Top ten tips for Italian cooking

Eve O'Sullivan
16 March, 2015

Restaurant trends may come and go, but Italian food is an absolute mainstay in UK kitchens. Despite that, says Katie Caldesi, we’ve still got a few things to learn when it comes to the basics. Cooked quizzes the restaurateur, cookery school owner and co-author of The Amalfi Coast and Venice, to find out her top tips for knocking up failsafe Italian favourites.

When you’re cooking pasta, think of it swirling in the salty Mediterranean, not floating in the murky waters around Margate.

Pasta needs to move about so it doesn’t stick, and you’ll just waste your lovely olive oil trying to separate it if it’s cooked in too small a pan. A shape such as penne needs to have water moving through it, as well as around it, to cook evenly. And when it comes to salt, be as generous as you dare – it really should taste like seawater. That is what will make the pasta taste amazing even before the sauce is on it. A large handful for a large saucepan is about right. Most of the salt stays in the water, so don’t panic about your blood pressure.

Katie Caldesi spaghetti 

Finish your dishes with olive oil, like the Italians do. 

I think between £7-10 is a reasonable spend on olive oil, if you can stretch to it. Waitrose is always a good bet, and definitely check the Marks and Spencer deli section, too. We associate it with extra calories in the UK, but a drizzle of single estate olive oil over your dish will make a big difference, so overlook it, it’s a good fat! You can use a more basic extra-virgin for cooking, though. 

Why buy plain flour when ‘00’ will do the same job?

Stop seeing ‘00’ flour as a specialist ingredient for pasta; yes, it’s a very finely milled flour that has released a lot of gluten already, which gives pasta its silky texture. But Italians use it for cakes and biscuits too, so really, you don’t need to buy plain anymore. Do buy strong white flour for bread and pizza bases, though. 

When it comes to tomatoes, fresh isn’t always better.

Tomatoes grown in polytunnels at the wrong time of year will be a shadow of what they are supposed to be. Tinned tomatoes, such as San Marzano, are picked at just the right time – the people who grow them know exactly when they are at their best – so they will taste of the sunshine. Much better.

For stress-free risotto, don’t use Arborio rice.

It reaches its peak after exactly 19 minutes of cooking, and after that the grains become overly swollen and stodgy. Unless you’re hovering over the pan and everyone is ready as soon as it’s cooked, it can be tricky. With varieties such as Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, you’ve got a bit more flexibility, as it will stay wetter for longer. They are the kinds used in Venetian-style risottos.


If there are only three main ingredients to a dish, then the taste of your food is about the quality.

Italian food is often incredibly simple, so the right cheese, the right olives, fresh fish, the right cut of pork from the pig with the right band of fat etc. are what counts. You can ruin a dish of white fish with cherry tomatoes and olives by choosing unripe, tasteless tomatoes that have never seen the sun and olives from a can that have been already pitted and dyed black. On that note, never buy ready-pitted olives. Don’t think of it as a chore but as a chance to chat. And try to grow your own herbs – even in the tiny apartments that many Italian live in, they know that they will need a constant supply of herbs so you frequently see pots of rosemary, sage and chillies perched on windowsills and terraces around a city.


Making focaccia and pizza dough is easy and practical.

You just have to be organised. If you make your dough the night before, or even a couple of days ahead of when you want to eat it, then it will improve immensely because it will have had time to ferment and increase in acidity – that’s the flavour element, and why a good pizza crust is so delicious. And when it comes to serving, it’ll be minutes, rather than hours, before it’s ready, too. 

Don’t be scared of fat – the Italians aren’t.

Food in Italy tastes amazing for precisely that reason. The coarseness and fat content is crucial to the texture and flavour of dishes such as meatballs and ragu. You can skim the fat off after the cooking, but the flavour will be there. But if you’d prefer to cut it down, buy your meat from a butcher, where you can choose your own percentage of fat content. We should care more about the sourcing and type of animal we are eating – is it grass-fed? Was the animal allowed to get old enough before slaughter? – in order to create a reasonable layer of fat. Don’t buy lean, just eat less of it. 

It’s bold to be delicate.

Because of the variety of foods our palates are used to in the UK, we come to expect stronger flavours, such as garlic and chilli – but Italians don’t. Many recipes are paired back and subtle so that the flavour of the main ingredients, say Mozzarella di Buffala or a freshly grilled fillet of sole can really be appreciated.

A pinch of salt is something entirely different in English and Italian languages.

I can’t impress upon people I teach enough that tasting the food as you cook for the correct seasoning is crucial. Italians use salt liberally and their food tastes amazing.

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