of ham or mortadella with pistachio nuts.

Mortadella is one of the finest sandwich meats imagineable, and is especially nice as a filling for focaccia, with or without cheese. But it is also a common ingredient, in stuffings, and sometimes takes center stage:



Pancetta is an Italian form of bacon. It is pork that has been salt cured, salted and spiced (nutmeg, pepper, fennel, dried ground hot peppers and garlic are often featured), and dried for about three months (but usually not smoked). There are many varieties, and each part of Italy produces its own type. In Corsica, it is considered a regional flavour.

Pancetta can be rolled (the most common type available outside of Italy), or straight (with all the fat on one side). The straight variety is more common in Italy than elsewhere, especially where home-made pancetta is still produced.

When served on its own, the rolled pancetta is presented in very thin slices. More often it is used to flavour other dishes, especially pasta sauces. Recipes such as all’amatriciana often contain pancetta as a substitute for guanciale, which is much more difficult to find outside of Italy.

In the United Kingdom, Pancetta is more commonly sold as packs of cubed belly (rather than rolled). It has recently gained in popularity, to the point where it is now frequently available in supermarkets.

Salame Toscano


Salame is a large (3-4 inches across) sausage made with ground pork and cubes of fat that are seasoned with garlic, salt, and spices, and stuffed into the pig’s large intestine. It’s then seasoned for several months, at which point it’s ready for use, as either an antipasto or sandwich meat.

Salame’s smaller cousin is salamino, (little salami) with a similar filling — the fat may be ground somewhat finer — but only an inch thick. The town of Felino, in Emilia Romagna, is famed for its salamino.

Salamino piccante, spicy salamino, is made with enough red pepper to give it that familiar orange cast; in the US it’s known as pepperoni.

Though one does occasionally encounter salamino piccante as an ingredient, or over pizza, it and other salamis are generally consumed raw.

Sopressa alla Vicentina

sopressa vicentina

Sopressa alla Vicentina is a close cousin of salame: unlike salame, which is made from good cuts of pork that don’t have other uses, however, sopressa is made with just about everything: the hams, shoulders, sides, and so on. About the only thing that doesn’t go into it is the skin. Because of this, making sopressa requires at least a half a pig, and is not something most people would be able to tackle at home.

This page was prepared with the help of , Wikipedia, La Cucina Italia 


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