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Italian restaurants on Long Island: A tour of Italy's food by region

Baccala salad is served at La Piccola Liguria,

Baccala salad is served at La Piccola Liguria, which opened in Port Washington in 1990. Credit: Alessandro Vecchi

There was no Italy until 1861. At the table, there still isn't.

What's under the umbrella of Italian cuisine really is the product of 20 regions and 110 provinces, and they're intensely regional.

It would take some doing to find polenta on a typical table in Palermo, just as it would to enjoy caponata as part of the meal in Turin. The fiery peppers of Calabria might be a scarce ingredient during dinner in Emilia-Romagna; fresh tagliatelle, an unlikely partner for spicy sausage ragù.

On Long Island, the main region represented is Campania,, where Naples is located. At least one is devoted to Lazio, the region of Rome; and another has Liguria in its name. There are a few restaurants that regularly offer Sicilian specialties, too.

The one most ardently devoted to Sicily's singular cuisine was Joseph Altadonna's Villa Altadonna in Mineola, which originated in Ozone Park, Queens, relocated to Little Neck from the Nassau address in 2003 and eventually closed.

The flavors of Sicily are among the most distinctive at Casa Rustica in Smithtown, though the restaurant does have a menu that covers many parts of Italy, from stuffed zucchini blossoms in season and burrata mozzarella to lobster risotto and Tuscan-style grilled rib-eye steak.

From Sicily, "We do swordfish rollatine filled with raisins and pignoli, and orange sauce," said Mimmo Gambino, who owns Casa Rustica and established it with partners three decades ago. "And we do pasta con le sarde regularly, but it's a hard sell for Long Island . . . When people think about sardines, they right away think sardines in cans."

Pasta con le sarde is perhaps the best-known Sicilian pasta, often using bucatini, and made with fresh sardines, fennel, raisins, pine nuts, capers, saffron, anchovies, olive oil and sometimes slivered almonds, finished with a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs.

But Gambino added that the restaurant soon may add stuffed and baked fresh sardines, called sarde a beccafico, and traditionally completed with a bit of lemon or orange juice. A dish associated with Spain as well as Sicily, whole fish baked in a salt crust, has been a Casa Rustica mainstay.

New to the repertoire: caponata of artichokes, a variation on the classic Sicilian sweet-sour relish recipe with eggplant. Grilled octopus is a popular appetizer. And pasta with a vivid sauce including black olives, garlic and olive oil, has returned.

Benny's Ristorante in Westbury similarly cooks some Sicilian dishes, notably pasta con le sarde with fennel from owner Benny DiPietro's garden. But his most popular pasta is fettuccine with shrimp and scallops; his most popular main course, veal chop Valdostana, stuffed with Fontina cheese and prosciutto and lightly breaded. "We have everything," he said.

So did Trattoria Diane in Roslyn, which in 2010 took a turn toward Lazio and the cuisine of Rome. Chef John Durkin's top pastas now are spaghetti alla carbonara and bucatini all'Amatriciana. But they're buttressed by fettuccine alla Bolognese; ricotta gnocchi with sausage, fennel and tomatoes; and a butternut-squash ravioli with butter and sage, if not spaghetti a cacio e pepe, or with pecorino cheese and black pepper.

La Piccola Liguria in Port Washington has represented the region where Genoa is situated for 25 years. Owner Victor Raimondo prepares dishes as diverse as cima alla Genovese, or stuffed veal; and pasta with pesto. The restaurant, where the day's specials rival the formal menu in length, also makes Ligurian specialties that include pasta with walnut sauce, ravioli with Swiss chard, pansotti, stuffed zucchini, grilled sardines, and minestrone with tripe.

Sant Ambroeus has brought a suggestion of Milan as well as Manhattan to Southampton since 1992. The breaded veal chop Milanese vies, however, with scaloppine alla puttanesca; and risotto, made here with lobster, competes with tagliatelle alla Bolognese.

Ironically, the province that has provided the most-invoked regional adjective, "Tuscan," is elusive in Nassau and Suffolk. You'd be looking for pappardelle with hare; the spaghetti called pici, risotto with cuttlefish; cacciucco, the seafood stew; ribollita, a wintry soup with beans, cavolo nero cabbage and bread; and salt-free bread. The closest you may come is bistecca alla Fiorentina or a spin on it, a thick, rare T-bone with a drizzle of olive oil that's more likely to be found in a steak house.

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