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My top five Italian dishes

Someone asked me to list my top five Italian dishes. Why, I don’t really know, but that’s the kind of random information that ends up on an author’s website.

1. White truffle risotto with runny fried eggs.

In Piedmont, where they use truffles in their cooking like other regions use parsley, they like to highlight the truffles’ flavour by pairing them with simple dishes such as tajarin pasta and butter sauce. But nothing goes better with the king of funghi than eggs – and a soupy risotto made with starchy vialone nano rice makes the perfect carbohydrate accompaniment for a couple that have been fried in olive oil. As you eat, break the yolk of the fried egg with your fork, and  mix the yolk and the truffle shavings into the risotto.

2. Whole baby octopus cooked in octopus ink and tomatoes.

This is one of the specialties of Zi Teresa, the Neapolitan restaurant where much of The Wedding Officer is set. A hang-out for US troops during the war, it’s still going strong today – most of the waiters look like they’ve been there since the war too. How do they get the sauce so black, so silky, so sweet? How do they get the octopus so tender? How do they find ones exactly the right size, so that the suckered arms hang over the edge of the bowl like that? They’re not telling.

3. Mozzarella cooked with lemon.

Another classic Neapolitan dish, and one you could make at home, if you only had mozzarella and lemons like they do in Sorrento. Scoop out a lemon, fill it with mozzarella, seal the ends with lemon or bay leaves and bake in a wood-burning oven (a barbecue is a good substitute). It’s done when the cheese starts to ooze…

4. Sardinian porchetta (suckling pig).

Suckling pig is a dish that defines the regions of Italy – in bustling Rome they serve it as a quick snack, stuffed with its own fried organs; in wooded Le Marche with juniper berries and myrtle, in Tuscany wild fennel seeds from the pastures. In Sardinian dialect it’s known as maialetto. It’s served so young that one whole pig only feeds two people, and comes flavoured with island herbs such as helichrysum. The skin is as dark and crisp as a toffee apple, the flesh sweet and milky.

5. Pizza.

A proper pizza from Naples, that is. Airy dough, pounded for five minutes until it can be spun on the pizza-maker’s fingers like a lasso. Fresh San Marzano tomatoes; oregano; vibrant green olive oil, and perhaps a little mozzarella or some pungent torn leaves of sun-ripened basil. Nothing else, ever – certainly no meat. Cooked in a red-hot wood-fired oven for the length of time the pizza-maker can hold his breath: the base crisp, the topping still liquid, the whole thing mottled with wood ash. Perfection.
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