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Many non-Italians identify Italian cooking with a few of its most popular dishes, like pizza and spaghetti. People often express the opinion that all Italian cooking is pretty much alike. However, those who travel through Italy notice differences in eating habits between cities, even cities only a few miles apart. Not only does each region have its own style, but each community and each valley has a different way of cooking as well.
Every town has a distinctive way of making sausage, special kinds of cheese and wine, and a local type of bread. If you ask people, even in the same area, how to make pasta sauce, they will all have different answers. Variations in the omnipresent pasta are another example of this multiplicity: soft egg noodles in the north, hard-boiled spaghetti in the south, with every conceivable variation in size and shape. Perhaps no other country in the world has a cooking style so finely fragmented into different divisions. So why is Risotto typical of Milan? Why did Tortellini originate in Bologna? And why is Pizza so popular in Naples?
This is so for the same reason that Italy has only one unifying Italian language, yet hundreds of different spoken dialects. Italy is a country of great variety, and cooking is just another aspect of the diversity of Italian culture.
This diversity stems largely from peasant heritage and geographical differences. Italy is a peninsula separated from the rest of the continent by the highest chain of mountains in Europe. In addition, a long spine of mountains runs down north to south through this narrow country. These geographic features create a myriad of environments with noticeable variations: fertile valleys, mountains covered with forests, cool foothills, naked rocks, Mediterranean coastlines, and arid plains. A great variety of different climates have also created innumerable unique geographical and historical areas.
But geographical fragmentation alone will not explain how the same country produced all of the rich, fat, baroque food of Bologna, based on butter, parmigiano, and meat; the light, tasty, spicy cooking of Naples, mainly based on olive oil, mozzarella, and seafood; the cuisine of Rome, rich in produce from the surrounding countryside; and the food of Sicily, full of North African influences.
The explanation is hidden in the past; the multitudes of Italian cooking result from its history. Divided for a long time into many duchies, princedoms, kingdoms, and states—often hostile to one another—political unification in Italy did not occur until 1861. Many populations in the past three thousand years have occupied Italian territory, and most of them contributed their own traditions. And the original people, the Etruscans and Greeks, left influences still felt today.
The Romans politically controlled the territory about two thousand years ago, integrated Greek civilization, and created an empire that laid the foundations of Western civilization. They imported all kinds of foods from all over the known world. Roman ships carried essential foods, such as wheat and wine, as well as a variety of spices from as far away as China, to satisfy the Romans’ appetite for exotic ingredients. Roman cooking habits fascinated and influenced generations in the centuries that followed. The fall of the Roman Empire was caused by unstoppable waves of invading people—barbarians who came from as far away as Tibet. They pillaged and destroyed, but they also brought with them new cooking customs. It took centuries before some order was restored and medieval peoples could begin to rebuild something that could be called a cuisine.
A Roman Banquet in a Triclinium. During much of the dinner, each guest leaned on his left elbow, leaving the right arm free. As three men lay on the same couch, the head of one man was near the bosom of the man lying behind him. The rule was that the number of guests should be no less than that of the Graces (3), nor exceed that of the Muses (9).
During medieval times, the absence of a powerful central authority allowed the creation of many fiercely independent cities. These Comuni, from the Alps to the border of the Kingdom of Naples, progressed faster than the other European towns of the time in wealth and in artistic and intellectual achievements. The cities of northern Italy developed mostly through trade in valuable merchandise, such as spices and fabric, with northern Europe and the East. A rich cuisine developed, offering great diversity from one town to another.
After the decline of the city states, the territory of northern Italy was partially occupied from time to time by France or Austria, which left additional culinary influences in the Northeast. The richness of the cities of northern Italy is reflected in particular in the creation of a “culture” of fresh pasta. While dry macaroni was an item of mass production, fresh pasta associated with eggs, cheese, sugar, cream, and other expensive items was a luxury item. Even though fresh pasta became diffused throughout the peninsula and outside the borders of Italy, it is in northern Italy that we find the most spectacular recipes. It is no coincidence that many consider Bologna the gastronomic capital of Italy.
Tuscany represents a phenomenon by itself in Italian history. Starting in the thirteenth century, the city of Florence in particular became rich during the evolution of the banking system. The De Medicis, a family of merchants and bankers, would become patrons of the arts and would accelerate the movement that became known as the Renaissance. It was the birth of a new way of viewing human beings as in conrol of their own destinies. New social rules were created here and exported all over Europe, which was on the verge of great transformation due to the discoveries of the age of exploration. The Renaissance initiated a great revolution in the arts, also reflected in spectacular and extravagant new ways of cooking.
While the north would see the creation of many small independent political entities, the south of Italy remained mostly unified for a long time. Separated from the great trading routes with northern Europe, the south suffered greater poverty and isolation. The people of southern Italy made the best of what they had. But it is here, in southern Italy, that spectacular dishes like spaghetti and pizza originated. Born as the poor people’s way of cooking, these dishes were exported by groups of Italian emigrants and disseminated outside their regions of origin, making them extremely popular everywhere. Dry pasta is the greatest contribution from southern Italy.
Dry macaroni is suitable for storing, trading, and transporting. The invention of the bronze press industrialized the manufacturing of pasta, making macaroni affordable. Present in Sicily since Arab occupation, macaroni became extremely popular in Naples in the 1700s. It is from there that dry pasta started its journey conquering the world. Sicilian history is fascinating for all the different people that occupied the island during different times. The greatest influence was left by the Muslim occupation that lasted for two centuries. Muslims contributed greatly to Western cuisine with a variety of foods, including rice, spinach, alcohol, oranges, lemons, apricots, sugar, and more. In Sicily, their influence is still greatly felt today.
Pizza seller in the streets of Naples, engraving, early 1800s. The tradition of preparing and selling all kinds of pizzas in the streets remains well alive today in the small lanes of downtown Naples. Pizza and calzoni, panzerotti, and pizzelle fritte are delicious when eaten warm—prepared right on the spot—in the hundreds of small shops. As with fast foods, they can be either a snack or a full meal.
Local traditions result from long complex historical developments and strongly influence local habits. Distinctive cultural and social differences remain present throughout Italy, although today mass marketing tends to cause a leveling of long-established values. In a country so diverse, it is impossible to define an “Italian” cooking style, but traditional food is still at the core of the cultural identity of each region, and Italians react with attachment to their own identity when confronted with the tendency toward flattening their culture.
Anna Maria Volpi
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Interior of a Roman Kitchen. Engraving by B. Pinelli, circa 1830.