When chef Stefano Manfredi recalls the food from his hometown of Gottolengo, Lombardy, in northern Italy, he can still feel the seasons and hear the clash and clank of saucepans and the bubble of chatter in the kitchen.
Manfredi believes the best Italian cooking comes from recipes that have been passed along families for generations and interwoven with stories, passion and love.
The 60-year-old, who migrated to Australia with his family in 1961, says in order to cook like an Italian, home cooks must first learn to develop an instinct for simplicity.
“Simplicity is one of the building blocks of good Italian food, and understanding that simplicity is very important – it's what makes a good Italian cook a great Italian cook,” says Manfredi, who recently released the encyclopaedic Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food.
“The greatest compliment I receive as a chef is when someone tells me they used one of my recipes as a guide and then cooked it to suit themselves, because it means they are experimenting and feel confident in the kitchen,” he says.
Manfredi has influenced the way Sydneysiders eat since 1983, when he opened Restaurant Manfredi in Ultimo. He now presides over Osteria Balla at Sydney's The Star and Manfredi at Bells, where he created one of Australia's first abundant kitchen gardens.
He says the best thing about learning to "cook like an Italian" is the knowledge that fixing mistakes is easy when you are equipped with the right tools, techniques and attitude.
“Italians cook with provenance and seasonality in mind," he says. "Italian food is so simple that you can improvise and correct things by first starting with quality ingredients and understanding different flavour combinations. It is about knowing what a great dish cooked with a minimum of fuss tastes like.
“Being a good Italian cook is also about learning to cook intuitively. I learnt to cook a lot of my family's traditional dishes from my mother, but I've adapted them to suit my own personal taste.”
Stefano's golden rules:
Simplicity is key: Let the ingredients speak for themselves.
Waste not, want not: If you roast a chicken, use the carcass to make a stock for risotto and any leftover chicken in the dish itself. Frugality separates a good Italian cook from a wannabe.
A recipe for success: The best food comes from the best ingredients. Develop a relationship with your local grower, butcher and fishmonger and be willing to listen and learn.
Learn to cook by feel: Experienced Italian chefs know the magic number when making pasta is one egg to 100g of flour. But if the flour has a lot of moisture or the egg is too large, those quantities change. Pasta should feel silky smooth, like a fine sheet of Italian cloth.
Cook it your way: There are 60 million people in Italy and if you gave each one of them a dish, they would all have an opinion about how it should taste. Forget the recipes and make it your own. The only way cuisine moves forward is through evolution.
Troubleshooting popular recipes
How to make a great ragu
Spaghetti Bolognaise is an American creation – designed to please American-Italian workers who wanted a quick one-plate dish. In Italy, a good ragu Bolognese is not served with spaghetti; it's served with tagliatelle. There's no definitive recipe when making a ragu but cooking with a piece of meat rather than mince is what elevates the sauce. Start with a pork shoulder and slow-cook it until it falls apart. Meanwhile, fry off garlic, onion, celery and tomatoes, rosemary, sage and thyme. You can also use a mixture of pork, veal and a little bit of yearling beef. It's the subtle nuances – like nutmeg or milk – that will make this dish your own.
Fresh pasta v dried pasta
If you want a soft, slippery mouth-feel use pasta all'uovo (fresh egg pasta). It's great for simple dishes such as tagliatelle with butter and parmesan. Dried pastas are good for soups or when paired with robust sauces with ingredients like capers and anchovies. Dried pasta takes longer than fresh pasta to cook. When you strain the pasta in a large colander, reserve a bit of the cooking water, which can be added in small measure to a thick sauce to help bind it to the pasta.
How to cook a rib-eye steak
Adopt the "less-is-more" approach. If you want to cook like an Italian, you take a beautiful rib eye steak, cook it on a very hot barbecue over coals and serve it sliced thinly, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with rock salt. The most important step is to ensure the barbecue is searingly hot before you add the steak. Also, forget about serving the steak with condiments or sauces that hide the flavours of the meat, and instead allow the star ingredient to shine.
How to cook risotto
Start with a good carnaroli rice, which produces superior results (Acquerello brand is one of the best). When it's time to add the rice, stir the grains until they become translucent, add a good lug of dry white wine and cook until it has evaporated. Key to a perfect risotto is a good-quality homemade stock that must be gently simmering before it is slowly added, one ladleful at a time, to the rice. After 20 minutes or so, fold in butter and parmesan, turn off the heat, cover and let the risotto rest for 3 to 4 minutes before serving.
Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food is published by Fairfax Books/Allen and Unwin, $59.99.