The Italian Pantry – 12 Ingredients To Keep In Your Kitchen at All Times

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Lemons from Calabria - always a standard items in the southern Italian pantry

I’ve always equated good cooking with being prepared, just like a fine carpenter has the necessary tools to build a bookcase or a deck on hand at all times, a home cook should always have a well stocked pantry to prepare meals.  The following is a list of items that I always keep in my kitchen, in addition to the impromptu shopping I do for vegetables, fruit, meats, and fish throughout the week (here’s my guide on how to buy fish, fruit, and vegetables).  Contrary to what you see in cookbooks and FoodTV, it’s impossible to make grand meals every night and simple, high quality, meals made from good ingredients are often a reality of modern life (here’s my view on cooking 30 minute meals).

Eating well, therefore, is about access to ingredients and if you keep the following items in your kitchen or pantry at all times you’ll always be able to eat like a king!

1. Canned Tomatoes

Tomatoes serve as a base for all types of sauces (or condiments) for pastas, but canned tomatoes (either concentrato di pomodoro, passato, or pelati) can also be used in soups and roasted meat dishes, as well.

2. Canned Tuna, Sardines, and Anchovies 
I love, high quality, canned fish and in some instances they can be much better than mediocre fresh fish.  I always keep 4-5 cans of Italian tuna in olive oil (preferably from Sicilia) as well as a few sardines packed in oil and one large jar of anchovies, again packed in olive oil.  You get what you pay for with canned fish, so buy the best you can afford (same rule applies to buying shoes!). I like the Scalia brand.
3. Homemade Breadcrumbs
Buying store breadcrumbs is the equivalent of buying water at your local market; that is to say, there’s just no need to do it.  If you always have bread in your kitchen, then you’ll always be able to make fresh breadcrumbs.
4. Fresh Bread
I aim to buy a fresh baguette every other day or so.  We tend to have a bit of bread with our meals when we’re not starting with pasta and especially during the summer months when we consume a ton of tomatoes with olive oil and basil.  Good bread is crunchy on the outside and has airy interior texture that’s not too dense.
5. Beans
Keep as many dry beans in your pantry as possible, as well as a few cans of ready to cook beans.  I keep garbanzo, kidney, black, cannellni,
6. Olive Oil
Olive oil serves as a base for both simple meals and extraordinary dishes.  Buy a good quality  first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil for tomato salads, salad dressings, finishing pastas, etc. and buy a good, super market, olive oil for cooking.  For all olive oils, consume it quickly and store it in a dark and cool spot.  Here are some of my olive oil reviews.
7. Vinegar
I keep a high quality red wine vinegar and a decent bottle of balsamic vinegar.  Click here for a review of the brands I like. Alternatively, you can keep fresh lemons on hand as often as possible (as the juice and zest is indispensable).
8. Garlic
I keep 5-6 bulbs in the kitchen at all times.  Buy fresh garlic that is compressed tightly and doesn’t have it’s skin falling off at the market.
9. Dry Pasta
I keep about 6 dry pastas in my pantry at all times (here’s my guide to dry pasta).  3 short (penne, rigatoni, etc.) and 3 long (linguine fine, spaghetti, etc.).  De Cecco may be the only super market brand worth purchasing (Colavita isn’t bad), while Barilla made a very good product up until about 5-7 years ago when I think they switched to an inferior flour or manufacturering process (whatever the case, the quality of the pasta has changed dramatically, in my humble view).  If you can stomach the price, Rustichella is a fine every day pasta.  You can certainly make your own pasta and store it, short term, in your freezer.
10. Cheese and Salumi
I keep 2 quality cheeses in my fridge for a light Sunday or Summer meal and 3-4 large pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano (a cheaper substitute with near, identical, flavor and texture) in my basement kitchen.  I only grate the hard cheeses before I consume them and store the pieces in my fridge in a vacuum sealed bag.  My fridge also includes pieces of either Cacciatore, Finocchiona, Crespone, Salami Secchi, and Sopressata (whatever I can find).  Here’s my guide to salumi or salami, including a review of Creminelli and Columbus Artisan brands!
11. Sun Dried Tomatoes
It’s very easy to make your own sun dried tomatoes and I primarily consume them with bread and cheese.  I know folks tend to cook with sun dried tomatoes but I’m not a big fan.  Click here to learn how to make your own!
12. Whole Wheat Toasted Bread
I know I told you not to buy store made breadcrumbs, but I think it’s nice to have a few packages of pre-made toast in your pantry for an impromptu meal or party.  I love the Grissin Bon Light brand and you can make a quick breakfast with them (with jam and butter) or add tomatoes and salt for a quick appetizer.
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  • http://casa-giardino.blogspot.com/ Elisa

    I would add all types of legumes.
    I also keep in my kitchen – onions, peppers and fresh eggs. You never know when you’re called upon to make a frittata or cipollata.

  • http://joedegiorgio.wordpress.com/ Joe DeGiorgio

    Nice list. I agree that imported tuna and canned tomatoes should be in the house at all times (you never know when you’ll want to make an impromptu pot of Sunday sauce). My wife always throws up a red alert when we start to run short on the imported Parmigiano too.
    I’m guilty of occasionally buying store bought bread crumbs, though. Your post reminded of the image of multiple loaves of Italian bread at my Nonna’s house, sitting on a table and getting stale in preparation of grinding for her homemade crumbs.
    You wouldn’t think it makes much of a difference, but it does. My meatballs with the store bought crumbs pale in comparison to the ones she used to make.
    Again, nice post. Print it out, it makes a great shopping list!

  • http://www.scordo.com Vincent Scordo

    Thanks, Joe. Yup, I’ve bought non homemade breadcrumbs as well (don’t tell anyone!). I was always in charge of grinding the breadcrumbs on an ancient cheese and bread grater my parents brought from Italy in the late ’70′s (it was located in the basement I hated doing the task).
    Vince

  • http://www.scordo.com Vincent Scordo

    yes, yes legumes and eggs are key, as well. I also forget fresh parsley, which I think is more versatile than basil. On the dried herbs, I always keep high quality oregano, kosher and sea salts, fresh peppercorns, and red pepper flakes (dried in Calabria, of course!).

  • http://www.zoomata.com nicole

    I would add capers to a pantry, they work well for a quick tuna sauce (you can also do it in bianco, no tomatoes necessary) or an easy pizza marinara…
    The sun-dried tomatoes strikes me as a more Italian-American thing — most Italian households I’ve been in (in Italy) have sott’oli like olives, artichokes, eggplant and onions, but no tomatoes.
    And no respectable Italian pantry should be without Brioschi!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gianni.martino.12 Gianni Di Martino

    “You can certainly make your own pasta and store it, short term, in your freezer.” You are joking, aren’t you????? I have a small restaurant in the middle of Italy, using only Rustichella Pasta! Don’t even think to freeze the pasta and then obtain something that you can eat!!!

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Nope, not joking. My Calabrian born mother freezes fresh pasta for use within a week or two (and I can’t notice the difference). She learned the trick from our next door neighbor who was born in Genoa.

      • http://www.facebook.com/PepLV Pepper Richardson

        I freeze some every time I make it…I don’t seem to notice the difference either?

        • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

          Glad you agree, we don’t notice a difference..

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Nope, not joking. My Calabrian born mother freezes fresh pasta for use within a week or two (and I can’t notice the difference). She learned the trick from our next door neighbor who was born in Genoa.

  • Dennis – Sicilian

    I could not agree more with your choice of pantry essentials. I would encourage others to make their own red wine vinegar at home. It is simple, inexpensive, and has significantly more flavor than most commercial brands.

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Thanks, Dennis. I’ve never made homemade red wine vinegar. Do you have a recipe.

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