When you think of Italian cooking, you probably think about the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen and the blend of flavors you'll savor when you taste the first bite. This is due in large part to the herbs and spices that Italian cooks use. There are several that are very important to this type of cuisine.
Probably the first thing that comes to mind is basil. This herb can be grown in a pot or a small piece of the garden. You want to start cooking Italian food as soon as the first shoots arise from the ground, for its flat green leaves give off a wonderful aroma. Very few Italian dishes can do without some chopped basil.
Another great herb is oregano. This, too, can be grown by you; although like basil and many other herbs it can now be purchased freshly cut in a good grocery store. It adds a certain zing to Italian cooking that is easily recognizable.
Italians also use a lot of parsley. Italian parsley is different from the curly American kind. It has flat leaves and smells wonderful as you snip off a bit to add to your sauce. It's fairly easy to find in the produce aisle of your supermarket.
Most herbs are best added fresh to the dish, but in the winter or in a pinch it's certainly okay to use the dried versions found in bottles. Just don't keep them on the shelf too long or they lose some of their potency. And be sure to use a bit less of the dried spices, as their taste has been made sharper with the drying process. Bay leaves are often found in jars, and they're nice to add to Italian soups or to flavor a piece of fish. Other spices like thyme are also favorites.
Italian food has its own wonderfully unique taste, and much of that is due to the spices that Italian cooking relies on for flavor and aroma.