ll food writing about Italy naturally puts a premium on seasonal and sustainable edibles. But it would be folly to think that all we eat in Italy is freshly foraged or superb farm-to-table fare. Tight work schedules, growing families and being stuck at home for long stretches — whether because of illness or bad weather — means falling back on a well-equipped larder. Having a stash of pre-packaged foods in the pantry isn’t a sin. Popping open the occasional jar? Guilty as charged.
Fortunately, there are decent alternatives to the Italian “market-fresh” lifestyle, and reliable staples are conveniently available in grocery stores. My rule of thumb? Always read the label. The fewer the preservatives listed on the label the better. Avoid any that start with the letter “E” followed by a number. That’s poison. Rely instead on packaged goods derived from organic farming and made by processors that produce good food using methods that respect both the body and the Earth’s natural cycles. Minimal packaging is best, preferably in recyclable glass containers. Here’s a shortlist of packaged essentials and a few worthy brands present in my cupboard.
Pickled and oil-preserved vegetables | Oil-packed and pickled foods should always be part of your pantry. If you don’t have an aunt that does the pickling for you (using vegetables from her orchard), try to as best you can to copy that purity. Seek sottoli and sottaceti products (conserved in oil or vinegar, respectively) made with organically grown produce, with no preservatives, additives, and not part of a broad supply chain.
• Alce Nero, Spagnoli, Fior Fiore Coop, Conad are reputable brands available in big chain grocery stores and specialty health food/organic shops.
Bottled and canned tomatoes | Bottling pommarola is an summer activity that can sometimes seem part of Italian DNA. But those who prefer to buy canned tomatoes, sauces and passata (puree) have an ample choice of healthy alternatives. The best canned tomatoes are picked from the vine in summer, immediately washed, blanched and peeled, then tinned either whole, pureed or chopped. They’re not seasoned and require cooking.
• Valentini, Graziella, Mutti, Gentile, Agrigenus, Greci, Miracolo di San Gennaro are good brands. Most are organic and rely on farmers that don’t exploit immigrant workers in the fields.
Canned pasta sauces | If making your own marinara is impossible, one alternative is to unscrew the lid of a pre-cooked sauce and upend the jar over a bowl of cooked pasta. Grocery aisles contain a wide range of condiments: ragù, puttanesca, pesto, arrabbiata, and so on.
• Agromonte, Cirio, Buitoni, Star, Conserve della Nonna are all smart options.
Canned legumes | Jarred or canned beans, chickpeas and lentils provide a quick and easy protein intake with little to no effort. Rinse them from the gelatinous goop they’re stored in and toss into salads and soups or “revive” them in a pan for a delicious side dish.
• Valfrutta, Conad, Conserve della Nonna, Greci are some of the best.
Instant polenta | Just add water (and stir on low heat for 20 minutes). If you’re too lazy or can’t find anyone to put together this frugal dinner, purchase pre-cooked polenta in blocks, which can then be sliced and grilled for crostini.
• Artimondo and La Finestra Sul Cielo are market products made from non-GMO cornmeal.
Sliced cured meats | Usually packaged in 150-gram portions, these are surely inferior to freshly carved meats, but are fine for sandwiches and impromptu charcuterie boards on lazy evenings. Choose an assortment of prosciutto, salami, pancetta, guanciale, bresaola, mortadella and make sure that all are labeled as MSG-, lactose- and gluten-free. Nitrates and other additives are also to be avoided. Check the expiry date.
• Ferrarini, Consorzio Prosciutto di Parma, Fior Fiore Coop, Re Norcino, Podere BioAmiata all package fine quality products with no artificial preservatives.
Chicken broth | Having chicken broth handy is always a good idea, particularly if you’re nursing a cold. If boiling down bones for three hours doesn’t thrill you, opt for low-sodium chicken stock cubes or granulated formula that can be spooned into boiling water.
• Organic BioSun S. Martino, Alce Nero labels contain no MSG.
Oil-packed tuna | In Italy, tuna is packed either in water (diet food) or olive oil. Whatever the canning liquid, ensure the tuna is checked for mercury and stored in glass jars instead of aluminum tins. Alternate your tuna intake with smaller oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, and anchovies.
• Look for As do Mar, Carrefour, Coop, Consorcio.
Anchovies | When I’m sad, a toasted slice of bread slathered with butter and topped with an anchovy always helps put a smile back on my face. The best anchovies for cooking are packed in salt. Rinse them well before using (you may need to de-bone them). If you can’t find the salt-packed kind, look for oil-packed anchovies in little glass jars.
• Delicious Double, Rizzoli Riserva di Famiglia, Angelo Parodi are some of the best.
Honey and jams | Ideally, honey should be purchased at farmsteads from trusted beekeepers. If that’s not an option, seek artisanal, organic products, or the latest in urban farming: beehives mounted on the roofs of city buildings. Would you believe the pollution levels are lower?
• Check out UrBees, Adi Apicoltura, Alce Nero, Brezzo, Prunotto.