While some of the most popular dishes associated with Italian culture include a tempting slice of pizza and a plate full of pasta, there is much more to the world of Italian cuisine. In the many regions of Italy, the distinctive cuisine of Italians shines through through a wide range of eating habits, cooking styles, and selection of local ingredients. The change of times has also influenced Italian food, as the foods that were served in pre-Roman times have similarities and differences in today’s cuisine.
Italy’s culinary history established a reputation more than 2,000 years ago, which includes an illustrious movement during the Roman Empire. Culturally, food preparation was quite important in the past, where glimpses of importance have been captured in the only surviving cookbook (Apicius), dating back to the 1st century BC.
The spread of the diversity of Italian food began after the fall of the Roman Empire, when individual city-states began to defend separate identities and traditions. Each region began to show its own unique way of cooking, from the formation of a meatball to the characteristic cheeses and wine produced in one place. The north developed Tuscan beef, while black truffles were very popular in the Marches. Provolone and mozzarella cheeses were developed in the south, as well as a number of interesting citrus fruits.
The various types of bread, variations in pasta, and different food preparation techniques also differed by region. The southern regions of Italy embrace hard spaghetti, while the north often prefers a soft egg noodle. Milan is known for its risotto, while Bologna has a deep history regarding tortellini and Naples is famous for its pizzas.
Over the years, Italian cuisine has evolved enormously, in part due to a host of outside influences that have added to its distinctive flavor and appeal. At first, ancient Greek cuisine became an integral part of Italian cuisine. Eventually, a large number of imported products made its way into the kitchens of the early Italians, who sent Roman ships to collect a variety of important foods, such as wheat, wine, exotic ingredients, and fine spices from around the world. Some ships even traveled to faraway places, such as China, to bring back edible resources that catapulted the depth and variety of Italian cooking styles.
The coastal regions are known for their development in delicious fish and seafood dishes. For example, the island of Sardinia offers a more traditional and simple style of cooking, often incorporating delicacies associated with the sea. Swordfish, lobster, anchovies, sardines and other Mediterranean delicacies represent the Italian cuisine of the area. In Sicily (another island region), much of the cuisine was largely inspired by influences from North Africa. The Arab influence also affected the cuisine of the island and the rest of the south, especially with the introduction of various spices and sweets, such as the Sicilian ice cream cake called cassata.
As for one of the most popular Italian dishes, although history books often state that pasta was a product of the Chinese brought by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, it was actually a rediscovery of a food consumed during Etruscan times and Roman. The first pasta in Italy is believed to have been made similar to today’s noodles, from the same durum wheat, which was cooked in ovens rather than boiled in water.
Today, the differences in Italian cuisine are still manifested in the distinctions between north and south. Each region still has its own traditions in cuisine reflecting a deep history and culture with an endless supply of entrees, appetizers and desserts continually tantalizing the taste buds.