Created | Updated Nov 18, 2009
Italian cooking is famous the world over. Everyone has heard of spaghetti, pizza, macaroni and then there are Italian wines such as Chianti. Some of these foods (such as pizza) have become widespread through their popularity among Americans, but they all have one thing in common: they came originally from Italy.
Pasta is the most common Italian food. There are many different varieties served with many kinds of sauces. Pizza originated from Naples (or Napoli) although, with many non-Italian toppings now added to pizzas - including pineapple and bacon - most people now consider it to be an American dish, especially thanks to modern fast-food pizza chains.
Other Italian 'national' foods are grissini (breadsticks) from Piedmont, mortadella (salami) and tortellini (a kind of filled pasta) from Bologna, and il parmigiano (parmesan cheese) mainly from Parma.
The History of Italian Cuisine
Italian cuisine is one of the oldest in the world. It is derived from ancient Roman and Greek gastronomic traditions. Some of the dishes around today, such as polenta, are almost exact copies of meals prepared for Roman soldiers about 2000 years ago. Germanic invasions modified Roman meals and customs, and the Renaissance period introduced more refined tastes into the various regions of Italy. Marco Polo and other Italian travellers made journeys to the Far East and brought back new spices and exotic foods. Pasta, a staple food for most Italians, appears to be a wheat version of the rice noodles found across Asia, so perhaps this was also an idea brought back by the Italian merchants.
Tomatoes - pomodori or 'apples of gold' - were originally brought from the Americas by European explorers and initially grown in France. However, Italy's climate was found to be more suitable for growing them quickly and cheaply, so they became a common ingredient of everyday meals cooked by Italians. Salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce) appeared, which is now a common base for Italian recipes.
Other staples of Italian cuisine - especially olio d'olivio (olive oil) and vino (wine) - are very Mediterranean. Olive groves and vineyards have been common in Italy and elsewhere in southern Europe for thousands of years.
Italy is really a political union of many regional groups, each one with its own dialect, customs and typical cuisines.
Cooking in the northern provinces shows an Austrian and German influence; gnocchi alternate with strudel. Austrian dishes, such as schnitzel, are often found in an adapted form in the region of Venice and Trieste. Liguria's cuisine has some similarities with that of the south of France, with much oil and garlic (aglio) found in the dishes there. Indeed, garlic is particularly popular in much Italian cooking as it is easily grown and provides a strong flavour for many dishes.
Cooking in Lombardy and Piedmont is based on the use of butter. A small village near Milano produced the famous, strong-smelling Gorgonzola cheese. Emilia-Romagna, one of the richest areas in Italy, typically has lots of pasta and sausages. Bologna, the capital of the region, is particularly famous for its sauce of minced meat, tomato sauce and vegetables, called Bolognese sauce. The Romans, around Lazio, specialise in fried foods as well as pasta, and also produce the soft moist mozzarella cheese that is so important for pizzas.
Rice is more common in the north, where Arborio rice is grown in the rich and relatively wet valley of the River Po. The main rice dish, risotto, originated in Milano.
Pork is the most common meat in dishes from Umbria, Marche and Abruzzi. Towards the south, in Apulia Basilicata and Calabria, the cooking is rather plainer, based on pork, lamb, kid and pasta. However, dishes are often more highly spiced with pepper and chilli. Naples, in the region of Campania, is the original home of pizza and spaghetti, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia have many well-known recipes using fish and other seafood.
Of course, seafood is popular as a result of Italy's long coastline and involvement in fishing. Clams (vongolo) are a very popular Italian seafood, commonly combined with others to make a pasta sauce (eg, spaghetti alle vongole). However, in the northern regions Italians like to savour their vongole by themselves, without other seafood or tomatoes.
Although all the pasta are wheat-based, some areas of Italy had more access to other starchy foods, such as corn or potatoes. In these regions pasta was less common than polenta (made from cornmeal and often fried) or gnocchi (soft potato dumplings, served with sauce).
The Many Courses of a Typical Italian Meal
Although breakfast is a minor meal in Italy, often consisting of nothing more than a bread roll and milky coffee (caffe latte), traditional lunches tend to have several courses, because there is plenty of time for lunch. Italian children don't go to school in the afternoon, and many small businesses close from midday until about 4pm because of the heat. This makes lunch the social meal of the day, with time to allow the luxury of many courses: the antipasto, the pasta, the main course, the wine and the dessert.
Antipasto - antipasti in the plural - literally means 'before the pasta'. It consists of a varied combination of foods, and should be colourful and served cold.
Two of the most popular Italian ingredients of the antipasti are melon or tomatoes, accompanied by raw ham (prosciutto) that has been cut into very thin slices. Italian varieties of lettuce, such as the slightly bitter endives or rocket, or other green leaves, such as the aniseed-tasting fennel, are usually used as a garnish, placed around the edges of the serving dish. Salami, mortadella, coppa and zampone (meaning big leg) are manufactured meat products common in antipasti.
The look of food, as well as the taste, is important to Italians. For example, salami is reddish and provides a good contrast to the green lettuce. Fish may also be included, especially highly salted anchovies or sardines, served with slices of roasted red capsicum, sometimes in a cold sauce (pepperonata) or chopped garlic.
Some other seafoods may also be used in antipasti and, of course, olives (black, green or capsicum-stuffed) and artichokes are also common servings, as are mushrooms (funghi) seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
There are many types of pasta, each type usually named after its shape. Common types include spirali (spirals), farfalle (butterflies; sometimes described as 'bow-tie-shaped') and conchiglie (shells). Penne are hollow oblongs.
The different shapes are supposed to be better with different types of sauces. Spirali are two strips of pasta twirled around each other and are used with the heavier sauces, such as those containing minced meat and vegetables. Rigatoni are cylinders, or tubes, with a wide diameter and grooves (or lines) on the outside - riga means 'line' in Italian; the suffixes -oni or -one mean big. The idea of the grooves is to hold the sauce on to the pasta, meaning that this pasta is good with more runny sauces.
One group of pasta is made of long thin strands. This includes the most common type of pasta, spaghetti, which you must eat by coiling its long thin strands around a fork - quite a difficult thing to do neatly. It is interesting that, because spaghetti is a plural noun, in Italian it must take a plural verb. So, Italians say, 'Are the spaghetti cooked, and are they ready to eat?' (Gli spaghetti sono cotti e pronti di mangiare?).
Other long thin pastas are tagliatelle, fettucine and linguini (all varieties of flattened spaghetti - linguini means 'tongues'). Extremely thin strands of pasta are called vermicelli (meaning 'little worms'). Another group of pasta is made of flat sheets (lasagne) or tubes (cannelloni), which are either layered or stuffed with meat and cheese fillings.
Whatever the kind of pasta, and whether fresh or dried, it must be cooked in boiling water until al dente ('to the teeth', meaning still a tiny bit hard in the centre) and then served immediately in a bowl with sauce or cheese. There are as many different sauces as there are pastas. Spaghetti is often served bolognese, con parmigiano (the hard cheese from Parma), and 'spaghetti bolognese' is now a common dish in the West. There is even a popular canned version, although this is nothing like the home-cooked Italian meal.
There are some kinds of pasta that have been used to make 'pockets' to hold the sauce inside them instead of outside. Ravioli are soft sheets of pasta rolled around meat or cheese. Tortellini are similar pockets of filled pasta. They also originated from Bologna. The legend is that Venus and Zeus were staying in an inn near Bologna. The innkeeper spied on Venus while she was lying naked on her bed, and was so amazed by her beauty that he ran straight to the kitchen and created tortellini in the image of her navel!
The Main Course
The meats most commonly used in main courses are chicken, veal (calf) and pork, which are often pan-fried or casseroled. Beef is used as steaks (bistecca), while lamb (agnello) is roasted on special occasions, such as Easter and Christmas. Fish and other seafood are often used as main courses. Common vegetables are beans (greens and pulses), potatoes (often sautéed), carrots and salads. Many Italians like to grow their own vegetables.
Fruit is a common dessert, especially in summer, because grapes, peaches, apricots and citrus fruits are a major product of Italy's agricultural industry. Italians also produce many sweet desserts and 'sweet treats', all of which are very appealing. Amaretti (meaning little bitters) are almond-flavoured meringues, which Australians call macaroons. Panforte is a sweet semi-hard 'strong bread' based on nuts and containing dried fruit, which is a classic Christmas treat from Siena. Pannettone (derived from pane d'Antonio, meaning Tony's bread) is a very rich bread-cake and is another Christmas treat.
Of course, the most common drink associated with Italy is wine, as the wine industry has been important to Italy for centuries. Even in Roman times wine was produced throughout Italy. Until recently, and even now in the countryside, most Italians would make their own red or white vino di casa (house wine) after the grape harvest. This would be drunk at every lunch and dinner. Even children were given wine to drink, usually watered down with mineral water (acqua minerale). However, most children prefer fizzy drinks such as aranciata (fizzy orange) or limonata (fizzy lemon). Before dinner many Italians drink an amaro (bitter) to stimulate the digestive system, while after dinner they may drink sweet wines, such as marsala (from Sicily). Children may also be given marsala, beaten with a raw egg and sugar into zabaglione, to strengthen them!