Our Favorite Regional Pasta Dishes from Emilia Romagna, Abruzzo, and Lazio
It doesn’t get more Italian than a delicious plate of pasta. From orecchiette to ravioli to lasagna, the varieties of pasta found in Italy can seem endless. But, not every pasta shape or dish is found in every part of the country. Italy has 20 distinct regions and each one has their own special regional pasta dishes.
While simple pasta with tomato sauce is delicious and universally beloved, we, here at Nicola’s, pride ourselves on being able to share unique Italian culture and dishes with you. Truly authentic Italian food is rooted in the place where it originates and we do it a disservice when we only talk about the country as a whole instead of celebrating the differences between the regions.
Three regions of Italy are particularly close to Chef Nicola’s heart: Emilia Romagna, where he went to culinary school, Abruzzo, where his family is from, and Lazio, home to the magical city of Rome. Each of these regions has its own food culture with pasta dishes that celebrate the unique flavors and ingredients of the area.
In this blog post, we will share a bit about the culture in each region and introduce you to our favorite pasta dishes.
Decadent Pasta Dishes from Emilia Romagna
Emilia Romagna is a region in North Central Italy between the Alps and Apennines mountains. It’s known as the agricultural center of Italy because the fertile soil combined with long winters and hot summers creates a perfect environment for raising livestock and crops.
Emilia Romagna is especially celebrated for its Prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegars including Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP, and cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano. These luxuries are celebrated across the world, but all hail from the little region of Emilia Romagna.
Chef Nicola attended the culinary school Alma which is located in a small town called Colorno about fifteen minutes outside of Parma. During his time there he was fully immersed in Italian cuisine, especially that of the region of Emilia Romagna. We are lucky that is now back in New Jersey and sharing his knowledge and talents with all of us!
Dating back to his time in school, Chef Nicola has a particular soft spot for two Emilia-Romagna pasta dishes: lasagna bolognese and tortelli di zucca.
Apart from the layers of pasta and sauce, a classic lasagna bolognese from Emilia-Romagna doesn’t have much in common with an American meat lasagna. Lasagna bolognese calls for bechamel sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano instead of ricotta and mozzarella; and a light bolognese sauce instead of a thick meat sauce. The goal is to have as many layers as possible, so only a thin coating of sauces is applied between the pasta sheets.
Bolognese sauce is made with ground meat, sauteed mirepoix (carrot, onion, and celery), white wine, tomato sugo, and a bit of milk for creaminess. It’s cooked down over several hours to create a concentrated flavor. Bechamel sauce is a simple cream sauce flavored with a bit of nutmeg. And, Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the regional specialties that makes lasagna bolognese a distinctly Emilia-Romagna dish.
Tortelli di Zucca
Tortelli di zucca is one of oldest and most distinct pasta dishes from Emilia-Romagna. Dating back to medieval times, tortelli di zucca is a variety of pumpkin ravioli flavored with crushed amaretti cookies and apple or pear mostarda. It’s often served today on special occasions like Christmas Eve, but is delicious any time in the fall or winter.
The filling for tortelli di zucca is made with roasted and mashed pumpkin, the crushed cookies which add a sweet flavor and body to the filling, the mostarda which is a sweet and spicy jam, and fresh grated Grana Padano cheese, another Emilia-Romagna speciality. The resulting flavor is sweet, sour, and rich. It pairs perfectly with a sage butter sauce.
Distinct Pasta Shapes from Abruzzo
Chef Nicola has close personal and professional ties to the Italian region of Abruzzo. His family is from the area so he visited frequently as a child. After culinary school, he also worked for a restaurant called L’agnolo D’Abruzzo in the city of L’Aquila. It’s here that Chef Nicola developed many of the recipes and skills that he still uses today.
Abruzzo borders the Adriatic sea in East-Central Italy. It’s a region of rugged terrain ranging from mountains down to the beaches. Many people call it the green region of Italy because it's full of national parks and many people visit for skiing and hiking trips.
On the culinary side, Abruzzo is particularly famed for its sheep and pig farming along with wheat, grapes, fruit, and olives. There are delicious wild foraged mushrooms and truffles that come from the Gran Sasso and saffron l’Aquila is a fragrant saffron grown in Abruzzo. Two pasta dishes that most remind us of Abruzzo are Maccheroni alla Chittara and Scrippelle ‘mbusse.
Maccheroni alla Chittara
Maccheroni alla Chittara is a long, thin pasta shape found only in the region of Abruzzo. The strands of pasta are shaped like flat, square cut spaghetti and cut using a special tool called a Chittara.
The chittara, which translates to guitar, is a wooden frame strung with wires. The sheets of pasta are laid on top of the frame then a rolling pin is rolled back and forth over them to push the pasta through the strings and cut it into strands.
The pasta is made with a slightly firmer dough so that the strings of the chittara will be able to cut it. Sometimes the dough is flavored with the saffron l'Aquila which gives it a beautiful yellow color. Maccheroni alla Chittara is often served with lamb ragu or tomato sauce and small meatballs.
Though technically a crepe, not a pasta, scrippelle ‘mbusse is still one of our favorite Abruzzese dishes. Chef Nicola used to make this dish with his nonna for Sunday dinner, and the taste immediately brings back fond memories for him!
Scrippelle ‘mbusse consists of thin crepes called crespelle that are filled with cheese, rolled, and served in hot broth. Though the crepes are cooked in a hot pan like a pancake instead of boiled in water like pasta, the final dish eats like a pasta dish. It’s filling and delicious especially when the cheese in the filling is a true Pecorino from Abruzzo.
Roman Pasta Dishes Shine in Lazio
Lazio is another central region of Italy that borders Abruzzo on one side and the Tyrhennian sea on the other. The region is most known for its central city of Rome. Food culture in Lazio centers around fishing and sheep farming. It’s also the Italian region that produces the most Kiwis, which many people don’t realize grows in Italy.
Pasta is a central part of any meal in Lazio. There are three interrelated pasta dishes that have come to symbolize the region: Cacio e Pepe, Alla Gricia, and Amatriciana.
Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe is one of the simplest Roman pastas. This quick sauce is made from black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese, olive oil and butter. It’s a perfect compliment to bucatini and other long, thin pastas.
Because the ingredient list for cacio e pepe is so short, the quality of the ingredients and technique of the chef become that much more important. Sheep farming in Lazio produces lots of high quality Pecorino Romano that creates a glossy, flavorful sauce when properly emulsified with the oil and some of the starchy water from cooking the pasta.
Amatriciana is a tomato-based pasta dish that originates in the small town of Amatrice. It was originally prepared by shepherds as they herded their flocks. Amatriciana sauce is made with tomatoes, guanciale, chili flakes, and Pecorino Romano cheese, and typically served with bucatini or spaghetti.
Like the other sauces from Lazio, this dish relies on the regional specialities of pork and sheep’s milk cheese to produce rich flavor. The tomatoes, guanciale, and chili flakes are only simmered for about 10 minutes which makes this dish a quick and easy option for a taste of Lazio any night of the week.
Alla Gricia is a variation on Amatriciana that adds guanciale, cured pork jowl, into the mix. The fat from the guanciale combines with the Pecorino Romano to add even more flavor to the final dish and the pieces of crisped up pork provide textural contrast.
In Lazio, Gricia sauce is most often served with rigatoni. The holes in the pasta hold the small piece of guanciale perfectly.
The pasta dishes mentioned above are just a small sample of the many regional specialities found in Italy. They’ve been developed over time to highlight the distinct foods found in each region and offer a delicious introduction to some of the parts of Italy that Chef Nicola holds most dear.
We love being able to bring authentic Italian foods to your home and hope you will use our pasta to give some of these dishes a try!