Italy is a new country. Unified in 1861, the “boot and ball” of the peninsula was actually a mosaic of different states, rulers, languages and monetary systems – and most definitely different cuisines. The varieties in cooking developed reflecting the land—the climate and agriculture which varies so greatly from the mountain ranges of the Alps to the Apennines and the Adriatic to the Mediterranean Seas.
Ironically, so many of the foods considered basics of “Italian” dishes actually harken from around the world! Marco Polo brought spaghetti back from China, and rice arrived from Asia via Spain two hundred years later. Tomatoes, peppers and corn came back from America with the first explorers to the New World. Oranges, lemons, mandarins, almonds, pistachios, sugar, as well as eggplant and basil were brought to Sicily by the Arabs before the year 1000…Gelato and sorbet? The Arabs also taught the Sicilians to take snow from Mt. Etna and mix it with citrus and sugar for a delicious treat!
Italy’s diverse and temperate climate allowed an incredible culinary biodiversity to develop. Therefore, wherever you go in Italy, you will be savoring the local culinary customs. No one here refers to “Italian food”…it is instead Sicilian, Neapolitan, Tuscan, Umbrian, Ligurian, Venetian and on and on. The only time the Italians identify themselves as “Italian” is when there is the World Cup in soccer!
However, cucina casalinga, or home cooking, is considered exemplary because it summons the idea of warmth and family gathered around the table for a simple but delicious meal.
Each region has its own bread, its own wines, its own cakes and each region fervently loves its own food. Tuscan bread, for example, is a heavy, for many, tasteless loaf, made without salt. Poor Dante, exiled from his beloved Florence in 1301, wrote sadly from Ravenna: [when far from home]…You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man’s bread… for almost all the rest of Italy puts salt in their loaves.
Hard wheat, grown in the south, is where pasta, starting with spaghetti, was developed and eaten, often dressed only with olive oil, or the water from cooking vegetables. Naples is also where pizza originated.
In the north, corn and rice are grown, so the northern regions showcase risotto and polenta, or corn meal mush. Rich and delicious stuffed egg pastas, like ravioli, tortellini and lasagne all come from Emilia Romagna.
Bread is a staple in Tuscan cooking. Dishes such as pappa al pomodoro and ribollita are hearty soups made using stale bread and panzanella is a refreshing bread salad enjoyed in the summertime.
The local saltless bread is also well paired with cured meats like prosciutto, and flavorful wild boar sauces.
No one wants to leave a delicious sauce behind in one’s plate!
Better to sop it up with a crust of bread, called la scarpetta …as though you were wiping your plate with a little shoe!
Wine, another essential part of a meal, also reflects the soils and climates which directly affect the varieties of grapes grown and the wines produced, which of course influence the food which is savored with it.
The food eaten in Italy follows the seasons. One eats artichokes and fennel in the autumn, and melons and peaches in the summer. Chestnuts are collected in November and marvelous sweets appear such as Castagnaccio, (made with olive oil, raisins, rosemary and walnuts); Montebianco (chestnut puree with whipped cream to resemble the mighty Mont Blanc); and, Necci: chestnut crepes filled with sweetened ricotta.
November is also when olives are laboriously harvested and brilliant green olive oil is pressed…(the previous years’ oil is then used for cooking). This is when fettunta (toasted bread dripping with new oil and salt) is prominent on menus. One is sad to see the seasons change, but glad to welcome new flavors as well. There are certain sweets which can only be found for certain holidays or saints days: panettone and “fingers of the Apostles” for Christmas, rice fritters for Saint Joseph’s day, St. Agatha’s “breasts” filled with marzipan and little fried cenci (rags) dusted with powdered sugar for Carnival.
Italy was an agricultural nation since the beginning of time, and people stayed pretty close to home. After World War II, the countrysides finally got electricity, and that powered radios and televisions, which brought news of the “outer world”, as well as the desire for refrigerators, scooters, washing machines and cars. Industrialization and its production got people abandoning the countryside and moving to nearby cities. Subsequently, when burgeoning factories in Torino and Milano opened they offered many job opportunities and a huge wave of poor people from southern Italy emigrated to the north. This is when culinary customs were shared: people started eating spaghetti and tomato sauce in the north, and polenta and rice dishes in the south.
In 1861, when the newly unified Italy started organizing itself and building an infrastructure of roads, trains, schools and hospitals, taxes were levied to finance these works. Southern Italy (Sicily, Campania, Puglia and Calabria), which had been plundered under Spanish rule for almost 400 years, was really poor. The people, who owned nothing (nullatenenti), and could not pay these new taxes, faced prison. This is when millions of southerners emigrated to Ellis Island, bringing their beloved culinary traditions and dialects with them. Spaghetti with meatballs, cannoli, “pasta fazoo” (bean soup with short pasta cooked in it), wine and wine making all arrived at that time. The Gallo brothers first made their fortune sending crates of California-grown grapes by train to New York City where the Italian families would press them and make their own wine in their apartment basements. All of these delicious foods entered America with its newly arrived population in the late 1800’s. Therefore, what is generally considered “Italian food” in the US is actually the food of the southern regions.
Today, the variety of Italian culinary traditions and the popularity of the healthy “Mediterranean diet” have helped to make this simple but inspired cuisine welcome everywhere in the world. Whichever region you come to walk with us in, we share not only the trails, skies, geography and flora of the areas, but also the opportunity to savor wonderful local dishes, cheeses, breads, wines and learn the customs behind them!