Italian Food History and
Common Foods in Italy
Italian food history is influenced in part by the country's being nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps. This created a somewhat insulated land where the culture wasn't --unlike many areas in Europe-- fused with the cultures of the surrounding regions. However, many of the more traditional common foods in Italy --such as pasta-- have long histories in other lands. What did the Italians do? They simply put their own culture's famous flavors into those items.
Pasta is a good example, having arrive to Italy with Marco Polo from the Far East. And another common food in Italy, the tomato, isn't as "Italian" as many believe. Tomatoes were once considered poisonous in Italy, so tomato sauce was a much later addition to the Italian plate. And, of course, any food that was found in a culture that was part of the ancient Roman Empire could easily find its way to Italy-- particularly spices and vegetables. With this in mind, it's not surprising that Italian food history evolved as much as it did.
Check my Typical Italian Menus and Recipes for some authentic Italian cooking!
2,000 Years of Evolving Italian Food
Some 2000 years ago, Italian food history begins with the Roman Empire. In the first century BC, the only surviving ancient cookbook was produced by Apicius in Italy. But even if the region had the first cookbook on record, most people didn't use them-- most of them could not read.
In ancient Italy, cooking was simple and differed by region (which it still does today). Over time, particularly after the fall of Rome, those same regions became known for something specific-- unique characteristics of their food, from a particular preparation process to the types of wines, cheeses, fruits, mushrooms, pasta and spices in each recipe. Those same Italian food regions hold true today. For example, where you can always get risotto in Milan, if you want pizza go to Naples!
Italian Food History by Region
Generally speaking, Naples held the lead in the arts and sciences. But it was the Northern cities of Italy --they enjoyed a heavy trade route that brought in a great variety of food options-- that at first became known for their rich foods and recipes. In particular, the North is considered to have a culinary pasta culture, and Bologna is considered the true heart of Italy's cooking traditions.
Mean while we can thank southern Italy for dry pasta, which was perfect for trade since it was easy to store and transport. It was also incredibly affordable. By the 1700s pasta was very popular thanks in part to the Arab occupation.
Influences Found in Common Foods in Italy
Greek cooking definitely had an impact on Italian food history and the culinary arts of Italy. Additionally, as the world was explored and a greater variety of exotic ingredients became available, those too appeared on the Italian tables... but with a unique local twist. Sicily, for example, seemed to favor North African flavors or Arabic ones.
The northern region of Italy experienced periodic occupation by Austria or France, both of whom left behind flavors and recipes that would become integrated into the menu. Finally, Muslims also influenced Italian food history, particularly in the use of fruits for a wide variety of courses, not simply breakfast or dessert.
Modern Italian Pasta and Cooking
Today, the fierce individuality of the Italian food regions has remained firmly intact. Each city or region still produces its own wine, cheese, and specialty items that are traditional and well loved. No matter where you go there's a specific way to make bread, sausage and pasta (and every one of them has a secret to it!). By far, however, pasta seems to be the King of Italian food having more variations in shape and texture than imaginable. You'll find egg noodles up north, while the south favors spaghetti; tortellini in Bologna, and risotto in Milan.
No matter where you travel, however, there is no questioning the passion of the Italians for both their food and their history. Wherever in Italy you may be, the people that live there will love to share both, especially to appreciative appetites. The richness of Italian food history, after all, is found in its sheer variety. And its passion.
Learn more about Italian cooking and Italian food history on my Italian Menu Page!
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