This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
This is a comprehensive guide to Italian ingredients, from seasoning to spices, from herbs to cheese. All you need to have in your kitchen to cook most Italian classic recipes. All the main Italian ingredients and their main use in the traditional recipes. A printable shopping list at the end.
This post is part 2 of 4 article series: Organize your kitchen and eat healthily.
I go shopping only once per week to stock up my kitchen with all essentials (sauce, meat, carbs and seasoning), I only buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season and looks fresh and plan my meals accordingly.
The Italian way of cooking
The principle of Italian cooking is “making something delicious from whatever ingredients you have”. That is why this philosophy well applies to my article: A Family Meal Planner Based On Fresh Vegetables
Going all the way back to the Roman Empire, Italians have always enjoyed lavish banquets but while the rich would have access to the most expensive and refined produce and meat, the rest of the Italians had to eat whatever was available to them. The same happened throughout the centuries with the Popes and the aristocracy accessing the best and leaving everybody else with the rest.
Luckily enough, the Mediterranean climate produces a wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables, therefore even the poor could make wonderful dishes “la cucina povera”.
As long as you have fresh, local seasonal ingredients, you can make wonders.
Each region its tradition, each ingredient its place
Because Italian cuisine is based on local ingredients, it is very regionalized, and in addition, each region has a different influence of the various invasions and trades throughout history. So in the South of Italy, we find a lot of Arab and Spanish ingredients, like fruits in savoury dishes, nuts, very sweet desserts. While in the North a stronger French influence, therefore a more recurrent use of butter and cream.
After the unification of Italy, a lot of recipes travelled nationwide, and variations to traditional recipes were added locally. That is why it is very difficult to talk about “A” (meaning only one) Traditional recipe as often there are variations of the same throughout Italy.
However, there are some basic rules all Italians follow: each ingredient has its place, like no cheese with seafood, no chicken with pasta, no pineapple on pizza nor balsamic vinegar on Caprese. The list is long complex but if one of those rules are broken, the recipe is kicked out of the “traditional Italian” enclosed circle and there is no way back in!
Why the same recipe has many names
You may get confused sometimes as the same recipe may be called or made in different ways. Tuscan and Neapolitan names and versions are often the most commonly known, however other Italian regions will have different names and versions.
Why Tuscan and Neapolitan versions are the most common? The reason is very simple:
It is the region where the Italian mother tongue was born. Before the unification of Italy, each region had its own dialect and starting from Dante Alighieri in the 14th century, Tuscan was proposed as a possible unified language. Many more followed: Petrarca, Boccaccio, Macchiavelli and the Accademia della Crusca. However, the Tuscan dialect was mainly used by the scholars and the aristocrats.
After the unification of Italy, the first book wrote in “Italian language” was published The Betrothed by Manzoni in 1827. Even if Manzoni was from Milan and spoke Milanese dialect and French, he used the Tuscan dialect (specifically Florentine) and suggested to the Ministry of Education Broglio to introduce Tuscan dialect in the school as the official Italian language.
During that same period, Pellegrino Artusi (from Tuscany) published a recipe book “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” which became the first book of Italian cuisine written in Italian. In fact, he published this book 2 decades after the unification of Italy and for the first time he was able to include many traditional recipes from all Italian regions.
Contrary to what many believe, Naples cuisine is more linked to the aristocracy than farmers and their “cucina povera”. It goes back to the 18th century when the fame of French cuisine was rapidly spreading around the world. Maria Carolina of Austria, the wife of Ferdinando IV di Borbone king of Naples and Sicily, had a passion for the French cuisine and hired French chefs to prepare the meals at the palace.
Soon all the aristocracy follow the trend and many French chefs moved to Naples to cook for the local aristocracy and wealthy families. As the cuisine in the South of Italy was already rich with delicious local produce from the warm and fertile land, soon the Neapolitan cuisine became a sophisticated combination of French techniques and Southers ingredients.
From this combination, many Neapolitan recipes were called with French names adapted to local dialect like Ragu’, Sartu’, Gatto’. A local name was also given to the French chefs who were working for the most wealthy families: Monsu’, an adapted pronunciation of the French word: monsieur.
Monsu’ were regarded as celebrities and had their fame and recognition. In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which includes the entire South of Italy), those Monsu created many recipes using local ingredients and pass those creations and love for food to the generations to come. This is how the Neapolitan cuisine and the Southern ingredients claimed their fame worldwide.
Ingredients in the Italian cuisine
Ingredients and their quality are at the centre of any Italian recipe, and thanks to the Italian climate and biodiversity they are mostly sourced locally. So here is the list of the Italian ingredients you will find in most Italian homes despite the region, and my recommendation for the best quality brands to buy.
You can find the list to print at the end of the article.
I am a participant in Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Affiliate advertising programs are designed to provide a means for Bloggers such as “Your Guardian chef” to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and other affiliated sites. All links are selected by me, I would not recommend a product I don’t use my self on a regular basis. You can read hee my disclaimer
List of Italian Ingredients
- Salt: no need for much explanation
- Coarse salt: usually used in boiling water to cook pasta or vegetables
- Black pepper: freshly grated in most dishes
- White pepper: more delicate than the black and less spicy
- Extra virgin olive oil: it is made with only the first press of the olives. It has to have specific characteristics and is mainly used raw for seasoning. You can read more about different types of olive oils in the article: 5 Bruschette Toppings Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I usually buy my extra virgin olive oil from a friend who produces it around 5 gallons – 20 litres per year, some times I receive it as a present. I recommend buying your extra virgin olive oil from a respectable producer in your own country.
- Cube stock (chicken, vegetable, beef): used often instead of salt to flavour stews or minestrone
- Saffron: used in light fish stews, pasta or rice sauces. The most famous the classic risotto alla Milanese served with osso buco (bone marrow)
- Nutmeg: used to flavour white sauce, bechamel or stews
- Vinegar (red or white): it is made by adding vinegar yeast to red or white wine and used for seasoning. It can also be made with other ingredients like apple cider, honey, beer and other
- Balsamic vinegar: it is very different from the regular vinegar as it is more complex to make and requires years 12 to 25 years to mature. The balsamic vinegar you buy at the supermarket is probably not a real balsamic vinegar, check the labels and make sure it is Made in Modena. You can use it for cooking, that is fine. But if you want to use it for seasoning you should try the real one. I buy mine at the Acetaia San Giacomo.
Italian rule: never use Balsamic vinegar on Caprese salad. Those two ingredients do not mix, Caprese is from the South of Italy, Isle of Capri. Balsamic vinegar is from Modena, North of Italy.
- Olive oil: different from extra virgin olive oil as it is made by pressing the olives several times and vegetable oil is added to adjust acidity. Mostly used for cooking. You can read more about different types of olive oils in the article: 5 Bruschette Toppings Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Other vegetable oils: a lighter olive used for frying. I prefer peanut oil as it can reach a higher temperature without deteriorating into complex molecules that can be cancerogenic. Extra virgin olive oil can also reach high temperature but it will lose its flavour. Since it is an expensive oil, it is not worth to use it.
- Butter: used for sauces and cooking more in the North of Italy than in the South, depending on the recipes if it is of French origin. Generally speaking butter in Italy is not as good as in France and England. Some people claim because the milk in Italy is used to make Parmiggiano Reggiano
- Lard: not as easy to find these days, it can be substituted with butter or duck fat.
- Carnaroli or Arborio Rice: best rice for risotto is Carnaroli, second-best Arborio. The rice is also used for Timbale or Arancini, fried risotto rice filled with meat or cheese. You can find all my recipes with rice in the category: Rice. I buy Riso Gallo but it is not available in USA.
- Pasta: can be of different forms or shape, dry or fresh. Each shape is used with a different sauce based on how well they mix and combine together. My favourite brands are in order of preference, Rummo, Garofalo, Voilello, De Cecco. You can find all my pasta recipes on the category: Pasta
- Pulse: chickpeas, beans and lentils are very common in Italian cuisine. They are cooked as a side dish, in soups or with pasta. they are a great alternative to meat. I prefer them dry but you can also buy them in cans.
- Flours: typically the flour sold in Italy is type 00 equivalent of pastry flour, in France type 45. The flour best for pizza is type 0, the equivalent of all-purpose flour. The best for pizza and bread is flour Manitoba which has a high percentage of proteins. You can find all my pizza recipes on the category: pizza
- Semolina flour: it is made from hard wheat and it is used to make pasta
- Polenta: it is a flour made of cornmeal it is a type of porridge usually served with a creamy stew or sausages
- Cornstarch: it is a starch derived from corn and it is used to thicken sauces and gravy. It is lighter than flour, however, flour can be used as a substitute
- Stale bread: Italians never throw away stale bread as it is used to make breadcrumbs, a very common ingredient in many Italian recipes.
- Grissini: dry crunchy breadsticks that are used as bread or for appetizers
- Wheat for pastiera: it is special wheat used to make pastiera, a classic Easter dessert
- Mayonnaise: I usually make it myself at home. If I buy it, I like the french brand Benedicta
- Mustard: I like spicy mustard like the English Colmans’ or the French in grains Maille
- Aioli: it is mayonnaise with garlic, I either make it or buy the Benedicta
Preserves for condiment:
- Tomato sauce: I don’t think there is an Italian household without a stock of tomato sauce. I like to make it myself in September and stock up for the winter. In the Southern countryside, preserving tomato sauce is like a social event and they make it in a barrel. However, if I buy it, buy Mutti.
- Concentrated tomato paste: it is a tomato sauce which has been boiled until it thickens like a paste. It is used to give colour, enrich the taste and thicken the sauce. I use it on my black ink pasta.
- Olives: There are many varieties, black, green, large, small, pitted and not. They are used as appetizers, in different recipes or in the salads. It is handy to always have a jar at home, they are very versatile. You can also buy or make the tapenade, an olive paste that can be served as a spread for an appetizer.
- Dried hot chilli: The chilli peppers are hung with strings and added to dishes to make them spicy. Chillis are also preserved in a good quality extra virgin olive oil to make a spicy oil for seasoning.
- Anchovies: they are sold in jars stored in oil or salt. I prefer the one stored in salt as you never know what oil is used in the commercial jars. They need to be rinsed and deboned before use. They are used for seasoning instead of salt, either mixed in a blender like the dressing in Puntarelle alla Romana or melted in a pan with olive oil and garlic like in the pissaladiere. They are also added in salads as filet like in the Nicoise or in the Ceasar salad.
- Capers: they are flower buds used as herbs to add flavour to sauces, salads and mixed with vegetables like in the caponata. Like basil, oregano and parsley, they are standard ingredients in every Italian kitchen. They have a strong flavour so they are normally used in small quantities. As the anchovies are stored in salt or olive oil. I always prefer the ones stored in salt as they have more flavours. In the South of Italy, capers plants grow naturally on the rocks or supporting walls of the streets. If you look up the ancient Roman walls in Rome you will see them.
- Tuna: every Italian kitchen has several cans of tuna stored in extra-virgin olive oil as a backup when you have nothing in the fridge. You can make a meal in no time: green salad, rice salad or pasta. I always buy tuna stored in a glass jar as you can see the quality of the filet. A brand I love is Callipo. For unusual idea, you can find my recipe Tuna Meat Loaf
- Vegetables preserved in olive oil: there are so many vegetables Italians love to store in jars to preserve them while they are in season: mushrooms, eggplants, artichokes, sundried tomatoes. They are a great resource of vegetables to serve with cheese and ham for light evening meals. No cooking required, just a large fresh loaf of sourdough bread. Be aware of homemade preserves as if not prepared correctly they can develop a dangerous life treating bacteria called Botulinum.
- Truffles: They are wild mushrooms that grow underground, their taste is very special. It is not found in every Italian kitchen as it is expensive and used more as a treat. It is sold stored in jars, rice or salt. Personally I prefer using it fresh (Pasta with fresh truffle) or the one stored in jars as a cream mixed with wild mushrooms (Gnocchi with truffle).
- Jams and marmalades: as vegetable preserves, fruits preserves like jams and marmalades are always stocked up on Italian’s pantries. Beside having bread and jam for breakfast, Italian make wonderful short pastry cakes with jams that last for the week: crostata. You can find my homemade jams made with apricot and peaches.
Nuts and dried fruits:
- Nuts: Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pinenuts are used in Italian cuisine not only for desserts but also on savoury dishes: Genovese pesto, Sicilian pesto, caponata. They are particularly famous the Sicilian almonds and pistachios grown in Bronte at the Etna slopes
- Dried fruits: it is a common way to preserve fruits in Italy especially in the south where the sun is very strong during the summer. Most of the fruits in season during the summer are preserved by drying them in the sun. These dried fruits are used in cakes and pastry throughout the year, especially at Christmas
- Dried vegetables: the most common dried vegetables are tomatoes and Porcini mushrooms. They are in season in august right when the sun is strong and they can be preserved by drying under the sun. The Porcini mushrooms are then re-hydrated by adding boiling water. They are used for condiment for pasta or risotto. The sundried tomatoes are used in many different ways, they can be added into savoury pies, preserved in jars covered with oil or used for pesto.
- Candied fruits: Another way to preserve fruits is by cooking them in sugar. These fruits are cut in small bits and used in many desserts, the most well-known is the Panettone, the Sicilian Cassata. They should be added also to the Easter cake pastiera and to the struffoli, but frankly I rather not.
Herbs are a fundamental ingredient in Italian cuisine, the most used are:
- Basil: one of the main herb used in Italian cooking. Used as often as you can with any meal made with cheese, vegetables and meat. Use as much as you can. Most of the time is sold as a plant as it is best to use fresh. Most common pasta seasoning is the pesto alla Genovese
- Parsley: Parsley is also used very often more specifically with seafood. It is more traditional to use parsley instead of basil in seafood recipes.
- Origanum: it can be used fresh or dried, it preserves well dried and it is an easy herb to have all year round. Mostly used for tomato sauce, tomato salad, potatoes, roasted meat. It is very versatile.
- Mint: It can be used for dessert as well as savoury plates. Often used mixed with roasted summer vegetables like eggplants and zucchini.
- Bay leaves: Used in any stew or minestrone to add flavour. Removed when serving the dish.
- Garlic: very common in many Italian recipes but not always in large quantity. It is often stir-fried with olive oil at the beginning of the recipe then removed. Famous garlic sauce is the bagna cauda used to dip fresh vegetables.
- Sage: often used with meat, especially pork and chicken. Great with potatoes in particular gnocchi.
- Rosemary: used mostly for a roast, both meat or vegetable roasts like potatoes or squash.
- Fennel seeds: used in many Italian sausages, pork recipes and pulse
- Lemon and lemon zest: lemon juice and zest are commonly used in the Italian cuisine for seasoning as well as flavouring pastries and cakes. An essential ingredient in the Italian kitchen.
- Onion: stirfried with butter or olive oil at the beginning of many recipes. Before you make risotto, for example, the rice is first stir-fried with butter and onion.
- Soffritto: a mix of onion, carrot and celery stirfried and used as a based for many sauces, stew and condiment.
- Bouquet garni: it is a French word which is now commonly used in Italian. It is a bunch of herbs tied together to flavour stews or broth or any dish that requires cooking for a long time. I usually use bay leaves, rosemary wrapped inside a leek leaf. It is removed before serving
Cheese is an important ingredient in Italian cuisine, these are the most commonly used however there are many other. One important rule in Italian cuisine is that cheese is never served with seafood, however, there are some rare exceptions.
- Parmiggiano Reggiano: Originally from Parma, it is the most used cheese in Italian cuisine. A hard cheese made with cow’s milk and grated on most dishes especially pasta ( not seafood). A less expensive alternative is Grana Padano. The difference in the taste is very subtle if the cheese is used for seasoning. It is more generally called Parmesan in English.
- Pecorino: Pecorino is the alternative to Parmesan but made with sheep’s milk and locally produced mostly everywhere in Italy. It is spicier than Parmesan. It can be found fresh as well as matured at different ages. The more it is matured the harder and spicier it gets.
- Ricotta: Ricotta is a cheese made by re-cooking (ri-cotta in Italian) the serum, called whey, is leftover after the milk has been curdled to make cheese. Therefore it is a cheese with a low-fat content. Usually made from cows milk, it can also be made from sheep or goats milk. It is used to make savoury dishes like quiche or pasta but also for desserts like pastiera or for cakes to replace butter. There is also a dried and salted ricotta that is used to flavour many dishes of which the most famous Pasta alla Norma with eggplants
- Mozzarella: it is a spun paste ( pasta filata) cheese, made using a technique called pulled-curd. There are different types that can be eaten fresh or more solid to use for cooking like pizza or lasagna. You can read more about the cheese in the recipes: Pasta Caprese
- Stracchino: Stracchino is a cheese made of cow milk originated from the Lombardia region. It is also called Crescenza, which is the same cheese but seasoned only for 20 to 60 days. It is creamy and fresh, it has a sweet and fresh taste like a creamy mozzarella. I use it on pizza with pesto and it is delicious also in sandwiches with prosciutto
- Scamorza: scamorza is small and round and can be natural or smoked. It has the same shape as a mozzarella and looks like a cured aged mozzarella. It is stretchy and chewy and can be used as a filling for rice arancini, pizze or meatloaf. Especially the smoked one has a prominent flavour and it is best to use it in a rustic, decadent dish. It is great grilled
- Provola: Provola is very similar to scamorza but has usually a longer shape. It is stringy but less chewy and has a subtler taste versus the scamorza. It can be used for more sophisticated dishes and combined with more delicate flavours. They are produced in different Italian regions and their taste might vary. It is great grilled
- Gorgonzola: it is a blue Italian cheese made by cow’s milk. it is usually creamy and sweet with a bite from the mould. It is used in many dishes in particular as a sauce for pasta or gnocchi.
Ingredients for Desserts
- Chocolate: black, milk or white there is always a supply of chocolate for cakes or desserts. Not to miss the Caprese cake, an Italian classic made with no flour.
- Cocoa: it is used in recipes as well as for decoration sprinkled on top like in the tiramisu.
- Yeast: it is used to make fresh bread rolls or pizza dough. However, to make the crusty sourdough bread you find at the Italian bakery you need the mother yeast called in Italian “Lievito Madre”. Not many Italians will have a Lievito Madre as it requires daily maintenance and cure, very time-consuming.
- Baking powder: “lievito in polvere” is used for cake and it is usually sold in small 1 dose package flavoured with vanilla
- Sugar: for baking and making desserts the most common sugar used is castor sugar. The icing sugar is mostly used for decoration or to make meringues. We also use brown sugar but it is rarer.
- Honey: it is a very common ingredient in the Italian desserts, often used as caramel to coat struffoli or make Torrone
- Essences: Vanilla, Orange blossom water, Cinnamon they are all flavours which are very common in Italian desserts. A proper Italian kitchen will always have a stock of them
- Sprinkle of pralines: coloured sugar sprinkles to add colour and make any dessert more festive
- Coffee: most of the Italians are coffee lovers and they would always have a box of their favourite espresso beans. My favourite is definitely Illy.
- Wine: forget about coke or soft drinks, Italians will have wine on their table to drink with their meals, but also use wine to blend ingredients while cooking.
- Cooking liquors: the most common liquors used in Italian cooking are Marsala (a sweet wine) or cognac. Often used to blend with meat or in desserts
- Liqueur or digestive: all Italian will have some digestive to serve to their guests at the end of the meal. Some bought in stores, some made at home. If you want to see my selection of homemade liqueurs you can check their recipes in the category: Homemade liqueurs
To complete the shopping list, don’t forget to add the following ingredients. You can print the list below or follow the links to do your online shopping:
- Homemade chicken, brown and fish stock
- Juice or soft drinks
To help you further, in the following articles you will find ideas on cuts of meat, seafood, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and recipes ideas:
- Beef Cuts Diagram for French and Italian Recipes
- Pork Cuts Names And How to Cook Them
- Lamb Cuts (in French and Italian)
- Swordfish Meat: Buying Fresh, Cooking Choices
- What Are Calamari Squid Cuttlefish and Octopus
- Variety of Local Unusual Fruits and Vegetables to Create a Festive Spirit
Follow the series with the next article:
Hope you find this article helpful, please if you have any questions, write them in the comments below and I will be happy to respond and help. You can find delicious ideas if you FOLLOW ME on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram or sign up to my newsletter.
📋 Clipboard (ingredients)
Preserves for condiment
Nuts and dried fruits:
Ingredients for Desserts
- Cooking liquors
- Liqueur or digestive
Other main ingredients
- Breakfast cerials
- fresh eggs
- Juices and soft drinks