A visit to one of the Italian markets in the Washington area reveals pretty much everything you could once find only in New York’s Little Italy. The relatively small number of local shops might, in fact, be a sign of Italian cuisine’s success in America, as increasing amounts of Italian imported goods are available in supermarkets across the country.
But step into a local Italian market, and you’ll find enthusiastic owners presenting imported olive oil and wine labels you cannot find anywhere else. The fresh mozzarella and fresh pastas might be house-made, as they are at Vace locations. And there are the other ingredients, much less common, that can elevate a cook’s pantry to the status of a true international extravaganza. Some examples:
Bottarga. Cured fish roe (typically grey mullet or tuna), either pressed or dried, is considered “poor-man’s caviar” and is popular all around the Mediterranean for its umami intensity. It’s extremely important to either grate the bottarga or shave it to almost transparent slices; otherwise, the flavor will overwhelm you. Shave it on top of warm potatoes or use it instead of anchovies in your favorite recipes.
Not all the local markets carry it, but you can find both kinds of bottarga at the Italian Store in Arlington and at Gemelli’s Italian Market in Gaithersburg, Md.
Guanciale. While pancetta and prosciutto are widely available in many chain supermarkets, the cured, unsmoked pork jowl that gives classic dishes such as pasta all’Amatriciana, pasta carbonara and pasta alla Gricia their distinctive flavor and texture is available primarily in Italian shops. Use all your patience and cook chopped guanciale very slowly, starting with a cool pan, and you’ll get candylike, fat morsels of flavor.
Umbrian chickpeas and lentils. The tiniest lentils come from the high plains of the Castelluccio village in the Apennines. They’re full of flavor like no other — rich, earthy and creamy — and they keep their shape after cooking, much like the French variety. These lentils won the European Union’s IGP (Protected Geographic Indication) recognition.
Not as famous, but just as good, are the Umbrian chickpeas, smaller than the chickpeas that are widely available. Umbrian chickpeas are known for their concentrated flavor. And if you find Umbrian beans, borlotti or cannellini, get them, too. They’re more expensive than the beans you’ll find in the supermarket but definitely worth it.
Use the beans and lentils in your regular legume recipes; just remember that they don’t need much added flavor. Just olive oil and a little salt are enough.
Cicerchie. This is another Umbrian legume (Lathyrus sativus) that’s also popular in Asia, East Africa and the Middle East. Its flavor is earthy, something between that of a chickpea and a fava bean, with a smooth texture. Use it in soups and stews and in any recipe that calls for legumes. (As addictive as its flavor might be, this legume contains a neurotoxin that may cause paralysis of the lower body, but only with excessive consumption over a few months. Regular consumption is completely safe.) As of press time, Cicerchie are available locally through Via Umbria in Georgetown.
Olive oil. You’ll find Italian brands that aren’t in the supermarkets, categorized by some shop owners as “the good olive oil, the medium olive oil and the cheap olive oil.” Expensive, extra-virgin, cold-pressed oils typically are used for salads and finishing touches, while the less expensive ones are used for frying and cooking.
Squid ink. Suitable for long-term storage in your refrigerator or freezer, this black sea essence is like a strong fish sauce or anchovy paste. It can easily transform risottos (add about 2 teaspoons of squid ink per cup of rice), tomato sauces (start with 1 tablespoon for 2 cups of sauce) and sauces for grilled or roasted fish. As a start, you can try adding a teaspoon to a simple butter and garlic sauce and serve it over pasta. Or mix a teaspoon into aioli and serve with fried calamari. Continue experimenting from there.
Italian pine nuts. Expensive; they taste better than the average imported-from-China variety you often find in supermarkets.
Chestnut flour, chickpea flour. Both fit on the wide shelf of an international collection of gluten-free flours. Chestnut flour will add an earthy, nutty flavor to gnocchi, pastas, crepes and cakes. Try adding chestnut flour to your stuffing mixture. It is low in protein, so mix it with regular flour when baking, or with any other high-protein flour, such as bean or soy flours. Chickpea flour is used for crepes, flatbreads and Indian dishes such as fried pakora.
Cheeses. Mozzarella (fresh and smoked), burrata, true Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino Romano and ricotta salata.
Balsamic vinegars. Make sure the first ingredient on the label is grape must (and not red wine vinegar, as is true for many so-called balsamic vinegars.) Be prepared to spend as much as $26 for 8.5 ounces,, but you can use it sparingly. It’s worth it, for dessert and for drizzling on roasted vegetables. Jelled and pearled forms of balsamic vinegar are fun to work with.
Gianduja. The wonderful invention of roasted hazelnut-flavored chocolate. And I don’t mean Nutella: Yes, most Italian stores carry the Italian-made version of that too-sweet spread, although I’m not convinced it is worth the price difference. But try a hazelnut-chocolate bar, and you’ll see how good it can get. Sadly, it’s available mainly only around Christmas.
Ladyfingers. They’re essential for making tiramisu, and the Balocco brand is preferred by some pastry chefs.
Wine and liquor. Nearly all Italian stores offer a variety of imported bottles, some of which are hard to find anywhere else, such as the Odoardi Savuto 2012 and Verona Merlot & Corvina (2012), both recommended by Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre and available at Gemelli’s Italian Market in Gaithersburg, Md.