We are about to tell you something that may drastically change the way you look at the world. Prepare yourself, you may want to sit down for this…

The Italians didn’t invent Pizza or Pasta! The earliest known recipes for pasta actually come from the Middle East. Furthermore, the tomato is not native to Italy, it’s not even native to Europe. The tomato was brought over from the Americas by explorers.

You probably have a lot of questions right now. What did Italians eat before Pizza and Pasta? When were these recipes first brought to Italy? When did the tomato first arrive in Italy? What did they use before it?

Don’t panic, we are going to answer all of those questions for you today. Let’s start by looking at the history of the tomato and how it ended up in Europe.

The History Of The Tomato In Europe

Tomatoes are a type of edible berry that is native to many parts of South and Central America. The Tomato is technically a fruit because it contains its own seeds.

The English/American word Tomato comes from the Spanish word Tomate. This in turn comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl. Spanish invaders picked up the word from the natives. (The modern Italians call it pomodoro, which is from “pom di oro” or golden apple.)

It is believed that the indigenous people of Mexico were the first to cultivate, breed, and farm tomatoes. Historians think that the umami-filled fruit was farmed as far back as 500 BCE.

However, the first European connection with the tomato happened during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. The original wild tomatoes were the size of peas, however, the cultivated tomatoes the Aztecs grew were much larger.

The Spanish took the seeds of the tomato plant back to Europe and began to grow their own. In 1551, we see the earliest written evidence of tomatoes being used in Europe.

Much like the potato, the tomato was regarded with suspicion by the Europeans at first because of its botanical relationship to many poisonous plants. Most notably, tomatoes are related to the plant Nightshade. Nightshade is one of the most famous poisons used in European literature.

Where Did Pasta Come From?

Where Did Pasta Come From?

The history of pasta is a little bit confusing and entirely depends on what your definition of pasta is.

Up until recently, it was generally believed by the public that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy after one of his epic travels through China. However, research has been done to suggest that this was a rumor made up in the 1920s in order to sell more pasta in America.

Why do most historians not believe this to be true?

Well, firstly, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that pasta was being made in the Middle East and North Africa for hundreds of years before Marco Polo was even born. In fact, pasta is frequently mentioned in Middle Eastern cookery books in the 12th century.

It is also worth mentioning that the Italian poet Horace mentions pasta in the 1st century AD in one of his poems. Historians have also found evidence that pasta was cooked in Ancient Greece, as far back as at least 200 BCE.

So, we know pasta was in Europe long before Marco Polo was born. It is generally believed that Pasta was invented in either North Africa or the Middle East and arrived in Europe as settlers moved around and trade routes opened up.

Where Did Pizza Come From?

Pizza also has a confusing history. The ancient historians seemed more interested in recording the great battles of their eras and not the food that people were eating – so it is hard to keep track of the history of food.

Until you get to the eras in the Middle East where books were more widely distributed and we start to see the first cookbooks being written. However, not much was written about the history of pizza.

What we do know is that tomatoes didn’t reach Europe until the 16th century. So, what we know as a Pizza, isn’t any older than that.

There are records of many Persian generals eating flatbreads with melted cheese on top of them. This was also done in Ancient Greek, and in North Africa.

Archeologists did find the world’s oldest surviving bread in Sardinia, an Italian island. This bread is over 7000 years old and is very similar to what is now used to make pizza bases.

In the 17th century, Italians used the word Pizza to refer to a type of glazed French flatbread. This type of bread had no cheese or tomatoes on it and it was sweet.

Nowadays, of course, there is a pizzeria in every neighborhood all over the world. People now even make pizza at home with their own backyard pizza ovens.

What Did The Italians Eat Before Pizza And Pasta?

If the Italians didn’t have pizza with tomato bases until the 16th century and pasta may not have originally come from Italy – what did they eat before this?

Well, what many people don’t realize about Italy is that it was made up of a number of states and smaller countries until the Roman Empire. And many of these states kept their personal identities, even after joining the empire, including their local cuisines.

Very different food was eaten in each of these states. For example, the Northern parts of Italy are quite mountainous and can be very wet throughout the year. However, the Southern parts of Italy are very close to Africa and are very hot throughout the year. With this difference in climate across the country, it is not surprising that the diet of Italians varied so widely.

From ancient food writings and travelers’ notes, we do know that seasoning has always been an important part of Italian cuisine. We can see this in writings from 400 BCE right through to modern Italian cookbooks.

The seasoning was always made with local herbs and salt was considered an essential ingredient too. These early writings also noted that simplicity was an important factor in Italian cooking, resources were rare and cooks aimed to make the food last.

As the Roman Empire was formed, grew, and took over a large part of Europe food became more readily available and thus Italian cuisine became more complex.

Goats, leeks, and artichokes were very important ingredients during this time. The island of Sicily had gained a reputation for making some of the best cheese in the known world.

Parts of Italy were invaded by the Arabs in the 9th century – they brought rice, almonds, and spinach with them. These three ingredients became popular all over Italy and became cornerstones of the cuisine. Almond flour was used to make bread, pasta-style dishes, and even sweet treats.

The coastal areas and islands of Italy always relied heavily on fish. Many of the oldest Italian recipes are based around some kind of white fish meat. Local ingredients like lemons and olives were also crucial to these recipes.

The Italians were able to make oil out of their olives, meaning that frying and baking ingredients were common. Oil was also used to help preserve fresh items with short shelf lives like soft cheese and olives.

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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