The ingredients in southern Italian food are straightforward; you won’t find many things in the Neapolitan kitchen that you couldn’t pronounce. Many of them are so universally beloved that you’ll find them in Mexican, Indian and Greek dishes too. What distinguishes the tangy tomatoes in a luscious marinara sauce and makes them uniquely Italian? The secret’s in the spices.
Mediterranean basil finds its way into everything from pizza sauce to pesto. Slightly sweet with overtones of anise and pepper, the plant’s fresh leaves can also enliven a salad or top a pizza. In its dried state, basil’s perfect for adding to soups and sauces. Basil takes its name from an old word for “king.” It’s certainly the king of the kitchen for Italian chefs, and you’ll find it gracing much of Carlino’s menu.
If basil is the king of the kitchen, then oregano is its queen. Its spicy scent and hint of bitterness is the perfect foil for basil’s sweetness. Oregano also complements creamy mozzarella cheese beautifully, so it’s a primary component in a good pizza sauce. You’ll also note its distinctive warm flavor in our house-made Italian sausage and in our lasagna.
If green had a flavor, it might taste just like parsley. The bright green herb is so pretty that you’ll often see it garnishing a plate, but it’s far more than just a garnish to Italian chefs. Flat-leaf parsley has a more robust flavor than the curly kind that’s become synonymous with garnishes. Chopped parsley imparts a fresh, bright flavor to tomato-based sauces where it balances basil and oregano in a three-part harmony.
The subtlety of marjoram sometimes gets lost behind the big flavors of basil and oregano, but in more delicate dishes, you’ll definitely notice its almost flowery flavor. It’s a southern Italian staple in vegetable dishes and with broiled fish. Marjoram thrives in a warm Mediterranean climate; when it grows in cooler climates, it loses much of its flavor, but in southern Italy, it’s deliciously bold.
Italian sausage just wouldn’t be the same without these aromatic seeds. Somewhere between anise and celery in taste, fennel is the predominant flavor in sweet Italian sausage. Fennel root tastes faintly of the seeds, but it’s eaten as a vegetable rather than used as a spice. Its popularity in Italian cooking dates back to the early Renaissance when dishes with sweet and savory overtones were popular among the Italian nobility. The fennel-laden Italian sausage you enjoy today hasn’t changed much from what the Medici family might have served.
Herbs and spices transform the simple, fresh ingredients of southern Italy into the magnificent cuisine it’s become. Taste a plate of sausage and peppers or a slice of pizza and see how many Italian herbs your palate can find.
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Oenophiles may assure you that pairing food and wine is an arcane art that only knowledgeable people should try, but the truth is far simpler: let taste be your guide. No one knows better than you what you like, so you’re the best judge of which wines go with your dinner. However, some guidelines will help you narrow down the kinds of wines that make the happiest match with your meal.
Pick wines and foods that evolved together to increase the chances of a felicitous pairing. A great Chianti Classico naturally meshes well with the big, bold flavors of southern Italian cooking because the dish and the drink arose from the same sunny Mediterranean climate. The vintners who grew up enjoying rich, tangy marinara sauces later produced wines that complemented their favorite familiar foods, so choosing wines and foods from the same region is virtually a guarantee of a happy partnership.
Lighter dishes typically go with lighter wines. Full-bodied Super-Tuscan red wines accent a rich, meaty lasagna, but they could overwhelm a more delicate plate of clams Posillipo or lemony veal piccata. Italian dishes often combine big flavors with subtle ones, giving you more pairing options. Consider the peppers, onions and tomatoes in chicken cacciatore; you could choose a bold white wine to accent the tender chicken while standing up to the rich sauce, or you could pick a light-bodied traditional Italian red wine made with Sangiovese grapes to highlight the tangy tomatoes without overpowering the chicken.
Wine pairings generally follow one of two philosophies: creating balance or emphasizing an essential characteristic of the food. Which direction you take depends largely on your taste. A Chardonnay highlights the buttery flavor of chicken Francese; a light, astringent Sauvignon Blanc balances the rich buttery notes and offsets them with crispness. You might enjoy a sweet dessert wine at the end of your meal, or you might prefer a full-bodied, fruity wine that acts as a refreshing counterpoint to a sweet dish. Accentuate the flavor of your food with wines that have similar notes; balance them with wines that go in the opposite direction.
If you’re new to enjoying wine pairings, you may be reluctant to splurge on a whole bottle of an untested wine at dinner. That’s why Carlino’s offers wine by the glass. Sample our cellar’s selection before you make a decision or enjoy the variety that choosing wines by the glass gives you. Impress a business client or a special date by trying a few different wines a week or two before your special occasion, then order a bottle of your favorite for the table on the big night itself.
If you have any questions, Carlino’s knowledgeable staff can answer them. Your server knows every dish on the menu well and can also recommend wine pairings to get you started. Italian food and wines were meant to be together, so have a glass with your dinner and see how much a great wine can add to your enjoyment.Tweet read more
Lemon trees thrive in a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, so it’s no wonder that the tart fruits are a staple in a host of Mediterranean cuisines. From Morocco to Greece, lemons have made their way into every meal of the day. Italians aren’t immune to their affection for lemons; if you look, you’ll find them in some surprising places on the Italian menu. Veal piccata is famously lemony, but the fruit’s tart juice and flavorful zest also brighten salads, desserts, mixed drinks and even cups of the quintessentially Italian drink, espresso.
The Italian love affair with lemons is a long-lasting one. Lemon trees first appeared in Italy about two millennia ago, but the Romans considered the fragrant yellow fruits a perfume rather than an ingredient. Medieval Italian cooks realized that lemons were more than just a pretty scent; they used them with abandon in sweet and savory dishes.
Lemons did more than make food delicious; their high acidity also helped preserve foods. The earliest Renaissance physicians didn’t know about vitamin C, but they knew that lemons were healthy and recommended that everyone eat them regularly. The fruit’s acidity and fresh fragrance made it the perfect foil for fish. Sorrento lemons became famous worldwide for their exceptional flavor and strongly perfumed zest. They’re the basis for limoncello, the brilliant yellow lemon-zest liqueur from the Amalfi coast.
From a touch of tart lemon in your Italian vinaigrette to a generous squeeze of juice in your plate of chicken scarpariello to the curl of zest with your espresso, lemons enliven every course of an Italian dinner. You’ll also find it gracing simple fish dishes seasoned with little more than olive oil, pepper and lemons. Some chefs use a splash of lemon juice to brighten the flavor of a slow-cooked tomato sauce or act as a counterpart to the rich butter and garlic in traditional shrimp scampi.
Lemons also shine in Italian desserts. In sweet dishes, the perfume-like notes of lemon’s characteristic flavor come through as their tartness mellows. Italian bakers use lemon extensively in biscotti, cookies and cakes, often combining the citrus fruit with anise or almonds. Lemon-infused custards are a popular winter treat in Italy; for summer, lemon ices keep Italians cool under the strong Mediterranean sun.
That twist of lemon peel alongside your espresso got its start in America from an unknown Italian-American restaurateur who wanted to combine his love of lemons with his passion for powerful Italian coffee. Although the pairing didn’t originate in Italy, it’s found quite a following among Italian coffee drinkers who appreciate yet another way to enjoy their favorite fruit.
Celebrate luscious lemons at Carlino’s with a menu built around them. Start with a lemon drop cocktail or a glass of lemonade, then enjoy a bowl of stracciatella alla Romana, the Italian version of egg drop soup. Follow it with a lemon-laced entree such as veal piccata or shrimp Francese. Ask about our dessert menu to discover lemon’s sweeter side, or skip dessert in favor of a cup of espresso with its trademark lemon twist.
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