Oils And Vinegars Pasta

Oil and vinegar are essential pantry items for the Italian cook. Don't buy cheap brands; it's not worth it. Good olive oil and wine or balsamic vinegar will lift the flavor of a sauce or salad and enhance the other ingredients in it.

Olive oil (Olio d'oliva)

Extra virgin olive oil is the best and most expensive of the olive oils. This is the oil that is secreted when the olives are crushed mechanically by cold presses.
No other processing or any heat is involved in the making of extra virgin olive oil. It should have an acidity level of one percent or less, but as this information is seldom on the label of the bottle, this is difficult to check.

Extra virgin is the oil to use for salads, since heating may spoil its natural olive flavor. It is also the one to use for sprinkling on warm food or for tossing with pasta in dishes, such as Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, that rely on olive oil for their predominant flavor.

Fruity, often peppery, Tuscan oil- is reputed to be among the best of the extra virgin olive oils, although some cooks prefer oil from Umbria, or from Veneto or Liguria, which are more delicate. Oils from the South are stronger and more intensely flavored, and these may be more to your taste. Brands vary enormously, so experiment to find what suits you best.

For cooking and heating, virgin olive oil is the one to use. This is less expensive than extra virgin because it has a higher acidity level (up to four percent), but it is cold pressed and not refined in any way so it still has a good, full flavor. Many pasta sauces start with the frying of flavoring ingredients, such as onion, garlic, celery, parsley, chiles and carrot, If these are fried in an oil with a good flavor, the sauce will have a strong base (soffrftto), the flavor of which will then permeate through the other ingredients during cooking.

Vinegar (Aceto)

Occasionally a splash of red or white wine vinegar may be added to a pasta sauce, but wine vinegar is more often used in salad dressings. Flavorwise, red and white vinegars are interchangeable, but the color of the salad ingredients may dictate whether you use red or white.

Balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) from Modena in Emilia-Romagna is a different thing altogether. It is a dark, syrupy vinegar that is aged in wooden casks for many years. The best and most authentic aceto balsamico will have been aged in casks or barrels of different woods for 40-50 years. Labeled tradizionale di Modena, this vinegar is only used a drop at a time, usually at the moment of serving, on fish or meat, salads and even fresh strawberries. For flavoring a pasta sauce or salad, use the much less expensive balsamic vinegar that has been aged between five and ten years. Its flavor does not compare with the genuine article, but it is musky and slightly sweet, and very good.


Some special ingredients are used in different regions of Italy, and you may need to buy them for a particular sauce.

Capers (Capperi)

Capers are the fruit of a flowering shrub that grows'in the Mediterranean. They are sold in various ways. The best are the large, salted capers sold in small jars at Italian markets. Check before buying that the salt is white and has not discolored at all. Yellow salt is a sign that the capers are past their best and may have a rancid taste. Before use, salted capers need to be soaked in several changes of water for I0-15 minutes, then drained, rinsed in fresh water and dried, but after this initial preparation they taste very fresh and good. They can be chopped and used to add piquancy to sauces you will often find them in recipes from the south of Italy and Sicily and Sardinia.

It is also possible to buy tiny capers sold in small bottles of brine or vinegar. These have a strong flavor and should be rinsed well before use. Despite this, they almost always taste sharp and vinegary, so chop them very finelyand use them sparingly.

Olives (Olive)

Both black and green olives are used in making sauces and salads, although black olives are more highly favored. The best type for pasta sauces are the small, shiny, very black gaeta olives from Liguria. Buy the plain ones for cooking, not those with additional flavorings, such as herbs, garlic, chiles and other spices, which are intended for antipasto. Olives are best added to a sauce toward the end of cooking. They need no cooking, only heating through, and if added too early they can impart a bitter flavor. When using olives in a pasta sauce or salad, pit them first, because the pits are awkward to manage when you are eating pasta.

Pancetta (Pancetta)

This is cured belly of pork, the Italian equivalent of bacon, which has a spicy, sweet flavor and aroma. Unsmoked pancetta is sold in a roll at Italian catessens, and is called pancetta arrotolata or pancetta coppata. A machine is used to slice it very thinly to order and it can be eaten as it is for an antipasto, or cut into strips or diced for use in cooking. Pancetta affumicata is smoked and comes in strips, which look like bacon complete. Smoked (left) and unsmoked pancetta with rind. There is a version called pancetta stesa, which is long and flat. Smoked pancetta is cut into strips or dice and used as the base for rag0 and many other pasta sauces, the most famous of which is carbonara. Some supermarkets sell packages of diced pancetta. The quality and flavor are generally good, so these are well worth buying for convenience. If you are unable to get pancetta, bacon can be used instead, and you can buy smoked or unsmoked, whichever flavor you prefer.

Pine nuts (Pinoli)

Best known for their inclusion in pesto, these small, creamy white nuts have an unusual waxy texture and resinous flavor. They look and taste good sprinkled on pasta salads, and they add a welcome crunchy bite. To enhance their flavor, they are often toasted before use. Only buy the amount of pine nuts you need because they do not keep well and quickly go rancid. They are sold shelled in small packages at many super-markets.