Italian Food & Cuisine History
Despite the common American misconception, there is no typical approach when it comes to Italian cuisine. Instead, styles have developed over the centuries on the regional levels resulting in a multitude of customs and techniques. If there were to be a unifying theme in Italian cooking, however, it would have to be the utilization of fresh, seasonal ingredients. However, due to the diversity of climate and geography in Italy, even the available ingredients themselves are different from area to area.
A good example of the regionalism of styles and ingredients can be found in the differences between northern and southern Italian cooking. Much of southern diet is influenced by its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in its reliance on fresh fish such as tuna and swordfish. In addition, its abundance of seafood has caused the cooking style to be lighter and simpler, highlighting ingredients such as tomatoes and olive oil. This style has even been deemed by the Italian government as the “Mediterranean Cuisine”.
The northern style however, replaces the southern reliance on fish with beef, pork, and dried beans which are more readily available in the region. In addition, the north uses butter and cream rather than olive oil as it’s dominating cooking fat. The result is a tradition that is heavier and heartier than the southern provinces. It is worth mentioning that many of the new trends in Italian cuisine seen in America are actually part of this approach. Risotto, a savory rice dish which relies on the breakdown of starches to produce its characteristic creaminess, and polenta, a side dish made from corn meal, have long been mainstays of the northern Italian diet.
Despite the popularity of these broader dishes to this country’s restaurant scene, most Americans still associate Italian food with pasta and pizza. And while pasta does play an important role in Italian cuisine, it is much more versatile than just spaghetti and meatballs. Orzo, for example, is rice-shaped pasta that is seen often prepared as a side dish to beef or veal while gnocchi are potato dumplings often seen tossed in simple sauces that highlight their delicateness. Even heartier pastas are often paired with more than just marinara sauce. Examples of this are the northern-used Bolognese sauce, a meaty blend of tomatoes and cream, and the dramatically different pesto, a light blend of chopped basil, garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts.
Finally, desserts play an important part of the Italian diet. Cannolis and tiramisu, both of which contain sweetened mascarpone fillings, are the most widely known in America though others have recently gained attention. For example, gelatos are similar to ice cream but differ in that they are served in a semi-frozen state which results in a creamier, smoother texture. For the more health-conscious, a granita might be preferred. Because of the absence of milk or cream, the final texture is coarser and more crystalline. On the other end of the dessert spectrum are those made with wine or alcohol. Zabaglione is an egg custard often times flavored with marsala or champagne which is often served with strawberries and zaletti, light cornmeal cookies.
We hope this overview has helped you to better understand the diversity of Italian cuisine. Of course, the best learning is accomplished through experience so we encourage you to use our site and find the Italian restaurant that has been waiting for you. Buon appetito!
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