The key to Italian cooking is fresh, simple, quality ingredients
Pasta Pasta comes in two types – pasta secca (dry pasta) and pasta all’uovo (fresh egg pasta). Pasta secca is inexpensive and convenient. Our favorite brand is Garofalo, which is made in Naples, Italy and can be found in bulk at Costco, or in some local supermarkets such as Kowalski’s. Pasta all’uovo is harder to find. The Buitoni brands at the grocery store don’t quite cut it. Either check at the local Italian delis, or make your own!
Tomatoes You can use fresh or canned tomatoes for most sauces. Fresh tomatoes are best in summer when you can find ripe, flavorful farmers market tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes, fresh or canned, are superior for sauces, although you can expect to pay more for them. Canned San Marzano tomatoes can be found in most supermarkets. For a less expensive option, Costco carries a brand of canned tomatoes called Nina, which are “grown in the San Marzano region.” When buying canned, choose whole, peeled tomatoes. Read the ingredients on the can. You only want tomatoes, and perhaps basil for flavor. Do not buy canned tomatoes with salt, garlic, onion, spices, etc.
Olive Oil Buy Extra-Virgin Olive Oil. Look for a brand imported from Italy, with Italian olives. Watch out for oils with olives deriving from multiple locations, such as Italy, Tunisia and Greece. Costo sells a Kirkland brand of extra-virgin Italian olive oil which is relatively economical. Store your oil in a cool, dark location, because light and warm temperatures cause it to go rancid. Don’t buy reduced fat olive oil – these are your good fats!
Pancetta This is an Italian, cured pork-belly used as a seasoning base for several sauces and some vegetables. It can be found at the deli counter of some supermarkets, including Kowalski’s, but you are best off going to one of the Italian delis for it. Don’t try to substitute American bacon – it just is not the same. If you are in a pinch, traditional pork belly will work fine. Look for it in the bacon isle.
Mozzarella Real mozzarella comes in small tubs of water. There is regular mozzarella and and mozzarella di bufala. The latter is exceptional, but more expensive. Mozzarella can be found in almost all supermarkets and in Italian delis. Do not use shredded mozzerella in bags. Fresh mozzarella balls and logs in plastic wrappers work okay for baked pastas such as lasagne, due to their lower water content.
Parmesan Parmigiano in Italian. Look in the specialty cheese section for a wedge-shaped block of parmesan cheese. The best is Parmigiano Reggiano. Real, shredded or grated parmigiano in a tub is okay for baked pastas, but please don’t buy the pretend stuff in bags, and definitely steer clear of the Kraft green shaker!
Shopping We have found Italian ingredients at Costco, Trader Joe’s and Cub. If you live in the Twin Cities, you can also find Italian ingredients at Cossetta’s on West 7th street in St. Paul, Broder’s on West 50th street in southwest Minneapolis, or at any of the Kowalski’s, Lunds or Byerly’s locations.