I’ve lived in Italy for a while now. When I first arrived I didn’t know my mozzarella from my mortadella, but now my tastes have come of age and I’m just as fussy as any Italian when it comes to what’s on the plate in front of me. So I thought I’d let you in on a few of my personal favourites from the world of Italian cooking.

It’s not an exhaustive list of course. That would be pretty tough in a country with the sheer variety of recipes you find in Italy. I’ve chosen Italian dishes that come from up in the north to down in the south. The one thing they all have in common is that they are made from simple and classic ingredients (like all great cooking right?) which is something Italy has in abundance. From the beefy Florentine tomatoes to the Sicilian aubergines, the ingredients here explode with flavour so the cooking really doesn’t need any tarting up. Except perhaps for a little drizzle of olive oil.

So if you’re curious about my top 5 Italian dishes, read on.

My favourite Italian dishes

Risotto alla Milanese

Ok, I love risotto. Always have. (My wife makes an incredible Risotto with pear and gorgonzola, which I’ll have to write about another time.) Anyway, the first time I ate risotto has stuck in my memory for all the right reasons. We were in the Navigli in Milan, sitting at an outdoor table of a non-descript restaurant. There were students lazing about by the canal, and well-heeled people breezing past head to toe in Prada.

I ordered a glass of Prosecco and asked the waiter what was good. I remember him rolling his eyes and pointing at the Risotto alla Milanese. It turned out to be good advice. When it arrived I remember the taste unfolding itself carefully in my mouth like a secret, the saffron giving it a subtle but unmistakeable taste.

I’ve had it elsewhere since and it’s never been quite as elegant as I remember it that day.

Cacciucco

From the quiet and dignified risottos of Milan, I’m skipping now to the bustling port of Livorno that makes one of the finest fish dishes known to man (Well at least this one.) Cacciucco is essentially a fish soup served on a piece of toasted bread. Nothing like that watery consomme nonsense. Nope, this Livornese speciality is a lavish feast of fish, prawns and shellfish basking in a mouthwatering broth.

If you’re lucky enough to have eaten it in Livorno as I have, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This is a deliciously messy affair to eat, so you’ll probably need a bib but the taste is worth a few gobs of oil and tomato down the front of your shirt.

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Melanzane alla Parmigiana

This is one i love so much I have even learned to make it myself. (Thanks Nonna Metella!) Layers of golden aubergine, tomato, basil, mozzarella and of course parmigiano cheese. It’s a deliciously decadent dish that oozes flavour and will have you gasping for seconds. The trick is, to fry the aubergine. I’ve tried grilling them but it just doesn’t have the same level of juicy moreishness this dish is famous for. Also, if you are lucky enough to know an Italian who can rustle up some real pomarola made with Italian tomatoes, so much the better.

Ribollita

Ribollita is a classic peasant-style soup that you’ll find on menus in Florence and its surrounds. I’m such a huge fan of the stuff that I even had it on the menu at my wedding – in summer! It’s not posh cuisine. Just good cooking with simple, seasonal ingredients. It’s well worth getting stuck into a bowl of it if you’re ever over that way.

What’s in it? Well, the main ingredients are cavolo nero (black Tuscan kale), cannellini beans and stale Tuscan bread. And of course a bit of olive oil. It doesn’t sound like much, but it tastes like heaven I can assure you.

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Polpette

When I was young, fish fingers were my go-to comfort food. Sad I know, but such is life growing up in Britain. Nowadays Polpette or meatballs, are my drug of choice if I need my heart and stomach warmed. Specifically, polpette made by my wife. There’s something about them that just makes me feel good to be alive.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what she does to them to make them so tasty but I do know she adds a hint of nutmeg, and a bit of Philadelphia soft cheese to the mix. (Yes, Philadelphia. I never lie about food.) If you want to take this ultimate comfort food to the next level, have them with garden peas. Oh, and a nice bottle of Peppoli from the Chianti if you have it.

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