You will be surprised at how few ingredients you need to cook authentic Italian food, all of which are available at your local convenience store. This is the time to use the best quality ingredients that you can afford.
Italians use tinned tomatoes when they cannot find good quality sweet fresh tomatoes. When you choose tinned tomatoes you need to find a variety and a producer who use passata (crushed tomatoes) instead of water in the tin with the tomatoes. It is perfectly acceptable to add a small pinch of sugar to tinned tomatoes if they are not sweet enough. Check that all the tomatoes in the tin are ripe and discard any with green or yellow parts – they will be bitter and ruin the sauce. If a sauce calls for fresh tomatoes, use firm ripe tomatoes with no blemishes. If they have been in the fridge, dip them for 30 seconds in hot water to refresh their flavour (though you shouldn’t store tomatoes in the fridge, store them in the kitchen window where they will continue to ripen).
Olive oil – this is the second extraction from the olives and it is called olio di oliva in Italy. (It is often called virgin olive oil outside of Italy. In fact, there is no such thing in Italy, it is only called ‘virgin’ as a marketing exercise to hide the fact that it is chemically extracted). It is fine for cooking with but use extra virgin olive oil wherever you are not cooking the oil, for example to dress salads and drizzle over meat, fish and pasta dishes before serving. There is no point in using extra virgin olive oil to cook with as the flavour and aromas disappear when you heat it.
For seasoning use sea salt though you can use table salt to add to the pasta cooking water (you need 7g for each litre of water you use to cook the pasta, you won’t taste it in the dish but it will balance the saltiness of the pasta with the sauce). Grind peppercorns from scratch each time you cook with them, using the back of a tablespoon to crush them if you don’t have a pepper mill or mortar and pestle.
Freshly ground black pepper is a must especially for dishes like Spaghetti Carbonara or Cacio e Pepe which rely heavily on the use of fresh pepper. (Making Cacio e Pepe is very similar to cooking Carbonara. For 4 people, mix 125g grated Pecorino and 100g of grated Parmesan with quite a lot of freshly ground black pepper to make a paste – you should see lots of specks of pepper in the mixture. Cook 400g good quality spaghetti, drain it into a large warm bowl, reserving a few spoons of the cooking water. Add the cooking water and the cheese mixture to the pasta with a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil and toss well. Serve immediately.)
Herbs are crucial to Italian cooking – you need fresh herbs for some dishes: sage, parsley and basil feature heavily and fresh basil is obviously the main ingredient in traditional pesto. While dried herbs are often disregarded in other cuisines, they are highly regarded in Italian cuisine. Dried oregano for example is routinely used instead of fresh oregano.
Dried chilli is also used frequently as well as fresh chilli.
Fresh garlic and onion offer a foundation of flavour in most dishes.
Carrot and Celery fried with onion create a flavour base for many pasta dishes and braises.
Vinegar is used to add both flavour and acidity to dishes.
Capers in salt rather than capers stored in vinegar are preferred in the Italian cuisine. The vinegar can make a sauce too acidic.