You’re cooking up a storm of homemade Italian food when suddenly you realize your recipes might be missing an ingredient to level up your dishes.
Sound familiar? If that’s a yes, you might want to check out this list of essential Italian pantry staples because, if there's a time when one ingredient can make all the difference, it’s with Italian food.
And sometimes all it takes is that quality olive oil, that special dash of umami, or the real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to make your home cooking sing.
Here we’re sharing how to choose the best Italian ingredients for your pantry because it can be tricky to know the real thing if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
You know olive oil is an all-around pantry workhorse, but did you know that not all olive oils are quality oils? When it comes to Italian extra virgin olive oil, insiders know some of the best liquid gold comes from Tuscany, Liguria, and Sicily, and they all have different flavor profiles—though we like to refer to them as personalities. Meaning, you’ll probably want several different bottles on hand for all kinds of recipes.
Sicilian olive oils are bold with a bit of bitterness, which work well as a garnish for roasted veggies and proteins. Olive oil from Tuscany is smooth and peppery (great for all-purpose cooking). And olive oil from Liguria tends to be rich, soft, and subtle and perfect for seafood and pastas and for making the famous local focaccia.
To make sure you’re getting the tried and true stuff, look for the DOP label on the bottle, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta and is a protected labeling used to preserve food traditions of iconic foods. In other words, it guarantees the olive oil is actually from Italy!
Hear us out. Anchovies don’t always have the most stellar reputation here in the States, and we’re kind of bummed because there’s a lot to love about them.
Italian anchovies are packed with briny, savory goodness and may just add that special kick to a salad dressing, pasta sauce, sandwich, and the iconic Piedmontese sauce known as salsa verde. In Italy – especially the southern parts like the Campania and Calabria regions – you’ll find anchovies in sauces, eaten with toast and olive oil, fried, baked, pretty much the works.
For your own pantry, you can buy them packed in salt or olive oil. Just remember to remove the salt before cooking. Try Nettuno’s salted anchovies or Delfino Battista anchovies–it comes salted or oil-packed.
San Marzano Tomatoes
These uber-famous tomatoes will make any classic Italian or Italian-inspired dish shine, so make room in your kitchen for this pantry staple.
Pomodori di San Marzano gets so much love around the world because they’re sweet, are less acidic and have less seeds than other tomatoes. True San Marzano tomatoes are grown in the Campania region, in Italy’s southwestern parts.
It just so happens that it’s also where Naples is located, or ground zero for Neapolitan pizza, where authentic Neapolitan pizza can only be made with these tomatoes, by the way.
At home, reach for a can to make pasta pomodoro tomato sauce, lasagna, and pizza (of course). These tomatoes are DOP protected too, so look out for that symbol, plus whether the tomatoes come in a can whole or in fillets because unfort, anything else might not be the real thing.
If you haven’t been using real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, add it to your Italian pantry list ASAP.
This Italian cheese is super crumbly and savory that we’d totally eat it on its own or with a drizzle of aged balsamic like the Italians do. You can also boost pastas and salads by grating fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, or serve it alongside fresh fruit and crackers. And, be sure to save the rind so you can pop it into sauces, soups, and other recipes to punch up the flavor.
A note that “Parmesan” cheese is not the same thing as Parmigiano-Reggiano -- the difference is that cheese labeled "Parmesan" is an imitation cheese while Parmigiano-Reggiano is the authentic Italian cheese from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Strict rules for how it’s made–like requiring a 12 month aging process, minimum–and where it’s produced (the Parma region only, which they’ve been doing for 700 years, sorry not sorry) means you’ll be stocking your pantry with high-quality cheese every time.
Meaning, unless the cheese you’re buying is labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmigiano-Reggiano stravecchio (pronouned "straw-veh-key-oh" and meaning “extra-aged,” for two years or longer), the “Parmesan” you’re considering isn’t the distinct, Italian cheese.
These days it seems like we put balsamic vinegar on everything, but did you know that the Italian condiment only became popular within the last century? That’s because in Italy, the tradition of making balsamic vinegar was mostly a family affair, and it’s only been 50 or so years since the country began exporting it.
To clarify, there are several categories of aceto balsamico (pronounced "ah-che-toe ball-sahm-ee-koh"). The super traditional version takes at least 10 years to make, must be made in Modena or Reggio Emilia, and there are only 300 official producers in Italy certified to make it. And, yes, real balsamic vinegar is super pricey and will come with a DOP stamp. You may come across balsamico condimento, which is balsamic vinegar that has been aged for less than 10 years, and may or may not have been produced in Modena or Reggio Emilia.
Then there are balsamic vinegars made in Modena but they may not be made from traditional grape varietals (like Lambrusco, Montuni, and Trebbiano). These bottles will have the IGP protected stamp, which is a geographical marker that means at least one stage of the product’s production, processing, and packing happened in that region. So if you’re on the hunt for a traditional balsamic vinegar, choose a version produced in the Emilia-Romagna region, then try our grilled flank steak with balsamic-mint fig salsa recipe, or our pistachio feta watermelon salad recipe.
Another Italian pantry staple must-have is rice. But not just any rice, but short- and medium-grain varieties grown (mostly) in northern Italy, like Arborio, Carnaroli, Bardo and Roma. Italians likely began growing rice in the late 1400s, when it was introduced by India. Nowadays, rice is grown all over Italy, but the Lombardy and Piedmont regions are where it all started.
So when you’re craving a rice dish, let Italy inspire you, such as with northern Italy’s iconic Risotto Alla Milanese (made with saffron and butter) or panissa, a traditional risotto rice and beans dish from Piedmont. There’s also risi e bisi, a popular springtime rice dish made with peas and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which you’ll find throughout Venice in celebration of its patron saint, Saint Mark (April 25).
Pro tip: Whenever you cook risotto, be sure to stir often to create that creamy texture.
This versatile spread, referred to as gianduja (pronounced "jan-doo-yah") – which Nutella is inspired by – is a must if you’re building an Italian-inspired pantry, especially if you’re as into desserts as we are (have you made our chocolate-hazelnut ice cream recipe yet?) And we’ve got Piedmont’s creative chocolatiers to thank for this creamy deliciousness.
See, the story goes cocoa supply was scarce in the 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, and later during World War II. Both times, Italian chocolatiers added hazelnuts to chocolate to stretch what little cocoa they had on-hand. Though there’s also a narrative that suggests that this hazelnut and chocolate combo existed in France before then.
Early versions of Gianduia (the name actually comes from the name of an Italian theatrical character) came as a super thick block you could slice. Today, Gianduia comes as a candy, and as a spreadable “cream,” similar to Nutella.
We’re all about fresh pasta when we can get it, but (good) dried pasta is where it’s at too because it’s shelf-stable, meaning we can reach for it at a moment’s notice whenever a pasta craving hits (which is often, tbh). That said, we like to reach for the traditional stuff made with durum wheat flour. And bonus points if the pasta was dried at a low temperature to really coax out all of the nutty flavors of the wheat, and cut with bronze dies (which creates a rough texture for sauce to cling to), like pastas from Martelli (from Tuscany) and Mancini, in the Marche region in eastern Italy.
Cannellini (fagioli), garbanzo beans (known as ceci in Italian), and lentils are like the jack-of-all-trades of Italian ingredients, meaning they can play a supporting role in side dishes, and in spreads, or be the star of soups, stews, and pastas. Beans are eaten all over Italy, including in regional dishes like chickpea-forward pasta e ceci popular in the Lombardy and Piedmont regions, or Tuscan-style vegetable soup.
When a craving for something warm and comforting like polenta strikes, having cornmeal in our pantry is a must. Not just any cornmeal though, but preferably the kind made from a specific variety of corn–otto file (eight-row flint)–if possible for maximum flavor and a richer mouthfeel. In a pinch, medium to coarse-ground cornmeal works too.
The beauty of this porridge-like northern Italian staple is its versatility. Stir in butter or olive oil for extra creaminess, and cheese for a little something extra. Or, serve it alongside proteins, top with roasted vegetables, or let it cool so it hardens. Then you can go ham and bake it, toast it, or fry it before serving.
No Italian pantry is complete without a variety of nuts like hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, and walnuts, especially when you’re making Italian sweets and baked goods. We’re talking ice cream, cakes, and other desserts from sbrisolona to torta della nonna. On the savory side of things, blend them into a classic basil pesto, and serve them as a light snack during aperitivo.
As far as classic Italian ingredients goes, olives are indispensable. Keep them in stock for everything from aperitivo hour, a casual backyard picnic to pair with bread and cheese, or as a topping when making focaccia. They’ll typically come in a brine to temper its natural bitterness, or cured in olive oil. We’re fans of green and buttery Castelvetrano olives from Sicily and the Taggiasca olives from Italy’s northwestern parts.
Whether dried or fresh, no Italian pantry is complete without herbs like basil, thyme, sage, rosemary, bay leaf, flat-leaf parsley, and mint. Between pastas, risottos, and antipasti dishes, and roasted dishes to stocks and stews, one can never have enough of these classic Italian herbs on hand.
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Okay, now it's time to stock up your panty with all the Italian essential ingredients then share your creations with us by tagging @saltandwind and #swsociety on social!
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Photography: Opening photo by NATAŠA MANDIĆ, dried pasta by Patrick Tomasso, pistachios by Joanna, Kosinka, all other photos by Team Salt & Wind Travel