An important staple of the Italian diet is il fagiolo (the bean). There's a vast variety of beans in many shapes, colors, and sizes, with local names, but the principal ones are borlotti (pinto beans) and cannellini (small white beans). Other popular legumi (legumes) include ceci (garbanzo beans or chickpeas), lenticchie (lentils, of which there are many varieties), and fave (fava beans).
When in season (late spring), cannellini and borlotti are sold fresh in their pods, da sgranare (to shuck), but in addition to being canned, they're found on the shelves of supermarkets and alimentari (small grocery stores or delis) in dried form. They get soaked for many hours, and then cooked for a relatively long time, in terra cotta pots (traditionally). They contain a fair amount of protein, so they're a great source of protein for vegetarians, as well as for people who can't afford to buy much meat.
Even the cooking water from the beans doesn't go to waste, but gets pureed with a portion of the beans themselves, making a great vegetarian brodo (broth) for the kind of soups that are particularly popular in Tuscany.
There's talk, in this week's video about famous Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, about the type of lunch that would be served in his parents' trattoria (small family run restaurant), which catered to workers, and consisted of humble ingredients and dishes.
...un ristorante frequentato, fondamentalmente,
...a restaurant frequented, fundamentally
da operatori di questo tipo,
by workers of this type,
quindi un ristorante dove si facevano panini,
therefore a restaurant where they made sandwiches,
dove si faceva la trippa,
where they made tripe,
e dove si facevano ... non so i fagioli.
and where they made ... I don't know, beans.
Captions 3-8, L'arte della cucina - La Prima IdentitáPlay Caption
Trippa (tripe), from the first stomach of the cow, is (or was) one of the more inexpensive animal proteins, which is why Gualtiero talks about it being a popular dish at his parents' trattoria. See this article about preparing la trippa!
Fagioli may seem like an unassuming, inexpensive, simple contorno (side dish), but when conditi (seasoned) with high quality olio extravergine di oliva (extra virgin olive oil), they become a delicious classic dish appreciated by diners all over Italy.