Looking at Italian cuisine beyond pizza,pasta and Parmesan

Published on Oct 19, 2019 10:07 PM IST

Carbs and cheese are merely a part and not the heart of Italian cuisine, affirms chef Massimiliano Sperli

Chef Massimiliano Sperli prepares pasta and other Italian dishes on the spot
Chef Massimiliano Sperli prepares pasta and other Italian dishes on the spot
Hindustan Times | By

Just utter the words ‘Italian food’ and cartoony thought bubbles of creamy pastas and pizzas with dollops of cheese immediately begin to pop up. But that isn’t the real nature of Italian cuisine, says Massimiliano Sperli, the Roman chef who took upon himself to introduce Indians to authentic Italian food in the Capital.

Far from the carbs and fats most of us associate with Italian food, Sperli is all for tossing up healthy Italian dishes in his kitchen, proving once and for all to anyone who hasn’t made a trip or two to Italy that pizza and pasta are merely a part, and not the heart, of this super-loved world cuisine!

Matters of fact

Cheese was always part of the traditional cuisine and each village in Italy produces its own customised cheese made of goat milk or sheep milk, cured in readiness for the winter months especially in the hilly regions because food production slows and even stops in the cold.

“Cheese is good for the health provided it’s had in small quantities and is less cured. The more cured, the heavier it is.”

“In the south of Italy we have a tradition of eating fresh cheese like mozzarella and burrata because it’s hot and therefore you cannot cure cheese well in these regions,” says chef Sperli. While the French tend to eat cheese after a meal, Italians use it for starters or antipasti, and also as pasta stuffing and as a garnish.

“It is good for health provided it’s had in small quantities and is less cured. The more cured the cheese, the heavier it is,” Sperli cautions.

Similarly, the milk used to prepare the cheese decides its fat content. For instance, goat milk is healthier and therefore the cheese made from it is lighter too.

“During the era of the Roman empire, the most basic pasta was made with water and flour and then dried in the sun. Over the centuries, this evolved and now we have different kinds of pasta,” explains the chef. “As for the first pizza, as everyone knows, it was from Naples and was made in honour of Queen Margherita, using bread, tomatoes, mozzarella, olives and basil. And then it began to be called pizza as it was round,” he adds.

Pasta and pizza, however, are just part of Italian cuisine which, like the cuisines of India differs from region to region. “The main part is meat and fish dishes. People living along the coast eat a lot of fish, those who are mountain-based are big on meat and cheese, and those who work in farms focus on fresh vegetables,” explains the chef.

Sperli’s pizzas are healthy as they’re made using wholemeal dough that’s prepared with apple and pear-based natural yeast
Sperli’s pizzas are healthy as they’re made using wholemeal dough that’s prepared with apple and pear-based natural yeast

These are had with bread, which is a must. “Earlier on, people ate these with wholemeal bread and today, wholemeal is in fashion again as it is healthier, the flavour is more rustic and it is rich in vitamins and minerals,” says Sperli. “In South Italy, semolina-based bread with salt is a staple while in Tuscany the bread is without salt because Tuscan food is heavy and salty and the salt-less bread balances it out.”

Likewise, the heaviness of dishes differs according to region. North Italy, closer to Germany, relies on butter and cream, while in the south, it’s all very Mediterranean.for the Indian palate

The good news: Indians are slowly, yet steadily, understanding and adapting to the healthy part of Italian cuisine. “People, especially youngsters, are travelling to various parts of Italy. When they visit, they understand what the authentic food is like beyond the creamy and cheese-laden versions,” says the chef.

Veggies are a vital part of the Italian cusine
Veggies are a vital part of the Italian cusine

So when we met this well- known chef, he helped dispel these common misbeliefs of Italian cuisine. He wants to present the real Italian cuisine to the new, health-conscious generation. Everything is made in olive oil and cooked on the spot, except for the braised meats.

“We use fresh ingredients and the pizza is made using wholemeal dough that’s prepared with apple and pear-based natural yeast. Even the risotto is not pre-cooked,” he says.

As for his Indian guests, he whipped up succulent lamb shanks, a classic and very popular dish, and recommends a healthy minestrone soup laced with legumes and veggies to his guests. “And 99 per cent of the time, people are happy!” says Sperli cheerfully. “We are on the right path but treading slowly.”

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From HT Brunch, October 20, 2019

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Lubna Salim is the chief content producer with Brunch. A lifestyle journalist for seven years, she writes on fashion, food, travel and all things luxurious.

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