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Three recipes to bring a taste of Italy home

Chef Aldo Zilli took part in National Geographic Traveller’s recent event with the Italian National Tourist Board. Here, he reveals his take on Italian cuisine, from his favourite ingredients to the recipes you must try at home.

By Italian National Tourist Board
Published 10 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT
Sfusato amalfitano lemon variety.

Italy's world-famous cuisine is varied, and every region has different recipes and traditional ingredients. The sfusato amalfitano is lemon variety typical of the Amalfi coast

Photograph by Getty Images

Fresh ingredients, hearty dishes and simple Mediterranean flavours: few cuisines in the world are as popular and recognisable as Italian food. On 24 November, to coincide with International Italian Cuisine Week, National Geographic Traveller (UK) and the Italian National Tourist Board teamed up with culinary master Aldo Zilli for an online event celebrating the country’s much-loved recipes. Read on for tips, insights and stories from the award-winning chef, plus the three traditional dishes he prepared during the event’s cooking demonstration.  

What’s your favourite food-related memory of growing up in Alba Adriatica, in the eastern region of Abruzzo?

Making gnocchi with my mum when I was eight. We lived close to the sea, so she used to always make wonderful fish sauces with tellines [a type of clam], razor clams and all the fish we could find in the Adriatic Sea. In Italy, the dining table dictates the atmosphere in a house. Growing up, we were nine siblings, and I was the youngest, so food was always valuable because we didn’t have very much. Lunch and dinner were very important. We all ate together and shared stories and problems. The atmosphere was great.

What makes Italian cuisine stand out?

Italian food is everyday food. Families all over the world eat it. It’s quite simple but effective because it’s all about the ingredients. It’s also all about the regions — Italian cuisine doesn’t really exist. If you come from Abruzzo, you have arrosticini [meat skewers]; if you come from Milan, you have risotto Milanese; if you come from Sicily, you have cannoli. It’s very important that we send this message around the world. It’s coming across now, especially in England, and people are expecting food from certain regions because they travel a lot more.

Which region would you recommend to someone planning their first gastronomic trip to Italy?

You have to go to Campania, in country’s southwest. It’s the birthplace of pizza, and everything you eat is incredible. But I’m from Abruzzo, and Abruzzo is undiscovered. There are a lot of great recipes from the mountains and from the sea, because the region is quite big and self-contained, and we have white truffle in autumn. All the regions are different and each one is the best at making something.

What are some of your favourite lesser-known dishes?

I think Sicily deserves recognition. There are a lot of different dishes. I worked and filmed there for a long time, and I know the whole region. It has a big Arabic influence, so there are a lot of strong flavours that people don’t even realise come from Italy, like all the amazing tuna and salt fish, used in dishes like fish pasta con le sarde [pasta with sardines and anchovies], as well as all the desserts they make.

What comfort food can you recommend?

During these times, you have more time on your hands. I realise a lot more people are getting into cooking, because I run a lot of lessons online. What I recommend is making things from scratch — especially things like bean soup and sauces. If you can’t find pasta, just get some 00 flour from the supermarket and make your own, it’s so simple and you need few ingredients.

What’s your go-to dish for a taste of Italy in these times?

I think the best thing that you can savour is always going to be burrata from Apulia. Just keep it simple. And make your carbonara from scratch — with no cream!

What’s the one Italian ingredient you couldn’t live without?

What can I say, it has to be spaghetti alla chitarra. It brings me back to my mum.

Aldo Zilli was the founder of various restaurants around London, including Zilli Fish. He’s written 10 books, regularly contributes to publications and often appears on TV and radio. In 2012, Aldo was appointed executive consultant chef to the San Carlo group, which owns restaurants in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other international locations. 

Spaghetti alla carbonara, a famous pasta dish from the Lazio region of Italy made with guanciale.

Photograph by Getty Images

Spaghetti chitarra alla carbonara

Serves: 1
Takes: 1 hr

30g guanciale
extra virgin olive oil, for frying
2 eggs, yolks only
1 tbsp grated parmesan
1 tbsp grated pecorino

For the spaghetti
400g ‘00’ flour
4 organic eggs

You’ll need 
Chitarra pasta cutter

To make the spaghetti, put the flour in a large bowl, add a pinch of salt and mix well. Crack the eggs into a separate bowl and beat with a fork until smooth. Make a well in the middle of the flour mix and tip the beaten eggs into the centre. Use your fingers to combine the eggs and flour, incorporating a little flour at a time and working from the centre of the well outwards, until the mixture forms a dough. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rest for 30 mins.
2. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface, forming a sheet that’s 0.5cm thick and 40cm long. Set it onto the citarra pasta cutter and use a rolling pin to push it down onto the wires, slicing the pasta sheet into ribbons.
3. Cut the guanciale into strips around 0.5cm in length. Lightly heat 1 tsp olive oil in a pan set over a low heat, then add the guanciale. Cook until crispy on the outside but soft in the middle, around 2-3 mins. Set aside once cooked.
4. Tip the egg yolks into a bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add half the parmesan and half the pecorino and mix well.
5. Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain, reserving a little pasta water.
6. Add the spaghetti to the pan with the guanciale and keep on a very low heat for 2 mins, mixing all the time. Tip the contents of the pan into the bowl with the egg yolks, then use a fork to mix everything together, adding a little of the reserved pasta water to ensure the end result is light and creamy.
7. Tip the spaghetti into a serving dish and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese and a grind of black pepper. 

Steak made from Chianina (one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world): a popular dish in Tuscany.

Photograph by Getty Images

Chargrilled Chianina steak with rocket and parmesan salad

Serves: 1
Takes: 1 hr 30 mins

1.2-1.5kg Chianina T-bone
4 tbsp duck fat
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme 

For the salad
20g rocket
15g parmesan, shaved
extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

1. Put the T-bone on a baking tray and sprinkle with salt. Brush with the duck fat and rest the herbs on top, then leave to marinate for 1 hr (keep outside of the fridge to bring the meat to room temperature).
2. Remove the steak from the marinade and pat with kitchen towel to soak up any excess fat. Sprinkle with a little more salt. Set on a hot barbecue grill (or stovetop grill) and cook on both sides, around 20-40 mins, depending on how well you want the meat cooked.
3. Meanwhile, put the rocket in a bowl with the shaved parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with 1 tsp olive oil, then toss well.
4. Once the steak is cooked, remove it from the heat and transfer to a chopping board. Remove the bone, slice the meat and add to a serving dish. Arrange the rocket salad on top and serve.

Cannoli are a staple of Sicilian cuisine. Their fillings can vary, but ricotta cheese is the most popular option. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Sicilian cannoli

Makes: 15-20 medium-sized cannoli shells
Takes: 35 mins

300g plain flour
50g caster sugar
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 lemon, zested
4 tbsp marsala wine
1 egg, separated
60g butter, melted
flour, for dusting
1.5-2 litres sunflower oil, for frying
icing sugar, for dusting

For the filling
500g ricotta
80g caster sugar
70g dark chocolate, chopped
50g candid peel
50g candied cherries

You’ll need
Pasta machine
10cm round cookie cutter
Cannoli moulds
Kitchen thermometer
Piping bag

 Mix all the ingredients for the filling in a large bowl, then put in the fridge until ready to use.
2. To make the cannoli shells, sift the flour into a bowl, then stir in the sugar, bicarb, cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Make a well in the centre, then add the lemon zest, marsala and egg yolk (reserving the egg white for later). Add the melted butter and mix until thoroughly combined.
3. Tip onto a work surface lightly dusted with flour and knead for 2-3 mins until smooth. Cover the dough with an upturned bowl and leave to rest for 20 mins.
4. Pour the oil into a large saucepan and set over a medium heat. While the oil is heating, divide the dough into three sections, then use a rolling pin to roll out each section into a 5mm-thick rectangle.
5. Pass a section through the pasta machine on the widest setting, then fold it in half and roll it through again. Continue rolling until you reach the thinnest setting. Keep your work surface and dough dusted with flour to avoid sticking. Repeat with the other two sections of dough.
6. Lay out the rolled dough on your work surface and use the 10cm round cutter to stamp out discs (you should be able to get around 15-20 in total). Wrap the discs around the cannoli moulds and brush each join with a dab of the egg white to seal (you may have to do this in batches, depending on how many cannoli moulds you have).
7. Use the kitchen thermometer to check the oil. Once it reaches 180C, gently lower in the cannoli moulds and fry for around 1 min until golden and crisp. Use tongs to carefully remove each tube, draining any excess oil back into the pan. Set the tubes on kitchen paper to cool slightly while still in their moulds. Once cool enough to handle, slide the cannolis off the moulds. Repeat the process with the remaining dough, making sure the oil stays at a steady 180C throughout. Leave to cool.
8. Scoop the filling into a piping bag and fill each cannoli shell. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

The event

The Great Italian Food Journey event featured a cooking demonstration and discussion about the country's cuisine, with topics ranging from amazing regional specialties to the role of food as a central component of Italian socialising. Speakers also included chef Joe Hurd, a regular guest presenter on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen and Joe Fattorini, wine expert on The Wine Show. Head to our Facebook page to watch the event:

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