Only a few years ago, basic Italian dishes were considered ethnic cooking and not part of mainstream American cuisine. But Italian cooking now is defined by the usage of ingredients and cooking techniques that are indigenous to the various geographical regions of Italy. Restaurateurs were the first to produce regional Italian food products, followed by the food manufacturing industry. The cuisine of Tuscany, the culinary heartland of Italy, is probably the most popular. The Tuscan style of cooking is described by many food experts as simple foods prepared elegantly. It brings out the purity and natural flavor of the ingredients without relying on heavy sauces and seasonings.

In 1999, the mainstream restaurant chain, Olive Garden (Darden Restaurants Corp.) partnered with Sergio and Daniela Zingarelli to form the Riserva di Fizzano cooking school, also called The Olive Garden's Culinary Institute of Tuscany. It is located in the Chianti Classico wine region of Tuscany. Hundreds of Olive Garden's restaurant chefs attend Riserva di Fizzano where they learn the secrets of Tuscany style cooking, using fresh ingredients to create authentic Italian dishes which eventually end up on the restaurant chain's menu. Wine pairing is also taught at the school.

The Tuscan T-Bone entrée was one of the dishes the Olive Garden chefs learned to make and now is found on the chain's menu across America. This entrée is an 18oz choice steak brushed with Italian herbs, grilled and served with sautéed potatoes and bell peppers.

Tasting Tuscan Terrains

Tuscany takes up a large portion of Italy and contains rocky mountains, flat plains and sea coast. The people of Tuscany live in large cities as well as small villages. Bertolli recently launched a line of frozen skillet meals that reflects many of the regions within Tuscany. Complete Skillet Meals for Two is the brand name of a line of 24oz frozen packages of prepared meals. There are a total of 12 flavors. The nine original meals are: Grilled Chicken Alfredo & Portobello; Italian Sausage & Rigatoni; Shrimp Scampi & Linguine; Spinach & Ricotta Cheese Ravioli; Chicken Parmigiana & Penne; Chicken & Garden Vegetable Primavera; Roasted Chicken & Linguine; Shrimp, Asparagus & Penne; and Meatballs Pomodoro & Penne. Some newer additions include: Spicy Shrimp Fra Diavolo & Penne made of shrimp, penne pasta, sautéed red, yellow and green peppers in a tangy tomato sauce with red pepper and garlic; Chicken Florentine & Farfalle made of farfalle pasta, white meat chicken and spinach in a Parmesan cheese sauce; and Chicken Alla Vodka & Farfalle made of farfalle pasta, white meat chicken, diced tomatoes and asparagus in a tomato Romano cheese sauce, flavored with vodka and cream.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel recently opened a Tuscan restaurant called Lemonia. According to marketing and communications manager Phil Werz, the Tuscany-themed restaurant was chosen because numerous hotel guests had requested this particular dining experience. One of Lemonia's popular menu items is the simply prepared Crema di Pomodoro (Tomato Soup with Anchovy Olive Oil and Fresh Basil), which is made of tomato soup and fresh basil garnished with anchovy olive oil and smoked mozzarella.

Bean There

Beans are very popular in Tuscan cooking, and everything from white bean soups to cold bean salads can be found on a typical Tuscan restaurant menu. Vigo and Alessi Products has launched a line of dry Italian soups mixes: Neapolitan Bean Soup, Sicilian Lentil Soup, Sicilian Split Pea Soup, Sicilian Chicken Noodle Soup and Tuscan White Bean Soup. Its Tuscan white bean soup is made of navy beans, pasta, carrots, peas, zucchini, broccoli and garlic.

Fava, cannelloni, and toscanelli beans are also favorites in the Tuscany region. In fact, the months of May and June are known as fava season, and fava bean salad is a popular dish eaten during these months. It is made of freshly cooked fava beans, cubes of young sheep's milk cheese, Tuscany olive oil, sea salt, fresh thyme and oregano. All the ingredients are tossed together, and the dish can be served at room temperature or chilled.

Tuscany-style green beans are also very popular. In this dish, cooked string beans, salted butter, olive oil, fresh sage, parsley and garlic are heated in a sauté pan and then topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

The February 2006 monthly member's magazine of Costco Wholesale was devoted to Italian food products and entitled Made in Italy: Costco Brings Treasures of Italy to Your Table. One of the products highlighted in the story was Costco's private label Kirkland Signature first cold-pressed Tuscan olive oil, packaged under the watchful eyes of an independent association of Tuscany olive oil producers known as Consorzio dell'Olio Toscano.

This association provides certification to all the olive oils produced in the Tuscany region. The products are given a blue and gold seal which is called Indicazione Geografica Protetta (protected geographical indication). Farmers are required to register their land and trees, as well as estimate their production yield. Costco's cold-pressed Tuscan olive oil flavor is described as “intense fruity.” Some serving suggestions: drizzle it over sliced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and chopped fresh basil; or over bowls of homemade soups such as split pea or fava bean.

As time goes by, American diners and consumers will most likely experience even more diverse and flavorful offerings from the rich Italian culinary history. Ciao!