ESSENTIALS

My list of sources reflects some of the items that I do not feel I can cook without.  One item, which is not always easy to find, even in pretty good supermarkets, is good grating cheese. I use it almost daily, and it is the ingredient most of my friends don't have when I give them a recipe.  It is not locally available in Macomb, Illinois.  My pantry must also contain anchovies, extra virgin olive oil, butter, wine vinegars, dijon mustard, capers, whole peppercorns, kosher salt, and a good assortment of pasta.  Greek oregano, fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, savory, basil, and flat leaf parsley are luxuries anyone with a 4 by 8 foot plot of sunny ground can afford. 

Pecarino Romano

Romano cheese is the hard grana type cheese favored in the south of Italy.  It is saltier and more assertive than Parmigiano and is about half the price.  It is usually a pecarino, i.e. a sheep's' milk cheese and this is your guarantee of import quality, since few Wisconsin producers will be milking sheep.   You will find domestic Romano cheeses, but they are not aged properly, have too high a water content, and don't develop the depth of flavor one associates with a good pecarino Romano.  Often, they are as expensive as the Italian imports they would aspire to replace.  They will mold, while a well aged pecarino Romano will keep without refrigeration.

                Parmigiano
Romano

Everyone should keep a couple of pounds of ungrated Romano on hand for all pasta and pizza dishes, Caesar style salads, soups, stuffing (stuffed artichokes, for example), au gratin crumbs, and vegetables (steamed asparagus baked with butter and Romano cheese topping).  Romano may be used in any dish with the name Parmigiano and whenever grated pecarino or Roman cheese is called for.  While any pecarino Romano will be satisfactory, there are purveyors who offer brand names (Locatelli) or who age the cheeses further in their own storage rooms (dibruno.com).  Italy also produces Romano from cow's milk (vaccino Romano) and goat's milk (caprino Romano), but these are seldom seen in the USA.

Parmigiano Reggiano is fine cheese and deserves its world class reputation, but, as the descendant of paisanos from the south, I don't find it as satisfying as a good Romano.  Parmigiano is sold young as a table cheese or for shaving onto salads,  or aged for grating.  The younger Parmigianos are subject to mold, so don't keep them  too long. There are other excellent grana type cheeses available from Sardinia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Argentina.

Anchovies

These are so basic to Italian cucina that there are two names for them: alice (ah leech eh, also olice) and acciuga.  They are offered in a salt pack in 1 to 5 kilo cans or  filleted and packed in olive oil in 2 to 8 oz cans or jars.  The salt packed alice are superior, but require tedious hand work to make up a batch of filets in oil.  The oil pack are a real time saver, and can be of excellent quality.  They are packed in Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.

    

The mid-western American aversion to the anchovy is hard to explain, especially since so many mid-westerners are of German or Nordic ancestry, two cultures that embrace the anchovy whole-heartedly.  I have two explanations: (1) it's entirely genetic, like the capacity for religiosity or (2) mid-westerners are unwilling to eat anything with strong flavors.

Anchovies are absolutely essential to pizza and should be part of the basic tomato and cheese pizza to which all other 'toppings' are added.  They enhance nearly any salad dressing and are, of course, essential to the Caesar salad.  They are important as part of the soffrito that serves as the base for the oil based pasta sauces. They are added to many bread stuffings (for artichokes or eggplants, for example).  Layered with roasted and peeled red and yellow pepper, they make an incomparable antipasto. and proudly take their place on a plate of their own among the olives and capers of the antipasto table.  In several years as a vegetarian, I excepted only the anchovy, declaring it a "fruit de la mer" much as Pius XII declared the whale a fish for purposes of the Friday and Lenten fasts.

Fortunately, a can of anchovies may be found in the meanest supermarket and one need shop the import stores only for the larger containers or the salt cured variety.

Oregano

While oregano is not hard to find, the best flavor and smell come from the dried leaf when it is still on the stem. For years I have picked up bunches of dried Greek oregano whenever I encountered it in Greek, Italian, or Mediterranean markets.  Attempts to grow oregano  produced vigorous perennial clumps that were indistinguishable from marjoram, a close relative. True Greek oregano has lately become available from seed and plantsmen and has solved my foraging problem, because it grows beautifully, is hardy, and provides plenty for fresh use and for drying. The plant becomes truly luxuriant in the third year, but second year production is sufficient to dry a couple of good bunches.

Use oregano on pizza (of course), on salads and in tomato sauces.