What food usually comes to mind when you think of Italian food? Go on, close your eyes, and picture your favorite dishes from the country.
Chances are you thought of pizza, pasta with tomato sauce, lasagna and perhaps even the sweet tiramisu from the country’s vibrant cuisine.
There’s no doubt Italian food is a world phenomenon. In fact, there are more Italian restaurants worldwide than any other type of restaurant! The world loves Italian food. How well do you know it, though? Let’s talk about the mysteries of Italian cuisine. I hope you’re hungry because this will be one tasty ride.
The History of Italian Food
Sadly, we don’t know as much as we should about what people ate thousands of years ago. Gastronomic archeology is a reasonably recent area. We do know, though, that ancient civilizations in Italy relied on what are still the country’s staple ingredients: Olives, wheat and wine.
Bread plays a significant role in Italy, as it has for thousands of years. Olive oil, of course, is more than a means of cooking; but an ingredient in its own right, and so are olives. Grapes, of course, have always been used to make wine.
Fish and seafood have also been essential in the country since antiquity. There’s a reason why the now-famous Mediterranean diet encourages seafood consumption: The Mediterranean Sea is bountiful! Regions far from the coast champion goat meat, sheep meat and beef, whether consumed fresh or preserved as hams and sausages.
The Ancient Romans, of course, dominated Europe once, and they brought ingredients and cooking methods to Italy from foreign lands. From Nordic herbs to Middle Eastern spices.
During the Middle Ages, most of the population in Italy prepared “Cucina povera,” or poor-man cuisine, based on vegetables and legumes — meat and cheese were reserved for higher social tiers.
Of course, different cultured influenced distinct Italian regions. French and Slavic cultures greatly influenced northern Italy, while southern Italy, especially Sicily, adopted Arab ingredients and cooking techniques during the region’s Arab rule.
Italy is the starting point of the Renaissance’s cultural and social movement between the 15th and 16th centuries. Food flourished, and more sophisticated preparations came to be.
The most significant influence on Italian cooking was the introduction of American ingredients in the mid-16th century, including tomatoes, potatoes and chocolate. The adoption of pasta also occurred around that time! Can you Imagine Italian food without pasta or tomatoes?
Italy might have thousands of years of history, but the current Italian cooking is not particularly ancient. What’s even more interesting is that Italian cuisine continues to evolve. The late 20th century saw the birth of Modern Italian cooking; with prestigious chefs borrowing plays from the French fine-dining scene and merging them with their grandmother’s recipes. Of course, the merge of ancient and modern, local and foreign, has become the Italian food we now love.
Italian Food Culture
Italy, of course, didn’t look like it does today until 1861, with the country’s unification. Before that, every region was independent, and that means that food in Italy is highly regional. Every region has unique cuisine, but we can also say every town and city has its specialties. Drive around Italy and you’ll find different pasta dishes, wines and desserts in every small town!
Northern Italian regions adopted butter and eggs much more than southern regions, where olive oil and dried pasta prevailed. Polenta and rice, AKA risotto, are typical in the north, while durum wheat pasta and bread are the starches of choice in the south. There’s no possible way of talking about a single Italian cuisine.
Pasta and Pizza
Let’s talk briefly about two of the most stereotypical Italian foods: pizza and pasta. Contrary to common belief, pizza is not a national dish in Italy but a local specialty from Naples. Flatbread, unlike modern pizza, was already famous since the Roman Era. Of course, tomato sauce took a few centuries to be adopted as a critical pizza ingredient.
Pasta, on the other hand, is everywhere in Italy. Some experts believe there are at least 500 types of pasta in Italy and there are at least a few dozen ways of preparing it. From refreshing Pesto in Liguria to the famous Ragu in Emilia-Romagna. And let’s not forget about the creamy Pasta alla Carbonara found everywhere in Rome!
Cured Meats and Cheese
Cured meats have a special significance in Italy. The art of curing and preserving meat has thousands of years in the country. Guanciale, Mortadella, Prosciutto, Salame and Soppressata are just a few popular Italian cured meats, and the law protects most of them as traditional European products.
Cheese in Italy is equally varied. We all know the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano, but we’re also familiar with mozzarella, provolone, gorgonzola, fontina, mascarpone, ricotta and burrata. Italians love cheese, that’s for sure, and we all benefit from their passion for the dairy product.
Wine and food are two sides of the same coin, particularly in Italy, where every region is a source of fantastic wine. As with food, wine looks different depending on the Italian region. Grape growers and winemakers in Northern Italy champion cold-climate grapes, including Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo, Barbera and many others. Central Italy is home to the famous Sangiovese, and Southern Italy is all about big and bold red wines made with Primitivo, Nero d’Avola, Montepulciano and others.
There are nearly 400 grape varietals in Italy, and these are only the ones used to make wine commercially. Experts suggest there are over 1350 different grapes in Italy!
Of course, you can expect the country’s wine styles to be equally varied. From robust red wine to lusciously sweet specialties and everything in between, there’s an Italian wine for all palates, budgets and occasions.
What Does Italian Food Mean to You?
The nicest thing about Italian cooking is that you don’t even need to visit the country to enjoy it. Of course, there’s nothing like tasting the real deal, but Italian immigrants have taken their homeland’s flavors to every corner of the earth.
Italian food is more than nourishment. The time spent around the table has an immense significance to Italians, and so do the people they share a meal with. We all love Italian food, not only for its flavor but for what it represents — community.
What are your favorite Italian dishes? How about your favorite wine? When it comes to Italian cuisine, there’s no wrong answer. Need inspiration? Visit Italy and find your new favorite meal!