Italy, known as Baele Paese, meaning beautiful country, has some of the world's most beautiful cuisine. Italian cuisine confers us with a wide canopy of diverse foods. At the same time, these gorgeous dishes consist of fresh and simple ingredients. Many Italian foods only require two to four main ingredients, and Italian chefs routinely depend on the quality of ingredients, rather than elaborate preparation. Italian dishes use a broad selection of cooking styles and recipes organized with the maestro's touch of a fine symphonic orchestra. The forms, colours and aromas compose a stunning work of art at the dinner table.
Cultural Influences on Italian Cuisine
The genesis of Italian cuisine dates back to Ancient Rome. Since the Roman Empire spanned an estimated 2,734,033 miles from holdings that included Mediterranean Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia, the Romans pulled influences from across the conquered regions of their empire. The spices and ingredients of distant lands came to embody the Italian spirit of cuisine.
Many of the staple dishes in the Mediterranean diet were found in Ancient Rome. Things like wine, legumes, bread, olive oil and cheese all originated from this time. To further enrich the spirit of Italian cuisine, Romans explored and experimented with ingredients like fish sauces, ostrich meat and roasted game.
Some of the early influences on Italian cuisine included:
- Ancient Greek
- North African Arab
The Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia also influenced Italian cuisine.
Pasta: What You Need to Know
To give you an example of the Etruscan influence, historians found that pasta dates back to 800 BC when the Etruscans conquered Rome. However, the Etruscans ate pasta as early as the fourth century BC. Pasta also showed up in Ancient Greece, but its earliest origins show up in Ancient China during the Shang dynasty (1700-1100 BC), where it originated as noodles.
Pasta flourished in the regions of Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria. Historians single out a mural in an Etruscan tomb where the native Etruscans held cooking utensils to roll and form pasta, sharing resemblance to how we do it today. The tools included a rolling pin and a cutting machine. Like much of Italian culture, pasta flourished during the Renaissance, and by the 14th century, it became a staple dish in Italian fare.
Ancient Roman Cookbook Paints a Picture
Want to see how the spirit of Italian cuisine evolved up until today? De re coquinaria, one of the world's oldest cookbooks, is a collection of Ancient Roman recipes that archaeologists believe dates back to the first century AD. The book is written in Classical Latin, and you will learn about how breadmaking was introduced to the Romans by the Greeks. You will also learn about the fermentation of grape juice to make wine. Keep in mind, you must know Latin to read it.
Italian Culture Cares About Family Recipes
The cooking history of an Italian family is cherished and respected. Nonnas, or Italian grandmothers, will pass on prized family recipes as a proud symbol of heritage. You wouldn't find it uncommon for some families to hold recipes going back three or more generations. Some Italians may know the regional characteristics of a recipe more than others.
Italian Cuisine in the Middle Ages
The Western Roman Empire fell in 395 AD. After that point, Italy consisted of five major city-states, and it remained that way until 1861 when it became known as the Kingdom of Italy. Between the city-state and unification period, Italy had conquering groups that included the Visigoths, Arabs, Normans, Huns and Byzantines. The many conquerors left an enduring legacy on Italian cuisine.
In the Middle Ages, the Arab Muslims occupied modern-day Sicily. During that time, a variety of spices and fruits were imported to the region. Believe it or not, sea travel had an influence, also. When the Arab Muslims held Sicily, it ushered in an era of sea travel. Because of that, many cooking techniques around that time focused on preserving food for long voyages. This period brought us dried pasta, which was first documented in 1279, and it is believed that the Arabs invented it for their sea travels, since it was stored easily on ships.
Roman Catholicism and Its Influence on Italian Cuisine
Roman Catholicism dominates the Italian landscape with 69 percent of today's population adhering to the Catholic faith. With that in mind, it played a central role in Italian food culture. Ever wondered why Italians eat gnocchi only on Thursdays? Even today, many restaurants in Rome serve gnocchi only on Thursdays because, according to the Catholic tradition, Thursday was a day of culinary indulgence that prepared its followers for fasting on Friday.
Fish became a Friday meal because it broke the day's fasting requirements, and they served it as a light meal. Many Italians throughout Rome also eat lamb on Easter Sunday as a representation of Christ's sacrifice. You see many Italians who adhere to the Catholic faith eating lamb on Easter Sunday. Christmas Eve shows us another example of Catholicism's influence on Italian cuisine. Many Roman Catholics will dine on seafood over Christmas Eve because they see it as a time to fast from meat.
In the past, meat was eaten sparingly by the Italians because of strict dietary guidelines from Catholicism, which associated it with sexuality and sin. Because of these restrictions, other foods like bread, cheeses, legumes, eggs and fruits rose in popularity and influenced the recipes.
Some superstitions surrounding Catholicism and foods exist as well. For example, Italians see it as bad luck to seat 13 people at a table in reference to the Last Supper. Bread should also never be placed upside down, which most food historians believe was influenced by the Catholic faith.
Around the time of the Renaissance, bread and wine were extraordinarily common with only a small portion of meat in the Italian diet. They preferred fowl because birds lived closer to the heavens when they took to flight, another influence of the Catholic faith.
Culinary Awakening: The Renaissance
The Renaissance influenced many things from art to scientific discovery. One lesser appreciated side of the Renaissance was the rebirth of Italian cuisine during this monumental era from the 14th century until the 17th century. During this time, Italy communicated increasingly with its neighbouring countries, and the paradigm of Italian cuisine shifted. Before, Italian cuisine consisted of isolated agricultural traditions, but dense urban centres rose up as the central point of commerce and trade. Food became an art and fine pleasure in Renaissance Italy, and Italians shared their cuisine with foreigners in a cultural exchange. The kitchens of affluent Italians like the Medicis held hired chefs to cook the finest cuisine on the peninsula. Many spices and ingredients from distant lands passed through the ports of Italy and influenced the recipes during this time.
Around the time of the Renaissance, another cultural tsunami would soon influence Italian cuisine and leave its indelible mark on it forever—the discovery of the Americas.
American Tidal Wave: How Pre-Columbian America Changed Italian Cuisine Forever
Think of any Italian dish, and most will use tomato sauce as the most common ingredient. Pasta, pizzas, salads and side dishes of every kind use tomato sauce. Even today, most Italian families make and bottle their own tomato sauce as gourmets of this cherished ingredient, despite it being widely available on the commercial market. Today, the largest producers of tomatoes are in regions of Italy like Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, Calabria, Emilia-Romagna and Campania.
With that in mind, you might never believe that tomatoes originated from the Aztec culture. The name derives from the Mayan word for it xtomatl. Historians trace its origins as far back as 700 AD in the Americas, and it is believed native to the Americas. Tomato sauce was an ancient Aztec condiment on foods, and Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar and missionary priest, was the first European to write of it, making note of a prepared sauce in Tenochtitlan, the modern-day Mexico City.
Soon, the Spaniards brought the tomato back to the Old World where the tomato was introduced to Italy in the 16th century. For a long time, the tomato remained purely decorative. In fact, despite entering the Old World in the 16th century, a couple of centuries passed before Italian chefs began to use it in their recipes.
The tomato has largely come to embody the spirit of Italian dishes, but you should understand how tomatoes weren't the only thing introduced to Italy from the Americas. You had other influences on Italian cuisine. Other vegetables like zucchini, squash, peppers, corn, potatoes and beans also came from the Americas. Some of the foods this inspired included:
- Potato gnocchi
- Italian baked zucchini
- Zucchini parmigiana
- Venetian sweet-and-sour beans
- Cacio e Pepe
Chocolate was another influence on Italian cuisine from the Americas. Antonio Carletti introduced chocolate to Italy, and it spread like wildfire across the Italian peninsula. Italy holds a respectable chocolate legacy. The Florentines, for example, introduced perfumes like amber and musk or lemon peel and citron to chocolates. Francesco Redi was the first to introduce chocolate-infused jasmine.
You could attribute many chocolate dishes to Italians. For example, chocolate dessert soup, chocolate sorbet and chocolate custard were created in mid-18th century Naples. Neapolitans were also the first to combine chocolate and coffee for cakes and drinks. In 1678, a Turinese Italian baker called Antonio Ari was commissioned by the Italian king to make a chocolate drink topped with a layer of espresso and cream. He served it in a small glass with a metal base. The drink later became known as bicerin, and it remains a popular drink in Turin to this day.
The Reunification of Italy in 1861
Before 1861, Italy consisted of small city-states, but when they reunified, this sowed together distinct flavours from distinguished regions on the peninsula. To this day, we have a rich culinary tradition because of the distinction from the city-states. Each region of Italy showcases a diverse array of ingredients and flavours.
Italy is comprised of 20 distinct regions known for its own unique culinary treasures. Let's take a peek at six of the most tantalizing areas.
The most famous foods in Lombardy include Bucco, risotto and osso. Lombardy is also famous as the birthplace of popular cheeses like creamy Ribiola, Gran Padano, ripe Taleggio and tangy Provolone.
Tuscany's most popular distinguishing trait is giant bread baked in salt-free loaves. The locals use it in soups and salads. You will find this common in Panzanella and ribollita.
Curing meat has become a fine art in Emilia-Romagna, and the finest meat in all of Italy, prosciutto di Parma is produced here. Other famous foods include tortellini and Bolognese sauce.
You will find meat, lamb, pork, rabbit and veal common in Sicily. The Sicilians claim they invented the meatball, known as polpetti. Pasta usually means a spicy tomato sauce here.
Famous for its fresh zucchini, superior artichokes and tender porchetta, Lazio is popular for its spaghetti carbonara and bucatini all amitriciana.
Found in the area of the city of Naples, the Neapolitans invented pizza and can proudly proclaim having the first pizzeria. This bread-loving culture has other famous foods like calzone and buffalo mozzarella.
The rich spirit of Italian cuisine celebrates life's finest moments in a state of pure ecstasy. Menus in Italy taste so good that it has gone on to influence the cuisine of other cultures. Looking at what foods Italians brought to America, it includes an extensive list of mouth-watering choices like pizza, meatballs and spaghetti. One of the characteristics that delineate Italian cuisine is the spirit of celebration and experimentation. Even today, Italian chefs search for new ways to refine their dishes.
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