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Lettuce Risotto, Pasta Water Pick-Me-Ups & 10 Other Italian Tips We Love

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Not all of us have a nonna to teach us how to cook—how to turn stale bread into soup or form gnudi by feel, or make desserts most haven't heard of. And for those who did, oh, how lucky you are.

Our 11 Favorite Italian Cookbooks

Our 11 Favorite Italian Cookbooks by Marian Bull

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The Traditional Italian Dessert You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The Traditional Italian Dessert You’ve Probably Never Hea... by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

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The rest of us have cookbooks. Instead of nonna, we have the words of Italian cooking greats like Marcella Hazan and Lidia Bastianich. Instead of listening, we read: Yes, cheese can be paired with seafood, albeit very judiciously. No, mozzarella isn't always the best topping for pizza. Yes, you can add lettuce to risotto and it won't be weird at all. Really—see below for why, plus more of our favorite Italian cooking tips.

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Paccheri with Swordfish Ragu
Paccheri with Swordfish Ragu

From The Scarpetta Cookbook by Scott Conant: When it comes to cheese and seafood pasta, bread crumbs are a better bet.

Anchovy and mozzarella, for example, is a classic combination, and one that makes sense; the mild cheese does not overwhelm the briny fish. But what sometimes gets me is when people, almost out of habit, automatically grate cheese over their pasta without any thought to the fact that a strong grating can easily overwhelm the delicate flavor of most seafood. I don’t always side with tradition when it comes to Italian cooking, but in this case I do: In the south of Italy, when people want that same kind of texture that grated cheese adds, they look to bread crumbs...

How-to: If you find yourself reaching for Parmesan to top or toss with seafood pasta: Stop. Do as Conant does and toast some panko bread crumbs in olive oil in a small saucepan (you can add chopped, fresh herbs like parsley), let cool, then use.

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Radicchio Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts and Capers
Radicchio Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts and Capers

From Saveur: Italian Comfort by The Editors of Saveur: Chicories make for a better (and bitter) side.

Chicories are a diverse group of greens—though they are often white and purple as well—that are widely grown in Italy and play a key role in many regional dishes. Prized for their crunch and bitterness, they complement richer ingredients like nuts and sweet fruits, as well as fish, poultry, and sharp cheeses.

How-to: Use radicchio in pastas, salads, or try charring it; add escarole to soups and stews; pair puntarelle with an anchovy-heavy dressing.

Kalamata Olive Gnocchi
Kalamata Olive Gnocchi

From Cooking with Italian Grandmothers by Jessica Theroux: A box grater is gnocchi's best friend.

To create light, pillowy gnocchi, make sure that your dough is neither too wet nor overworked. Armida uses the fine markings of the back of her cheese grater to mark the gnocchi; I recommend using the fine side of a box grater to do this, or forming the gnocchi and running them along a wire whisk to mark them.

How-to: Once you’ve formed your gnocchi into small balls, take your a box grater and, pressing your thumb into the dough, roll it down the grater “roughly for about an inch.” Then, roll the dough in reverse, releasing your thumb and the dough from the grater. “In doing so, a concave pillow-shaped gnocchi will have formed,” Theroux says.

Bagna Cauda (Piedmontese Warm Garlic-Anchovy Dip)
Bagna Cauda (Piedmontese Warm Garlic-Anchovy Dip)

From Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan: Bagna cauda is the best dip you don’t make often enough.

The flavors and sensations of the winter season are nowhere more affectingly celebrated than at a Piedmontese table when the bagna cauda is brought out: They are expressed by the austere taste of the cardoons, artichokes, scallions, and Jerusalem artichokes and others that form the classic assortment of dipping greens; by the cold of the raw vegetable softened by the heat of the sauce; by the spritzy, astringent impact of the newly racked wine that is its traditional accompaniment.

How-to: First, make bagna cauda. Second, eat with the aforementioned vegetables and others like broccoli, spinach, celery, carrots, radishes, asparagus, and zucchini.

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Pizza Dough + Margherita Pie
Jim Lahey's No-Knead Pizza Dough + Margherita Pie

From My Pizza by Jim Lahey and Rick Flaste: We should be stockpiling stracciatella for all our pizza-topping needs.

In Italian, stracciatella means shreds. As a cheese, it’s a soft form of mozzarella that melts very quickly, becoming molten almost instantly. In Italy it’s often used in soups. With pizza, you’ll find that stracciatella placed on the hot pie just out of the oven turns the pizza into a masterpiece that looks like you slaved and worried over it—when in fact you surely didn’t.

How-to: Take your favorite recipe for, say, margherita pizza and use stracciatella in place of mozzarella, only adding the cheese after the pie’s come out of the oven. Lahey instructs you to distribute the stracciatella in clumps all over the pie, top with arugula, drizzle with olive oil, slice, and serve.

Note: Lahey warns stracciatella isn’t widely available, so look for it in specialty stores.

Leek Risotto
Leek Risotto

From Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich: Next time you make risotto, add lettuce.

Risotto is always a delicious option for dinner, but for those times when you have nothing to flavor your risotto with, look in the salad bin of your refrigerator and make a great risotto with your salad greens. ...Another great, economical version is with the tough outer leaves of any salad green you have in the refrigerator. Use the tender, heart part of the greens to toss a green salad alongside the risotto.

How-to: To make risotto alla lattuga, take your favorite recipe for risotto and add 8 ounces of shredded lettuce leaves (the book suggests romaine or Bibb) before you begin to add the stock, letting the lettuce first cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.

How to Make a Better Leafy Salad Without a Recipe
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How to Make a Better Leafy Salad Without a Recipe

From My Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy: Do as they do in Rome and make salad sans recipe.

The traditional Roman salad is misticanza ('a mixture of things'): an assortment of leaves, field herbs, and aromatic shoots collected at the first signs of spring from the fields around Rome, then eaten as a salad...We may not have a field to collect herbs and aromatic shoots from, but it’s still possible to assemble a misticanza of an assortment of green leaves and herbs from your garden or market, such as baby lettuce, arugula, mâche, radicchio, escarole, watercress, sorrel, baby borage, and dandelion. You need a combination of tender green leaves, some small crispy ones, something strong and peppery, and something very soft.

How-to: Take a variety of greens, as Roddy suggests, and dress them simply with salt, lemon juice, vinegar (either red wine or balsamic) and extra-virgin olive oil.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Spaghetti Carbonara

From La Cucina: The Regional Cuisine of Italy by The Italian Academy of Cuisine: Need a pick-me-up? Try some pasta water.

Born as a simple and popular relief against winter chills, scattone owed most of its invigorating effect to a pinch of pepper or even the addition of a chopped diavolino chili pepper. Because of these healthful benefits or simply for the pleasure of remaining true to tradition, it can sometimes still be found served as a kind of rustic ‘consommé.’ For the woman of the house, making this is like showing off a small jewel that belonged to her grandmother.

How-to: The traditional name for this drink is scattone, however the book also calls it “Pasta-Water Pick-Me-Up.” To make it, take about 1 cup of water from the pasta pot (ideally, the book says, when the pasta’s half-cooked). Then, pour this into a cup, add ¼ cup red wine, and a pinch of pepper, and serve hot.

How to Make Fridge Pickles Without a Recipe
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How to Make Fridge Pickles Without a Recipe

From Family Italian by Gennaro Contaldo: Eggplant pickles are a thing—and deservedly so.

My family loves this tasty way of preserving eggplants. My wife Liza always makes a large quantity to be enjoyed at Christmas with our antipasto of cured meats. Everyone who tries them wants the recipe.

How-to: You’re going to follow a quasi-standard pickling procedure here, being sure to salt your eggplants about an hour before you intend to start pickling. Then, squeeze out the excess liquid, cover with white wine vinegar, wrap in plastic, and let sit for an hour. Drain again and squeeze out the excess vinegar. Then, place the eggplant into jars (sterilized, if you canning), add some thinly sliced garlic and chili, and dried oregano. Make sure the eggplant is packed snugly and cover with more oil if not submerged. For canning, proceed with pasteurizing and cooling.

Pesto alla Genovese
Pesto alla Genovese

From Italian Kitchen by Anna Del Conte: While it might to be super traditional, butter makes pesto better.

I add a little softened butter to the pesto just before serving to make the sauce sweeter and more delicate. Before tossing the pesto with the pasta, always dilute it with 3 or 4 tbsp of the water in which the pasta was cooked.

How-to: Melt butter over low heat, then blend into your pesto. If you want to go real Italian à la Liguria ("the motherland of pesto") and Genoa, use trofie and add a few boiled, peeled, and sliced new potatoes and blanched haricot verts or green beans.

Have a favorite Italian cooking tip? Tell us in the comments below!