Mediterranean diet? Try ‘Mediterranean diets’! There are multiple rich food cultures within each of the 21 Mediterranean countries. Even within Italy alone, cuisine is distinctly regional; it's different in Verona, Rome, Puglia, Tuscany and Naples. By Hatty Willmoth.

The Mediterranean diet is often in the news as one of the healthiest diets in the world.

Characterised by fresh ingredients cooked from scratch, it uses plenty of plants and lashings of olive oil, as well as some seafood, dairy and meat.

The Mediterranean diet has been linked to longevity, associated with a lower prevalence of many major diseases such as dementia, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

But there is no single ‘Mediterranean diet’. The Mediterranean Sea meets the borders of 21 countries, each with their own unique food cultures.

In focusing on the similarities that bring Mediterranean cuisine together, we may run the risk of blurring over a multiplicity of rich traditions.

Even within each Mediterranean country, we can find distinct gastronomic regions shaped by their landscape, culture and history.

In this article, we take a look at several of the many cuisines that exist within Italy, through the eyes of people who grew up there and now work in the restaurant industry.

From the rolling hills of Tuscany to the mighty history of Rome, there is no correct way to do the Mediterranean diet.

Naples: pizza and seafood by the Mediterranean Sea

Vincenzo Zaccarini is the founder and managing director of Vincenzo Ltd. He says: “Our business has always endeavoured to lead from the front in terms of supplying the leading restaurants and hotels in the UK with seasonal and regional Italian produce.”

Zaccarini is from Naples, aka. Napoli – “where heaven and hell meet!” – in the Campania region of southern Italy.

Napoli cuisine is “bold and individual”, he says, “[drawing] inspiration from the surrounding sea and fertile countryside”.

“Local dishes often feature fresh seafood, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese,” says Zaccarini.

“Popular dishes include the famous pizza margherita (made with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil), spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), and parmigiana di melanzane (aubergine parmesan).

“Other local specialties include sfogliatelle (a type of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese) and babà al rum (rum-soaked sponge cake).

“It’s typically pretty heavy on carbs compared to other regions in Italy!”

Naples is on the coast, and Zaccarini says the Mediterranean Sea provides “a rich source of fresh seafood”.

“The city’s cuisine also reflects its history,” he says, “as a melting pot of cultures with influences from Greek, Roman, Spanish and Arab cuisine.”

Tomatoes were introduced to Europe via Naples in the 16th century, notes Zaccarini, and now they’re a hallmark of the city’s food, and are grown on the nearby mountainside of Vesuvius.

Zaccarini says that some key Napoli dishes include:

  • Casatiello: a savoury bread traditionally eaten at Easter, made with cheese, salami and eggs.
  • Scarola imbottita: an appetizer made with escarole leaves that are filled with breadcrumbs, anchovies, capers, and olives, then baked in the oven.
  • Pizza fritta: a type of fried pizza filled with ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and sometimes tomato sauce.
  • Montanara: a type of pizza that is fried and then baked in the oven, topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and sometimes mushrooms, ham or sausage.
  • Sartù di riso: a rice dish that is baked in a dome-shaped mould and filled with meat, peas, and cheese.
  • Spaghetti alle vongole: spaghetti with clams in a white wine and garlic sauce.
  • Frittura di pesce: a mixed seafood platter that is battered and deep-fried.
  • Insalata di mare: a seafood salad made with squid, octopus, mussels, and shrimp.
  • Babà al rum: a sweet, rum-soaked cake that is a popular dessert in Napoli.
  • Sofritto Napoletana: slow cooked stew with various leftover pork meats served in a strong veg and chilli sauce.

Verona: freshwater fish and full-bodied wine by the Alpine mountains

Umberto Zucchermaglio is Vincenzo Ltd’s head of business development and says: “I have the pleasure of working with leading Italian restaurants and chefs in the UK every single day!”

Zucchermaglio comes from Verona, which he says most people know “as the home of Romeo and Juliet”. Located in the Veneto region of northern Italy, it’s near both Venice and the Italian Alps.

“Verona is known for its rich and hearty cuisine that draws inspiration from the nearby mountains and surrounding countryside,” he says.

“The local dishes we cooked at home often featured meats such as beef, pork, and game, as well as freshwater fish from Lake Garda.

“Historically, dishes include risotto all'Amarone (risotto made with the local Amarone wine), pastissada de caval (horse meat stew), Polenta e Osei (polenta with a small birds) and gnocchi di malga (potato dumplings made with cheese from local mountain huts).

“However, many of these dishes especially containing horsemeat or small birds are less eaten by my generation and, in the case of small birds, now outlawed.

“It is important for my generation to be more forward thinking and considerate in terms of our diets whilst preserving the traditions of our local cuisine that was passed down from our grandparents.”

Zucchermaglio says that the region’s rich traditions have been shaped by the surrounding “fertile farmland, rolling hills, and nearby mountains” which provide “a diverse range of ingredients” for local dishes.

Verona is also known for its wine production, particularly “the rich and full-bodied Amarone wine”, often used in cooking.

And the city’s history as a trading centre – particularly of food – has led to influences from Venetian, Austrian and German cuisine.

The following dishes, says Zucchermaglio, set Verona apart:

  • Bigoli: a type of thick spaghetti made with whole wheat flour and served with a meat-based ragù sauce.
  • Risotto all'Amarone: a creamy risotto made with Amarone wine.
  • Pastissada de caval: a slow-cooked horsemeat stew, traditional in the Veronese countryside.
  • Polenta: a dish made from boiled cornmeal, served as a side dish or main course.
  • Gnocchi di malga: soft dumplings made with potatoes and served with melted butter and cheese.

Tuscany: wild boar and olive oil in the rolling hills

Guilio Rossi is the executive chef of Brasseria, Notting Hill and La Brasseria, Marylebone. He is from Florence, Tuscany, “the centre of the Italian Renaissance”.

He says that Tuscan food is “simple and flavourful”, typically featuring olive oil, bread, and herbs such as rosemary and sage.

“Meat dishes are also popular,” says Rossi, “including bistecca alla fiorentina (grilled T-bone steak), arista (roast pork), and cinghiale (wild boar).

“Other local specialties include ribollita (a hearty vegetable soup), pici (a type of thick spaghetti), and cantucci (almond biscotti).”

As for the landscape of Tuscany, this, he says, “is characterised by rolling hills, vineyards, and olive groves, which have all played a major role in shaping the region’s cuisine”.

Rossi says: “The use of simple, high-quality ingredients is a hallmark of Tuscan cuisine, which emphasises the importance of using local and seasonal produce.”

The cuisine bears elements that harken back to the Etruscan, Roman and medieval eras, he says, and: “Nothing highlights this more than a trip to Piazzo de Mercato Centrale, probably the most famous and incredible food market in the world!”

Tuscany is known for these dishes, says Rossi:

  • Bistecca alla Fiorentina: a large, thick-cut T-bone steak grilled over an open flame, served rare.
  • Pappa al pomodoro: a hearty soup made with old bread, tomatoes, and garlic.
  • Ribollita: a vegetable and bread soup that is cooked twice (‘ribollita’ means ‘reboiled’).
  • Caciucco: a fish stew that originated in the coastal town of Livorno, made with a variety of seafood.
  • Schiacciata: a type of flatbread seasoned with olive oil and salt, and served as a snack or side dish; usually filled with cured meats, cheese and salad.

Rome: artichoke and carbonara in an iconic ancient city

Maurizio Morelli is chef patron of Briciole, Marylebone, and former executive chef of Latium.

He says: “I am from the Lazio region where our capital is Rome, the most historical and iconic city in the world – and of course, where all roads lead to!”

Morelli says that the cuisine of his childhood was “deeply rooted in tradition”, and that Roman cuisine “is known for its bold and hearty flavours”.

“Local dishes often feature ingredients such as cured meats, artichokes, and pecorino romano cheese,” he says.

“Pasta dishes are also popular including carbonara (made with eggs, pancetta, and pecorino cheese) and amatriciana (made with tomatoes, guanciale, and pecorino cheese).

“Other local specialties include supplì (fried rice balls with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew).”

Morelli says Rome’s cuisine is “deeply intertwined with its history … as a centre of political and cultural power”.

The use of traditional ingredients – offal, for example – often ties back to Rome’s “role as a centre of Catholicism” as well as “its long history of poverty and hardship”.

But Morelli says the city’s cuisine also “draws heavily from the surrounding countryside, with an emphasis on simple, flavourful ingredients such as tomatoes, olive oil, and pecorino cheese”.

He mentions the following as quintessential Roman dishes:

  • Cacio e pepe: a simple pasta dish made with pecorino cheese and black pepper.
  • Saltimbocca alla romana: thin slices of veal that are wrapped in prosciutto and sage and pan-fried in butter.
  • Carbonara: a pasta dish made with eggs, guanciale (cured pork cheek), pecorino cheese, and black pepper.
  • Carciofi alla romana: artichokes that are stuffed with garlic, parsley, and mint and braised in white wine and olive oil.
  • Supplì: fried rice balls that are stuffed with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

Puglia: bread and burrata in an olive grove

Michele Lombardi is the head chef at Clarke’s restaurant in west London, and he’s from Puglia, the ‘breadbasket of Italy’, along the country’s south-eastern ‘heel’.

He describes the food of his childhood as “simple” and “rustic”, made with “fresh, locally sourced ingredients”; often olive oil, vegetables and seafood.

Lombardi says: “Local specialities include orecchiette con le cime di rapa (pasta with broccoli rabe), polpo alla pignata (octopus cooked in a clay pot), and tiella di cozze e patate (a baked dish of mussels, potatoes, and rice).

“Other popular dishes include burrata (a type of creamy cheese), fave e cicoria (fava bean and chicory soup), and taralli (savoury crackers flavoured with fennel seeds or black pepper).”

As for Puglia’s landscape, that’s “characterised by olive groves, vineyards and the nearby sea”.

Meanwhile, its long history of agriculture and trade has led to influences from Greek, Roman and Arab cuisine.

“The region is also known for its wine production,” says Lombardi, “particularly the full-bodied red wines of Salento.”

Some classic Pugliese dishes, says Lombardi, include:

  • Orecchiette con le cime di rapa: a pasta dish made with orecchiette (small ear-shaped pasta) and turnip greens.
  • Burrata: a fresh cheese made from mozzarella and cream that has a creamy centre and a stringy exterior.
  • Focaccia Barese: a type of flatbread that is flavoured with olive oil and served as a snack or side dish and topped with tomatoes.
  • Polpo alla pignata: octopus that is slow-cooked in a clay pot with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions.
  • Pasticciotto: a small pastry filled with custard cream and sometimes chocolate or jam.

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