Just like any cuisine uses its indigenous cookware – think anything from Asian stacked bamboo steamer baskets and woks, to Spanish paella pans and French crèpe skillets – Italian cookery also demands its own set of specific tools and implements.
Here’s our list of 12 essential kitchen tools for properly cooking Italian food.
The gnocchi board
Pillows of perfect potato and flour need ridges. This natural beechwood rustic tool’s special texture and carved grooves provide the traditional sauce-grabbing ridges on gnocchi without damaging or flattening the delicate dough. For perfect gnocchi, cut even sized sections from ropes of dough and simply roll them along the ridges with a gentle pressure to imprint the entire circumference. In Italian we call this tool “rigagnocchi”.
The pasta machine
The heavy duty clamp-on steel pasta machine is the shortcut to becoming an overnight Italian chef. The success of my tagliatelle, fettuccine and pappardelle depends on my “macchina per tirare la sfoglia”. This thing of chromed steel beauty is fitted with an easy-lock adjustment dial that allows you to choose the thickness of your pasta dough, the handle easily cranks out the dough through the rollers and a sturdy, steadfast table clamp holds it in place. You can also customize your pasta machine with additional attachments for a variety of pasta shapes.
The chitarra is a pasta cutter believed to have been invented in the city of Chieti, in the Abruzzo region, in the 1800’s. Meaning ‘guitar,’ a chitarra looks indeed like a musical instrument. This double-sided harp, with strings nailed taught across its length, has a slanted box bottom, designed to allow the cut pasta to slide off easily once it’s been pressed through the strings. Simply use a rolling pin, flattening and pressing the dough through the wires, and voilà, tonnarelli (square-sectioned noodles).
The pasta drying rack
The traditional beechwood pasta drying rack is what Italian home cooks use for drying their fresh homemade pasta noodles, before cooking or storing in paper lined boxes. The “stendino” stands 17 inches tall with a 14-inch diameter and is collapsible for speedy stow-away, but does double duty drying unmentionables, so there’s hardly ever need to take it apart.
The ravioli cutter
These sturdy metal cutters locally called “stampi per ravioli” are perfect for cutting around the filling and sealing of homemade meat–, cheese– or spinach–filled ravioli, agnolotti and other pasta pockets. After practicing with these, pros can then graduate to using the crimped-edge pasta wheel. But that’s another story.
You cannot cook pasta if you don’t drain it with a colander (this part is spoken with typical Italian multiple exclamation marks and hand gestures). The fine holes and footed bottom design of most “scolapasta” colanders used in Italy allow for fast and efficient drainage without food escaping, and stability: the second worse thing after overcooking your pasta is seeing the colander tip over in the sink bottom.
The Parmesan knife
The traditional almond-shaped knife designed especially to carve scales through a wheel of Parmigiano cheese is a key kitchen essential in Italy.The name of this in Italian is “coltello a goccia.” Everyone owns one. I was gifted mine at age 7.
The cheese grater
The stainless steel “grattugia” cheese grater is so important in Italian cuisine that every household has multiple models. Nowadays there are modern six-sided ones for varying degrees of shredding, julienning and slicing, others are equipped with a food-catching collection box which you can grate directly in to, there’s others with different grating coarsness… but the basic star-pronged fine grating surface is the classic Italian kitchen grater, mainly used for reducing Parmigiano to snowflakes dusted over pasta. Kids usually are given this chore before meals, and their task is also running the tines of a fork between the perforated rows to clean the grater once the job is done.
The mortar & pestle
If you want to make pesto right, it’s got to be with a mortar and pestle. Stop complaining, I know it’s hard work. The aroma and flavors of the fresh basil, garlic, pecorino cheese, pine nuts and olive oil all come together and are not lost or oxidized when making pesto by patiently grinding everything with a mortar and pestle. Besides the obvious pesto solution, you can also use this beautiful object to perfectly pulverize peppercorns in seconds, smash avocados and assemble spice rubs and pastes. Marble, granite, porcelain… whatever the material, as long as the inner surface is rough-textured and unglazed. In Italian we call this essential kitchen tool duo “mortaio e pestello”.
The canning jars
Whether you choose the airtight seal jars with rubber gasket for sous vide cooking, or prefer the regular mason jars with disposable screw-on lids to can your passata tomato sauce, home-canning glass jars are a classic Italian must. We call them “barattoli per conserve”. In summer the sales are so high that some grocery stores reserve an entire aisle for canning jars and hand-powered mills…
The pizzelle maker
This Italian waffle iron is designed to make delicious crispy, ribbed pizzelle – a typical cookie of Abruzzo, locally called ferratelle. A dollop of the cookie batter is put into the cast alluminum pizzelle iron, which stamps a snowflake pattern onto both sides of the thin golden-brown cookie. The traditional Italian pizzelle are flavored with anise, can be hard and crisp or soft and chewy depending on the ingredients and preparation method, and are eaten slathered with jam or honey. Pizzelle are popular during Christmas and Easter. They are often found at Italian weddings, alongside sugared almonds called “confetti,” another Abruzzo specialty.
The “napoletana” coffee pot
Historically this “macchinetta” is the oldest coffee maker, used by Neapolitans long before the stove-top moka Bialetti. It functions on the precipitation of boiling water on the ground coffee powder for a slow-drip beverage. People still appreciate this type of caffè for both sentimental reasons and for the actual flavor of this particular brew, which is lighter and suitable for late afternoon cups, as opposed to the more audaciously caffeinated espresso. The traditional model is still produced in the original 3-cup capacity aluminium version. Click for an illustrated Napoletana caffee tutorial.
Images courtesy of www.andreadilorenzo.it – www.amazon.com – Eleonora Baldwin – www.bormiolirocco.com – www.cooknbook.org
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.