Tag Archives: Italian pantry

The Italian Pantry: Beans

Italians keep a number of types of beans in their pantry. We always keep packages and/or cans of lentils, cannellini beans and ceci (chickpeas). In addition, we have jars of lupini beans.

What is it used for? With lentils, we make lentil soup or lentils with pasta like in the lentil with pasta recipe on my blog.

With cannellini beans, we make pasta fazool/pasta fagioli like the pasta fazool recipe on my blog or escarole with beans. We use ceci/chickpea the same way, either in soup or with pasta. We eat the lupini beans straight out of the jar as a snack. You have to bite off the outer shell and eat only the bean on the inside, similar to edamame. Lupini beans are one of those things that *only* Italians would love. I had a boyfriend who could not understand why Italians would snack on beans.

–Dina Di Maio


The Italian Pantry: Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are another item you will see in an Italian pantry. You can make your own breadcrumbs using stale or hard Italian bread, but I think these days, most people buy Italian breadcrumbs. I’m not a huge fan of doing this in this day and age because a lot of the breadcrumbs available contain soy flour. But on the other hand, unless you live in the Bronx or a similar neighborhood, you can’t find good Italian bread anymore either…. But if you decide to make your own breadcrumbs, you can season them however you like, with some salt, pepper, grated cheese, parsley.

What is it used for? Breadcrumbs are used to make meatballs. They are an ingredient used (along with other ingredients) to stuff vegetables like artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, onions, tomatoes, peppers or mushrooms. Italians are big on stuffing vegetables. Breadcrumbs are also used as a coating for frying things like chicken cutlets, veal cutlets or eggplant. Sicilians also use breadcrumbs for other purposes like to top pasta with aglio e olio, anchovy sauce or similar sauces.

–Dina Di Maio

The Italian Pantry: Basil

Is there Italian food without basil? It’s an essential herb used in Italian cooking.

What is it used for? We use basil in our tomato sauce/gravy. You can use dried basil or fresh basil to make a tomato sauce. We also use it in tomato salads or with tomato and mozzarella. (It is the main component of pesto sauce, but pesto sauce is from Genoa and not part of our tradition.)

–Dina Di Maio

The Italian Pantry: Canned Tomatoes

Some Italians still can their own tomatoes, but most people buy them in cans in the store. There’s a debate whether fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes are best for making tomato sauce/gravy. Most Italians prefer to use canned tomatoes. Even food writer and Italian food expert Arthur Schwartz notes that Italians prefer canned tomatoes because they taste better.


What is it used for? Italians keep a variety of canned tomato products in their pantry: crushed, peeled, strained, diced, tomato sauce, tomato puree. Each of these is a different product. Canned peeled or crushed tomatoes are used for making tomato sauce/gravy. You can crush the whole tomatoes by hand or just used crushed tomatoes. Crushed are what we use most. For a lighter sauce (i.e. not the standard tomato sauce/gravy), you can use tomato sauce. (An example is my eggs and sauce dish.) For a thicker sauce or as a tomato paste, you can use tomato puree or strained tomatoes. The tomatoes can be used in soups as well.

–Dina Di Maio

The Italian Pantry: Pasta

Is there an Italian pantry without pasta? First of all, we always called pasta by its other name, macaroni, and in historical books, it is referred to as maccheroni. Food media and restaurants will tout fresh pasta as best, but that is purely subjective. (And begs the question, why can’t both be good? Oh! I know–dried macaroni is associated with Southern Italy, that’s why.) The myths about pasta/macaroni are being dispelled–it wasn’t brought to Italy from China through Marco Polo. The current thought is that it came to Sicily from the Middle East, but there is evidence that people on the Italic peninsula have been eating pasta since ancient times.

Today, Italians keep many different types of pasta shapes in their pantries. That is because pasta serves different purposes. Some are used with tomato sauce/gravy. Some are used with other sauces. And some are used in soups. The classic shapes Italians and my family have always had are spaghetti, capellini, rigatoni, ziti, penne, perciatelli, cavatelli, fettuccine, acini di pepe, ditalini, shells, ravioli, manicotti, lasagne, linguine, mafalde and gnocchi. There are many other shapes, some are regional and some are new. But I would say the ones I’ve listed are standard.

What is it used for? Our #1 use for pasta is the tomato sauce/gravy.

fusilli with ricotta

Our favorite shapes for this are spaghetti, fusilli and rigatoni, but we also like capellini, ziti, penne, cavatelli, ravioli, manicotti, gnocchi, lasagne and mafalde. We also use some of these shapes with other sauces like broccoli sauce, cauliflower sauce, aglio e olio, etc.

spaghetti with broccoli sauce

If we are making a soup like lentil or pasta fazool (pasta fagioli), then we would use ditalini or another small pasta.


If we’re making Genovese sauce, we use perciatelli. If we’re making pastina, we use acini di pepe. If we’re making a seafood-based sauce, we use linguine.

If we’re making a cream-based sauce, fettuccine or gnocchi. (However, cream-based sauces are not in our traditional repertoire.)

–Dina Di Maio

The Italian Pantry: Vinegar

Vinegar is another item that is essential to an Italian. It goes hand in hand, often, with olive oil, as in “olive oil and vinegar.” Contrary to popular belief, the vinegar of choice for most Italians is red wine vinegar, not balsamic. In fact, balsamic is not exactly a vinegar, but more of a concentrated and aged grape must. Grape must is an ancient form of sweetener used in Italy and the Mediterranean areas. True balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, Italy, which is in the Emilia-Romagna region in North-Central Italy. The majority of Italians who settled the United States were from Southern Italy, as I mention in my book, Authentic Italian, and the foodways of Italians here follow Southern Italian traditions. That is why balsamic vinegar is fairly new to the United States, although it is not a new product, but it was a regional one in Italy. Having said that, grape must was also used as a sweetener in Southern Italy. My family did not use balsamic vinegar, only red wine vinegar. In addition, the Waldensian Heritage Winery in Valdese, North Carolina, makes a red wine vinegar in addition to its wines, so I’m thinking that even though the Waldensians who settled the tiny town in the 1890s were from Northern Italy, they also used red wine vinegar traditionally.

What is it used for? The most popular use for vinegar is on salad. Italians dress their salad with olive oil, vinegar and salt. Simple and delicious!

–Dina Di Maio

The Italian Pantry: Oregano

Oregano is most associated, I think, with Greek cuisine, but it is also a staple of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. Unlike other herbs, oregano is most flavorful when dried, and you will see it sold at specialty markets on the stems, which is the best way to buy it. So you want to use dried oregano in your dishes, and Italians always have it in the pantry.

What is it used for? Italians use oregano in salads and with fish or chicken. We make a tomato salad with oregano. We season fish and chicken with lemon, olive oil and oregano. Oregano is also a component of sauce for pizza.

–Dina Di Maio