Vegetables: protagonists of Italian cooking. Here’s how I love to eat them

To get a sense of what authentic Italian cuisine is, you need to travel to Italy and even that may not be enough. Once you are in Italy, try to get invited to Italian homes for lunch or dinner. The food you find in restaurants will be great, unless you end up in some tourist trap near the historic center of cities like Rome, but it will never be as authentic as a meal at an Italian friend’s place or at an agriturismo where all the food offered is locally produced.

One of the characteristics of the Italian culinary tradition that you will discover during your travels is that in Italy we eat a lot of vegetables.

Vegetables in Italy are lightly seasoned so as not to cover up their flavor. During my travels outside of Italy, I have noticed that it is difficult to find certain varieties of Italian vegetables. The region where I grew up, Lazio, has some succulent wild vegetables that I really missed when I lived abroad.

Vegetables in Italy are the protagonists in dishes such as eggplant parmigiana and many pasta dishes but they are also eaten as hearty side dishes. There is no steak that is not accompanied by a delicious side dish of veggies, or pasta dish that is not followed by a fresh salad.

5 of my favorite Italian vegetables are and how I love to cook them.

broccolini, Italian veggies
Broccolini | Italian veggies

Broccolini – delicious undiscovered Italian green

Broccolini is also known as turnip greens and grows wild in the meadows of those areas that were once home to volcanic systems: southern Tuscany, all of Lazio, Campania, and Umbria. It is a vegetable with a strong, bitterish taste. Locals eat it as a side dish for meats and as a condiment for pasta.

  • orecchiette con le cime di rapa | a quite popular first course, a type of homemade pasta with a round shape.
  • Pork sausages with broccolini | delicious and satisfying second course cooked in a pan: first, you stir-fry the vegetables and then add the pork sausages and brown them.
chicory, Italian vegetables
Chicory | Vegetables in Italy

Chicory

This Italian green vegetable is typical of the Latium region. It has a strong and slightly bitter taste. Chicory is a side dish for meat main courses.

Once you have learned to recognize it, differentiating it from other spontaneous herbs, you can pick it yourself on the meadows in Rome and in the surrounding countryside.

Roman zucchini
Roman Zucchini

Roman Zucchini

The “Roman zucchini”, which are found mainly in Rome and its countryside, have a different shape and taste from the more famous “zucchini”. In fact, Roman zucchini, are much more flavorful and, like the other vegetables I mentioned, mildly bitter.

This means they go perfectly with foods with more delicate flavors, such as eggs, fresh and creamy cheeses, and cherry tomatoes.

Roman zucchini contain less water than ordinary zucchini, so while cooking you have to watch them often to prevent them from burning.

The pairings I’m most fond of regarding this Italian vegetable are: 

  • Sandwiches (if you’re in Italy, you can replace sandwich bread with a tender “panino all’olio” that you can easily find at any bakery) with stracchino cheese and sliced zucchini cooked in a pan with garlic, onion, and olive oil.
  • Short pasta, like caserecce, dressed with zucchini and cherry tomatoes (recipe coming soon), seasoned with a handful of grated Parmesan cheese before serving.
  • Round zucchini covered in batter fried in hot oil.
radicchio italian vegetable
Italian radicchio | Photo by Riccardo Greg on Unsplash

Radicchio

Radicchio, Italy’s purple-colored leafy vegetable, is famous the world over. But how do Italians like to eat it?

  • Raw, to enrich a simple salad with lettuce, olives, and tomatoes.
  • Cooked in the oven covered with a mix of Evo oil, breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper.
  • As a topping for pizza, pasta and risotto, usually accompanied by cheese such as sweet gorgonzola and walnuts.
Italian veggie, arugula
Arugula, the Italian veggie with which you can make a delicious pesto

Arugula

This narrow, toothy leafy vegetable is very popular because of its dominant flavor and because it is very nutritious.

After picking or buying it, it should be eaten within a couple of days because it perishes quickly. Most Italians pair it with cherry tomatoes and chunks of parmesan cheese to create tasty summer salads or as a topping for all sorts of Italian bread, such as focaccia and bruschetta.

I love to eat it as the main ingredient in my favorite pesto pasta, namely that with arugula pesto.

I prefer to substitute arugula for basil as a pesto ingredient and pair it with a mix of almonds and cashews instead of pine nuts, which are much more expensive.

Arugula pesto has such a strong flavor that it should be made milder by mixing it with fresh tomato sauce. The pesto will change its color from bright green to a greenish-brown, but the flavor will be enhanced, making it an excellent alternative to classic Italian basil pesto.

I could add further to this list of Italian vegetables, however, these are the ones I love cooking and eating the most.

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