Discussing the role of food in Italian culture is pretty much the underlying theme of this entire website. The Mediterranean Diet, Slow Food, la cucina povera… these concepts all speak to the importance of what Italians choose to eat, how they prepare it, and who they share their meals with. And of course, the history and traditions behind the regional specialties of Italy.
So when I found out that one of the graduate students here at Florida Atlantic University was presenting an entire course on “Italian Culture Through Food,” I knew immediately that I wanted to invite her as a guest on my podcast. Here is my conversation with Dottoressa Arianna Salomon:
She in turn invited me to give a presentation to her class. More on that later. First, let’s “set the table” for discussing the food culture in Italy.
The Origins of Italian Cuisine
For centuries, for millennia, Italians have been perfecting the art of cooking, and nowadays traditional Italian dishes are some of the most beloved in the world.
The beginnings of Italian cuisine can be traced back to the 4th century BC, when the Ancient Greeks and Etruscans introduced new agricultural practices and ingredients to the Italian peninsula. By the Roman Empire period, the cuisine had developed significantly, with the Romans bringing back exotic ingredients from the Middle East and Asia.
During the Middle Ages, Italy was divided into many small city-states, which led to the emergence of regional cuisines and distinct local specialties. By the 15th century, Italian cuisine was evolving and becoming popular throughout all of Europe.
The Italian Renaissance of the 16th century further advanced the development of Italian cuisine, with the spread of the popular tomato, as well as the introduction of other new cooking techniques and ingredients brought back from the New World.
Finally, in the 20th century, Italian cuisine became more and more popular outside of Europe, with the emergence of new cooking styles and the development of global restaurants that spread the Italian passion for great food around the globe.
Italian Culture Through Food
La Cucina Povera
In Italy, many of the traditional recipes fall under the category of la cucina povera, which roughly translates as the “poor” kitchen, or “poor man’s cuisine.” This philosophy originated from the experiences of Italy’s impoverished rural population and has become the basis of numerous iconic Italian dishes and is the cornerstone of food in Italian culture.
La cucina povera emphasizes cooking with whatever ingredients are available, with as little waste as possible. This type of cooking has led to the creation of such things as pangrattato and ribollita, which “recycle” stale bread for other uses.
Or in Roman cuisine, the dishes created using the “quinto quarto,” the “fifth quarter,” in which the nasty bits of butchered animals (stomach, intestines, lungs, heart, spleen, etc.) are never wasted, but rather turned into such classic Roman dishes as coda alla vaccinara (stewed oxtail), trippa alla romana (tripe, a.k.a. cow’s stomach), and the infamous pajata (suckling lamb’s intestines).
La cucina povera is an important aspect of Italian cuisine because it embodies the ideas of resourcefulness and simplicity. This type of cooking challenges chefs to creatively embrace constraints and create flavorful dishes with minimal manipulation of ingredients.
It is these same dishes that visitors to Italy are often so eager to try in their native setting, and which continue to be celebrated in both trattorias and Michelin-starred restaurants. Therefore, la cucina povera is an important part of Italian culture and cuisine, and will likely remain so for many generations to come.
The Influence of the Mediterranean Diet
Italy has a rich and diverse food culture that has been shaped by its history and its geography. The country’s long Mediterranean coastline means that seafood is a staple of the diet, while fruits and vegetables are also important components. Olive oil is another key ingredient, and is used in both cooking and as a condiment.
The Mediterranean diet, of which Italian cuisine is a part, has been shown to be beneficial for overall health. Studies have linked the diet to a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions.
This website is dedicated to the benefits of a Mediterranean Diet, so please refer to these other articles for further expansion of this topic:
Start the Mediterranean Diet in 6 Easy Steps
Is The Mediterranean Diet Good For High Blood Pressure?
What We Can Learn From The Sicilian Diet?
The Culture Behind Slow Food
Slow Food is an Italian social and environmental movement founded in 1986 to counteract fast food and fast life. Its goal is to promote local food traditions and cultures, as well as support small-scale producers, while advocating for sustainable agriculture and the protection of biodiversity.
The Slow Food movement emphasizes the importance of good, clean, and fair food, meaning food that is produced in an ethical and environmentally friendly manner, is flavorful and healthy, and accessible to all.
The movement emphasizes the importance of “good, clean, and fair” food, meaning food that is healthy, produced in an environmentally friendly manner, and accessible to all. Slow Food now has a global network of over 100,000 members and operates through local chapters called convivia.
Slow food is not just a way of eating… it’s a way of life that Italians are passionate about. It is not just about eating good food, but also about enjoying the company of friends and family, and taking the time to savor each bite.
Food in Northern Italy vs Southern Italy
It’s often said that “Italian food doesn’t exist.” Whether or not you agree with that statement, certainly it must be recognized that there is a great diversity in the cuisine from the north to the south.
This is due to many factors including geography and climate. In cooler, mountainous regions, for example, you might have more mushrooms and truffles. And obviously, coastal areas will have better access to fresh seafood.
But also the history must be considered. There are regions in northwestern Italy that are more influenced by neighboring France. In Sicily, the food is the product of the many settlers and invaders over the years, such as the Greeks, the Arabs, and the Spanish.
While these are general tendencies and regional variations exist, here are a few key differences between Northern and Southern Italian cuisine:
Northern Italian cuisine:
- Emphasizes rice, corn, potatoes, and other grains as staples
- Uses butter and cream in cooking, whereas olive oil is more common in the South
- Features hearty dishes like risotto, polenta, and lasagna
- Places a strong emphasis on ingredients like truffles, mushrooms, and game meats
Southern Italian cuisine:
- Features pasta dishes made with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and basil
- Uses a lot of seafood in cooking
- Emphasizes the use of vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, and peppers
- Places a strong emphasis on simple and rustic dishes, often flavored with lemon and anchovies
- More use of spicy pepper and cheese (e.g. mozzarella) is common
Why Is Pasta Important to Italian Culture?
Pasta is believed to have originated in Italy and has been a staple food there since the 13th century. The exact origins of pasta are not clear, but some evidence suggests that Arabs brought the concept of drying dough to Italy, while others believe that the ancient Etruscans and Greeks also had their own forms of dried pasta.
One of the earliest written records of pasta in Italy that was written by an Italian is found in a book written by Marco Polo, who described pasta dishes he encountered on his travels in China.
Over time, pasta became a popular food in Italian culture, and many regional variations of pasta dishes were developed, each with their own unique ingredients and preparation methods. Today, pasta remains one of the most beloved foods in Italy and is enjoyed around the world.
Even with all the variations in regional cuisines around Italy, pasta is the one staple that you can find throughout the country. And make a note in your calendar: National Pasta Day is celebrated on October 25th each year!
Why Is Pizza Important to Italian Culture?
The origins of pizza can be traced back to ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean region, where flatbreads topped with ingredients such as olive oil, salt, and cheese were consumed.
The modern version of pizza, however, is believed to have originated in Naples, Italy in the 18th century. At that time, pizzerias were established in the city, and the dish became popular among the local working-class population.
It’s important to note that the tomatoes that are such an important ingredient in pizza sauce didn’t arrive in Italy until the Spanish brought them back from the New World and eventually introduced them to the Italian peninsula.
In Naples, there are only three (official) varieties of pizza. “Pizza Napoletana Marinara,” “Pizza Napoletana Margherita Extra,” and “Pizza Napoletana Margherita.” They are all made with type “00” flour, yeast, natural water, peeled tomatoes and/or fresh cherry tomatoes, marine salt, and extra virgin olive oil.
Other added ingredients can include, garlic and oregano for “Pizza Napoletana Marinara,” buffalo milk mozzarella, fresh basil, and fresh tomatoes for “Pizza Napoletana Margherita Extra,” and mozzarella STG or Fior di Latte Appennino and fresh basil for “Pizza Napoletana Margherita.”
Pizza made its way to the United States with Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it quickly became popular in America. Today, pizza is a staple food in many countries around the world and comes in a variety of styles and toppings, with each country putting its own unique spin on the dish.
Despite its widespread popularity, pizza remains an integral part of Italian cuisine and is considered a symbol of the food in Italian culture.
Eating at an Italian Restaurant
If you want to experience traditional Italian cuisine, then you should visit an authentic Italian restaurant. If you happen to find one in your city, you’re in for a real treat.
But don’t be in a hurry. In a real Italian restaurant (in Italy), service is deliberately “relaxed,” and the courses proceed in a very precise manner.
Italian Restaurants in Italy
When ordering at an Italian restaurant, it is customary to start with an antipasto. The most common antipasti are salads, cured meats, and cheeses. These dishes are followed by a “primo,” which can be pasta, risotto, or a soup.
Next comes the “secondo,” which is the main course. This might be meat, fowl, or seafood, depending on the region of Italy and their local specialties. Some “secondi” come with a side dish, a contorno, like pork shank with roasted potatoes, for example. However, most of the time you order the side dish separately.
Dessert (dolce) is often a simple fruit or gelato or a local specialty. This is followed by coffee and an after dinner drink, like limoncello or grappa.
The restaurant experience is popular in Italy, both for the enjoyment of the food, but also for the enjoyment of the company and the conversation. Traditional Italian cuisine is delicious, and it is also a huge part of the country’s culture. Eating at an Italian restaurant is a great way to experience the country’s food and culture firsthand.
Italian Restaurants outside of Italy
Italian cuisine is world-renowned for its delicious flavors and healthy ingredients. When eating at an Italian restaurant, you can expect to find many of the same dishes that are popular in Italy.
However, there are some differences between Italian restaurants outside of Italy and those in Italy. For example, Italian-American restaurants in the U.S. may use different ingredients or cooking methods to create their dishes. The classic example is the “parmesan” recipes. In Italy, this is ONLY made with eggplant, while in the U.S., it is often made with chicken or veal.
Additionally, the portions served at Italian restaurants outside of Italy are often much larger than the portions served in Italy.
While the menus at Italian-American restaurants may be very different from what you would find in Italy, traditional cuisine is still very important to the culture. Traditional dishes are often passed down from generation to generation and are served on special occasions. In Italy and within Italian immigrant families abroad, food is seen as a way to bring people together
Food in Italian Culture
Italian cuisine is more than just pizza and pasta – it is a reflection of the country’s rich culture and history. Food plays an important role in all aspects of Italian life, from family gatherings to religious celebrations.
One of the most important aspects of Italian cuisine is the use of fresh, local ingredients. Italians are very proud of their regional dishes and often prefer to stick to traditional recipes that have been passed down through the generations.
If you want a glimpse into Italian culture, exploring the food traditions is an excellent place to start!