Aug 11, 2010

La dispensa, the Italian pantry

Dark, musty and cool. Walking in the typical Italian family larder would often evoke fear and mystery. Children were seldom allowed entrance. Selected females were granted access and only for retrieving specific items. Otherwise the family matriarch–usually the grandmother–had full control of the stocked supplies and was sole holder of the keys to the food cellar.

Image ©

Preparing and stocking up food in ancillary capacity was a necessity in times of post-war restoration and pure common sense. No supermarket down the street for last minute grocery shopping. Produce was generally always home grown, consumed according to season, and had to be pickled, canned and bottled in order to last the entire year.

This meant the dispensa, or pantry, had shelves upon shelves of oil preserved sausage, pickled vegetables from the garden, syrup soaked fruits, whole legs of prosciutto and foot long salami hanging from the beams. Sacks of dried beans, chick peas and lentils. Demijohns of home made pommarola tomato preserve, bunches of dried herbs hung on wire racks, salted meats, dry goods of all sorts like flour, polenta, semolina. Barrels of grains and cereal. And gallons of wine, emanating alcoholic fumes that permeated the shadowy secret rooms.

Heaven, essentially, in a half dozen square foot enclosure.
Image ©

This however is the Third Millennium, so pantries and alimentary storerooms have succumbed to walk in closets. Slingback Manolos have dethroned Salame Milano. Mason jars are used more as decorating accessories than for storing. Canning and pickling are obviously more labor intensive than just driving down to the supermarket.

But frugality in times like these has become a necessary way of life. A well-stocked storeroom or kitchen pantry actually helps you cook faster, allows you to waste fewer ingredients, offset your carbon footprint, and save money.
Image © simple-green-frugal-co-op

I've decided to adopt my family's ancient pantry tradition by clearing out a broom closet. It's my project for this fall. I will stock my newly inaugurated pantry with jams and preserves made this summer with fruits and vegetables picked fresh from the garden; I'll shop weekly and in season. I'll buy in bulk, and keep crucial supplies constantly topped up.

I'll be a little ant.

If you have any small storage space at your disposal, you too could easily convert it into a pantry. OK if it’s filled with old toys, clothes or broken utensils. All you need to do is a little feng shui clutter clearing and be motivated by this persuasive Aesopic logic: prepare and stock up.

The items listed below, I feel, should never be missing from the kitchen. They are, in my glutton opinion, the bare necessities.
Image ©

Load freezer/refrigerator, cupboard, balcony and create your own Italian dispensa with:

Frozen free range chicken breasts, individually wrapped
Frozen white fish fillets, individually wrapped
Frozen puff pastry sheets (you can find frozen puff pastry sheets in any supermarket freezer case. I’ve produced lots of puff pastry made from scratch, but it’s an arduous process requiring two days of rolling, pounding, letting the dough cool and rest, then rolling and letting rest again, and then freezing it in batches. Keeping the frozen variety on tap for when I need it in a hurry is easier)
Mixed salumi (prosciutto, salami, bacon, mortadella etc.)
Cheese (at least 2 types, eg. Fontina and Gorgonzola, plus steadfast grated Parmigiano)
Milk (whole or skimmed; nonfat is not milk)
Eggs (at least 6)
Lettuce, arugula, mesclun, etc. (entry may include pre-washed salad)
Lemons (unwaxed organic)
Fresh basil by the ton
Onions (at least 3 types, white onions, red and scallions)
Potatoes (if you store them along with an apple, they won't bud)
Celery (copious amounts)
Salt (rock, Kosher, Himalayan, black, sea salt: the more the merrier)
Black pepper (best bought whole, and then freshly ground in a pepper mill)
Peperoncino (Italian hot chili peppers, in flakes or whole)
Extra-virgin olive oil (the best quality you can find)
Dried mushrooms (porcini are a good investment)
All purpose flour
Cake flour
Cornmeal (coarse ground polenta)
Farro (barley is a good substitute)
Dried beans (2 types)
Pesto sauce
Pommarola tomato preserve
Canned tomatoes
Chicken broth (best if homemade from scratch: stock freezes beautifully in quart containers, ice cube trays or in ziploc© storage bags. Otherwise, you can opt for low-sodium chicken stock cubes or granulated formula; those labeled "organic" contain no MSG)
Pasta (a minimum of 2 types, eg. spaghetti and penne), at least 500 gr each
Arborio rice, at least 500 gr
Bread (a good quality loaf plus some sliced sandwich bread, stale bread can be recycled or ground into crumb)
Oil packed tuna
Anchovies (the best-quality are those packed in salt; they need to be be rinsed very well before using, and may need deboning. If salt-packed are not available, look for oil-packed anchovies in little glass jars)
White wine for cooking (a minimum of 2 bottles)
Red wine for emotional rescue (minimum 4 bottles)

Image ©

What's never missing from your pantry?


  1. My kind of Pantry! This post was so informative, it is actually making me hungry~
    Your fall project will be a fun one, your own traditional pantry, I like that:)

  2. we used to have a pantry when we lived in FL...T wants to convert a closet...soon enough. a whole leg of proscuto sounds divine...smiles.

  3. Canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, potatoes, hot dry peppers, good quality canned tuna, gallons of olive oil, wine vinegar, pasta, brown rice and gallons of home made wine.

  4. Eleonora, when you finish your extreme makeover: pantry edition can I hire you to do mine??! LOL

  5. I have one, I have one! Even still filled with a few glasses of jams from last year (like those sand thorn/apple and quince varieties) as well as pears and plums in sugar. New ones of my gooseberry jam have been added this year, and my rum pot has filled up with strawberries and cherries.
    I love your suggestions, although my dry department has some variations. But I also have semolina and noodles and onions and potatoes, well the basics. I cannot understand how people can enjoy a ready-made pizza or chicken nuggets when the home-made food is so incredibly much better!
    Now I am off to make some yeast snails for my visitors this afternoon! Love from Germany, Geli

  6. Why Olive Oil of course! Since living here we have started making jams, pickles, etc again having not done so for many years and we store them on shelves in the above ground level area of our cellar. However I would love a pantry like my neighbours which is very similar to the one in your first photo.

  7. WOW this is a dream pantry! I live in India so i miss lots of ingredients of your list, however i cannot live without extra virgin olive oil, and so that's always in my pantry.

  8. I love that photo of the meats hanging to dry and age. Due to ridiculous laws, one never gets to see that here anymore in stores. And it affects the quality of the meats, of course - and not in a good way.

    Never missing from my pantry? Hmmmmm. Various tomatoes in a canned state - plum tomatoes, peeled; tomato paste; a can of diced and crushed tomatoes. Cans of baked beans. Macaroni products. Various spices and spice blends. Oils. Flour and batter mixes. Canned fish, such as sardines. Dry ingredients for soups and dressings. Rice.

    Nothing amazing, I'm afraid.

  9. CChuck~ I can't wait to stock it all up!!
    Brian~ It's better than a string of pearls, in my opinion!
    Elisa~ We're on the same page then!!
    RdR~ Deal!
    Geli~ Your pantry must be a divine place, I can just imagine the sweet smell...
    Lindy~ I think you're well under way, judging by the number of foods you just listed!
    Chamki~ You stock your larder with amazing Indian specialties, spices, herbs and exotic wonders we can't even dream of!

    Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comments!

  10. Un buon aceto balsamico di Modena non manca mai. Ottimo post


  11. Grazie Laura, è vero l'avevo dimenticato. L'aceto è un must!!

  12. Great post. According to your list I'm pretty well stocked. :-)

  13. Somehow in some way I have almost all that you suggest...

    I am an ant.


  14. Enjoyed reading this post, and now I'm in the mood to go pick some blueberries and make some jam!! I like the photos you picked, too.

  15. Jim~ Sardines, that's another good one. You, on the contrary have a very well-stocked pantry, my friend!
    Theresa~ That's 'cause great minds think alike ;)
    Roseann~ Ciao, formichina! (I knew you would)
    Madeline~ I'm glad you mentioned the photos, because I had a great time scouting them out, especially the '60s "Larder Ladies" courtesy of a retirement home archive.

  16. Farfalle~ polenta is there, both listed in the intro and also listed with its English name, cornmeal. Sugar I had missed! Thank you!!!

    Keep your suggestions coming, so we can make this the ultimate pantry inventory!


  17. You are speaking my language! Add cereals, canned beans, canned tuna and you're good under most conditions. If you have children, add peanut butter and jam.

  18. Hi Lola, love the pantry post.
    Growing up, we had a kind of pantry, called "under the stairs". It had loads of shelves where we stored hundreds of pots of jam (not exaggerating, but there were 7 children, plus parents and grandparents!), and other stuff, like flour in huge sacks.
    My pantry is small,just one high press, but it has all these basics.
    Plus one more not on your list....chocolate, 70%.

    Couldn't be without it!

    P.S. I made a huge pot of plum and apple chutney and wish I could send you some for your pantry.

  19. The first photo looks like my mom's pantry in Serbia! No prosciutto, though, but our own version, "prsuta", made from pork loin, salted, smoked, and hanged to dry! We used to sneak in the middle of the night as teenagers and "pick" home-made garlicky sausages hanging on the beam in the pantry!
    I want one of those pantries here in California!
    I have a lot of staples you mention, but I am still not satisfied.
    Your post is very informative, as usual. I wish you luck in filling up your broom closet! It is going to be so much fun!

  20. Rosaria~ My son doesn't eat peanut butter! Sounds impossible, right? He likes asparagus and fish...
    Mimi~ Chocolate I wouldn't keep in the pantry: I have it on my bedside table! Aw, I'd love to sample your chutney! Boo for distance.
    Lana~ Thank you for sharing your childhood memory. Your mother's pantry sounds dreamy. I tasted prsuta when I visited Belgrade 15 years ago. It was delicious!

    Thank you all for your lovely comments and tips!!

  21. I am drooling.....
    and want to live with you when I grow old....

  22. Wow, what a well-stocked pantry! Btw, my mother tells me that one should not store the potatoes and the onions near each other. Not sure why, I guess they don't get along. ;-)

  23. Emom~ Italians are always very hospitable. So come, make yourself at home! Very little closet space, but a pantry to die for!!
    Saretta~ Onions foster the growth of "eyes," whereas an apple will do the exact opposite. Chemistry is a wonderful thing...
    Pity we didn't hook up in Roma.


  24. Beautiful post. I would have to say brown, red and black rice, hazelnuts. I love cleaning out the pantry, keeping only what is fresh and making use of things.

  25. Diana~ Oooh, pantry cleaning, sounds sweet. Obsessive and deeply therapeutic, I like that!!!

    Langhe hazelnuts, I get you. Thanks for reminding me about venere black rice. Must go out and get me some pronto.

    Baci friend

  26. i love this idea! and you know, eleonora, i like the LOOK of it as much as the practicality and foodability of it all!

    what fun to look at your essential list. my essentials, if it came to that, is olive oil, basalmic vinegar, tomatoes, basil and parm. cheese. add an advocado, and i'm doing fine.


  27. I don't have a pantry , or a big freezer , do have chicken and fish in there though.. Pasta flowing out of the cupboard, cannot get enough of it.

    We love capers with anchovies .. we have olives, tinned tomatoes, tuna, GArlic ... etc, so not doing too badly.

  28. KJ~ I know. The look and the IDEA of it too. We have the same taste, my friend.
    Anne~ You have a GREAT pantry, even if diffused in various storing spaces!!


  29. I like the sound of your pantry.


  30. That post was simply delicious and brought back great memories of my Grandma's pantry.
    Just one small request; If those of you with a fully stocked pantry would be so kind as to post your City and Address, i can plan my road trip !

  31. At one time in my life, a well stocked pantry and freezer were so important. Now, as my 66th birthday approaches, I rarely cook, my family is grown and seldom comes for meals, and I'm only cooking for one. Things get tossed because they're outdated. I miss the old days!

  32. What a wonderful post. I am 4th generation Italian American. This hits so close to home. I want to be that grandmother when the time comes. I have a huge storage are under my stairs. A few shelves, and I will be ready!

  33. Paz~ It's going to be small, but fabulous ;)
    Don Z.~ Tee hee, I should indeed include a "Pantry Tour" in my foodie adventures!
    RNSANE~ Then you must start a revolution in your kitchen! Never too mature for playing little ant...
    Astheroshe~ You'll be a wonderful grandmother, with an amazing pantry and your grandchildren will hide in it, below the stairs–waiting for a tasty treat from their Nonna.

  34. ciao Eleonora
    I am vegetarian so of course all the meat and fish is out. And in replacement I always have marmite and soy sauce for whenever savouriness (is that a word) is required (eg. gravy). Otherwise your pantry is ottimo. In my pantry in my house in France (where I don't get to often enough) I also have jars of fig jam donated from neighbours, and always, always some creme fraiche in the fridge.


  35. oh and capers, capers and more capers. again for the vegetarian with an extremely savoury tooth!

  36. Rose~ We just made a huge batch of Reine Claude plum jam this morning!! It's too soon for fig season, but September will bring tubs and tubs of fig jam! I love capers too, and always smile at the thought of eating a brined/salted flower bud. Crème fraiche is so French, I love that.

    Ciao and congratulations on the superb pantry. Thanks for stopping by!

  37. wow! it was really delicious recipe! thanx 4 sharing!

  38. Best Hamburger Recipe~ Um... no recipe here. This is a list of ingredients, but not to be used all used at once!

    Too lazy to read the entire post, eh? ;)