In Italy, no home is without its dispensa, a store cupboard of core ingredients that allows you to create meals in minutes. In my house, this is a wall cupboard filled with jars of everything, olive oils, dried pastas, dried mushrooms, capers, olives and artichokes sott'olio.
For lovers of Italian food, a well-stocked dispensa is essential. In mine I always have, among other things, two or three different styles of olive oil, dried pasta (at least three shapes), risotto rice and pulses such as borlotti or cannellini beans.
With a good supply of top-quality ingredients, impromptu meals and small gatherings become hassle-free and spontaneous, freeing you to have fun with your family or guests. Here is a list of what I consider essential Italian ingredients that no home should be without. Add these few store cupboard basics to some fresh meat, fish and vegetables then you have a lifetimes worth of dishes at your disposal.
OLIVE OIL - One of the essential ingredients of Italian cooking, olive oil is used not simply as a cooking oil but for the flavor it adds to a dish. It is important to use the right oil for the right job. Extra-virgin olive oil has the most flavour so it's best to use it for dressing dishes such as pasta, salads, fish, etc . . . . Never use it for frying, all you are doing is wasting your money, normal olive oil is good enough to be heated up, extra-virgin olive oil will just loose it's flavour. Extra-virgin olive oil can be expensive, so I would suggest you buy the best you can afford but READ THE LABEL many oils will say "Bottled In Italy" this is a slightly misleading term as often means that the oil is just put in the bottles in Italy and the olives themselves may have been imported from Spain, France, Greece, etc.
DRIED PASTA - There is nothing wrong at all with dried pasta, in many dishes it is the best pasta to use. The one tip I can give when buying pasta is spend a little extra. Pasta imported from Italy such as Barilla and De Cecco are generally made from semolina flour or durum wheat and are good choices.
TOMATOES - Many people think you have to use fresh ripe tomatoes in Italian recipes an yes to a point this is true, but there is nothing wrong if you use good canned tomatoes or a good brand of Passata. Most good Deli's and even supermarkets now stock imported Italian tinned tomatoes, tomato pastes and passata's. Choose whole, peeled tomatoes rather than chopped or crushed, you can crush them with a wooden spoon as you are cooking them. If you can find them Italian San Marzano tomatoes are very, very good.
BEANS - I always have some good quality tinned beans in my store cupboard. The best ones to have are cannellini beans, borlotti beans, chickpeas and lentils, as these are the main varieties which feature in many Italian recipes. Dried beans are great too, if you have the time to cook them but for most of use a good quality brand of tinned beans would be absolutely fine. As with most other things it's worth paying a little more and if you can the Italian imported brands such as Campo Largo or Bellini are the best.
POLENTA - Use a medium textured polenta as this is great for making both wet and dry polenta. Keep it in a tightly closed container, and it will last for months. You can also use polenta flour to dust your pizza stone when making pizza and to add texture to your baked goods.
RICE - Arborio is the most common rice used in making risotto, but other varieties, such as Carnaroli or Vialone Nano which are just now becoming readily available, are perhaps even better. Store your risotto rice in a airtight glass jar and keep out of direct sunlight.
BALSAMIC VINEGAR - There are many varieties of balsamic vinegars. Depending on its age, it can be extremely expensive. You can use an inexpensive one for salads, as long as the quality is good it is a little bit of trial and error but many Deli's will let you taste before you buy. For salads and dressing dishes I use the squeezy packs of Balsamic vinegar reduction, it is very syrupy and has a great concentrated flavour.
ANCHOVIES - Anchovies can be found either preserved in oil or in salt and either is good. The Italians use anchovies as a seasoning in dishes rather than using salt, especially in pasta dishes and on meats such as lamb and they even bake them into their breads to make fantastic Grissini. You can also find anchovy paste in a tube, which is milder in taste and is quite convenient if your in a hurry. If you use the salted anchovies always remember to rinse away the excess salt before using them.
DRIED MUSHROOMS - Look for packages that have large slices of whole mushrooms. They add a wonderful rich flavor to risottos, pasta sauces, and stews, and can use them to infuse plain white mushrooms with their flavour. Although they can be an expensive item, a little goes a long way, and if kept in an airtight container, they'll keep for a long time. When you rehydrate your dried mushrooms always keep the water used to rehydrate them as it will add a depth of flavour to many of your soups, sauces and stews.
CAPERS - You can find two types of capers. The smaller ones that are in brine, and the larger ones that come packed in salt. The larger ones are very flavorful, but require rinsing before using, and tend to be a little more difficult to find in the shops. The brine packed capers are great for adding punch to a dish or scattering on pizzas' and the liquid they are in is great splashed in tomato sauces for dishes such as Pasta Putenesca
OLIVES - Both the black and green varieties are good, if packed in brine and imported from Italy even better. I always have a jar of pitted olives on the go, you can put them in stews, use them as a stuffing in meat dishes, add them to pasta or pizza's, baking in bread and so on. If you want to eat the olives just as they are though there is really no substitute for good quality black and green olives, either marinated or stuffed straight from the Deli counter.
HERBS - Generally fresh herbs are preferred in everyday cooking, but it is also important to keep dried oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage available as these are great for adding to breadcrumbs or sprinkling on pizzas.
SEASONING - Whole black pepper to be ground at the last minute is essential. Sea salt is another important seasonings to have on hand and don't forget to add salt to your boiling water before you cook your pasta, it really makes your pasta taste so much better.
FLOUR - I usually have three different flours at home. Tipo "00" pasta flour for making pasta and pizza dough, strong bread flour for cakes and desserts and semolina flour for dusting work surfaces, baking trays, pizza stones, etc and to add texture to baked goods.