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Traditional Italian recipes vary by region, they are linked to their climate, their local produce, and their history. Here is a synopsis of the major ones.
Going all the way back to the Roman Empire, Italians have always enjoyed lavish banquets but while the rich would have access to the most expensive and refined produce and meat, the rest of the Italians had to eat whatever was available to them. The same happened throughout the centuries with the Popes and the aristocracy accessing the best and leaving everybody else with the rest.
Luckily enough, the Mediterranean climate produces a wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables, therefore even the poor could make wonderful dishes “la cucina povera”.
As long as you have fresh, local seasonal ingredients, you can make wonders.
Find my recommendations of authentic Italian cooking books translated into English in my Amazon shop section: Cooking Books
The Luck Of The Italian
A speech from Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eataly perfectly describes the Italian unique position regarding food. It is called The Luck of the Italian.
“Italy is the only peninsula that travels tightly from north to south on a perfect latitude enclosed within a good sea, the only geographical situation on the planet, so it happens that the good winds of our seas meet with the good winds of ours. hills and our mountains and it is unique in the world…”
“….. in this small space that represents 0.5% of the surface of the world there are 7000 species of edible vegetables, the second place is taken by Brazil which has 3300, any Italian region has more plant species than any other state in the ‘Europe.”
“We have 58 thousand species of animals, ……The second country in the world is China which is 6% of the surface of the world and has 20,000. ….. This wonder is called biodiversity, we are the most biodiverse country in the world”
Regional traditions are not random
Italian cuisine is very regionalized, as Italy was unified only in the 19th century. The cuisine of each province was based on local ingredients, history, and traditions.
Food traditions in each region have been shaped by different influences on the various invasions and trades throughout history.
So in the South of Italy, we find a lot of Arab and Spanish ingredients, like fruits in savory dishes, nuts, very sweet desserts. While in the North a stronger French influence, therefore a more recurrent use of butter and cream.
After the unification of Italy, a lot of recipes traveled nationwide, and variations to traditional recipes were added locally.
That is why for some recipes it is difficult to talk about “A” (meaning only one) traditional Italian recipe as they may vary by region.
However, these regional variations have been misused to justify random changes to the core of Italian recipes and still call it Italian.
If you break the rules it is not Italian
When cooking, Italians follow some basic rules. The list is long and complex and if one of those rules is broken, the recipe is kicked out of the “traditional Italian” enclosed circle and there is no way back in!
There is no formal written list like the 10 Italian food commandments, we just know them. Only by growing up in Italy sheltered from any form of foreign influence and adaptation, we learn them and know what they are.
It is like speaking a foreign language, you can learn it and master it, but only natives will have the perfect accent and will know all the shades and richness of their own mother tongue.
Each ingredient has its place, and here are the most common Italian cooking rules:
- no cheese with seafood,
- no chicken with pasta or pizza,
- no pineapple on pizza,
- no balsamic vinegar on Caprese.
- adding cheese to a recipe does not make it Italian
There may be some exceptions, but they are always very subtle and within a certain range of flexibility.
If you had any of the above in Italy, I have no doubt, you ate at a restaurant targeting foreign tourists.
You can find out more about the authenticity of Italian food in the article: A Beginner’s Guide to Authentic Italian Food on the blog: Memorie di Angelina
The first “Italian” recipe book
Tuscany is the region where the Italian mother tongue was born. Before the unification of Italy, each region had its own dialect, and starting from Dante Alighieri in the 14th century, Tuscan was proposed as a possible unified language. Many more followed: Petrarca, Boccaccio, Macchiavelli and the Accademia della Crusca. However, the Tuscan dialect was mainly used by the scholars and the aristocrats.
After the unification of Italy, the first book wrote in “Italian language” was published The Betrothed by Manzoni in 1827. Even if Manzoni was from Milan and spoke Milanese dialect and French, he used the Tuscan dialect (specifically Florentine) and suggested to the Ministry of Education Broglio to introduce Tuscan dialect in the school as the official Italian language.
During that same period, Pellegrino Artusi (from Tuscany) published a recipe book “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” which became the first book of Italian cuisine written in Italian.
He published this book 2 decades after the unification of Italy and for the first time he was able to include many traditional Italian recipes from all regions.
A historic look at Italian regional cuisine
While it would take an entire encyclopedia to cover all the Italian regional cuisines, I will shortly describe some of the most prominent and their difference.
There is way much more to talk about, and I will try to cover more regions with time.
Tuscan cuisine is a mix of the heritage of the Etruscan simplicity and the elaborate cuisine of the Medici family.
Starting from the Crusades to the 13th century, the Tuscan cuisine was rich in dips and spicy sauces to satisfy soldiers and lord-lings.
So for example during the middle ages, the wild meat was cooked in a sweet and sour sauce made with raisins, almonds, vinegar, honey, ginger, and grape must.
When the chocolate arrived from America, it was added to the recipe, Wild Bore With Chocolate published in Artusi’s book.
During the Middle Ages, bread was the main component of Tuscan food. It was never thrown away. Many Tuscan recipes are made with stale bread like the Ribbollita, Panzanella, Pappa al Pomodoro.
There was a rivalry between Pisa and Firenze and the Pisani boycott the delivery of salt to Florence. This is why Tuscan bread is traditionally made without salt and perfectly combines with rich and spicy sauces.
Tuscan is the origin of French cuisine
Tuscan cuisine became more refined with the influence of the Medici family. During the Italian Renascence, banquettes were organized by aristocratic families as a sign of culture and sophistication.
A lot of effort was put into their organization, development of more delicate recipes as well as table etiquette and manners.
Caterina dei Medici brought Tuscan cuisine to the French court when she married Henri D’Orleans, second son to the French king.
Although cultured and refined, she was not good looking and survived her husband’s betrayals through her passion for food.
She brought with her a team of expert chefs and taught sophistication and table manners to the French court, which was still rudimentary from Middle Ages traditions.
New ingredients from the Americas
During this period spices were used to add a special flavor to dishes. New ingredients were introduced from America: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, and turkeys. Butter and cream substituted lard and cheese started to be more popular.
After the French revolution and the decline of the Medici family, Tuscan cuisine rebuilt its links to the countryside and its produce.
Recipes became sober and strictly linked to seasonal ingredients: “cucina povera degna di un re” simple cooking fit for a king.
Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911) in his book: “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well“ writes: «Quando incontrate la cucina emiliana, fate una riverenza, perché se la merita». When you meet the Emilian cuisine, make a curtsy, because it deserves it.
Emilia is the region south of the Po valley, very fertile land and famous for its refined cuisine linked to the extravagance of the aristocratic families.
Traditional recipes from this region are opulent and sumptuous, consistent with the court’s lavish lifestyle.
Pork has been farmed in this region for a long time. Traces of pig farms were found one thousand years before Christ: inside an Abbey, a mosaic reveals the killing of a pig, and documents confirm that in the 9th century the monks were breading up to 4000 pigs.
Famous is the prosciutto di Parma, Parma ham. The production is based in a specific zone where the breeze coming from the sea favors the long maturation of the ham.
It was during 1511 when Pope Julius II besiege the city of Mirandola, and as the food was scarce the population started using parts of the pig that were thrown out before then.
They started using the rind and the feet, inventing what is now called Cotechino and traditionally eaten every first day of the year.
Another famous product from the region is the Parmigiano Reggiano. There has been a heated debate about the origin of the cheese which was born in Reggio region.
However, as the commercial center of the region was in Parma the cheese was earlier called only Parmigiano.
The name has since changed to Parmigiano Reggiano making everyone happy.
Tagliatelle and Tortellini
The pride of the region is the fresh homemade pasta as wheat is farmed in its fertile fields of the Po valley.
Tagliatelle, lasagne, tortellini, and ravioli are creations that require long and elaborate preparations.
Each town of the region has its own specialty and fillings: Ferrara uses squash and cheese, Modena various roasted meat, Bologna the famous tortellini, Piacenza ricotta and herbs.
No wonder the famous chef Massimo Bottura and its restaurant Osteria Francescana, 3 Michelin stars, and listed in the top 5 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards since 2010, is based right in this region in the city of Modena.
Modena is where the renown Balsamic vinegar originates.
The Venetian cuisine is highly influenced by its geographic location as well as its splendor and prestige as a prominent merchant city throughout history.
Located in the Adriatic estuary lagoon of the Po valley, between fresh and seawater, its market stalls are copious with fish, seafood as well as freshwater fish.
In 1591 Giulio Cesare De Solis writes: every day on the Venetian fishmongers’ stalls there is a large number of fish “that cannot be found in Rome and Naples put together in a whole month”.
Fish, birds, and vegetables
Besides fishing, Venetian were also very skilled hunters of wild birds, developing hunting techniques that were unique to the Venetian lagoon’s habitat.
Meat and fish were served with vegetables grown locally in the various lagoon islands and coastal lands.
The warm humid climate and the brackish air created a very fertile land.
Artichokes, asparagus, yellow squash, radicchio, peas, zucchini, beans, aubergines, peppers, fennels, cabbages have the perfect habitat and grow in abundance.
Even if Venice was a wealthy state, its cuisine was always very simple and sober. Venetian believed, and still do, that genuine fresh produce didn’t need long elaboration that would otherwise distort their taste.
Venice has been for centuries the main door to international trade with the East. The cultural exchange and interaction have created a particular cuisine highly influenced by foreign commerce.
Compared to other Italian regional cuisines, prominent use of spices have been one of the main characteristic of the Venetian one: pepper, raisins, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves.
The Venetians were very good at marketing those spices to the rest of Europe as a status symbol, increasing demand, and creating a lucrative market for “Venetian” packed spices.
The use of spices used to be really excessive but luckily with time, the number of spices added to the food was scaled down to a more acceptable level.
Rice was also imported to Europe through Venice, and during the Middle Ages, it was so expensive that it was sold by counting each grain. It was mainly used in small quantities to thicken soups and minestre.
During 1500s, hinterlands were added to the Venetian state, and as rice was planted in those fields, it became an integral part of the Venetian diet.
Venetian cuisine was also influenced by the presence of foreign merchants in the city, in particular Jews: rice with raisins, rice with vegetables, duck, goose, and turkey were introduced to their diet.
Venetians love their desserts, sugar was brought to the region for the first time by the Crusades.
The family Corner bought entire sugar cane plantations between Cyprus and Crete, and the best-refined sugar was imported into Venice.
Famous are the sugar sculptures made even by famous artists like Antonio Canova. They were exhibited during lavish banquets.
Venetians had to develop ways of preserving food during their shipments. Learning many techniques from their trading partners, Venetians made large use of hams, salami, sausage as well as seafood stored in salt like anchovies, baccala’, bottarga and smoked fish.
As Venice was a city with many foreign merchants, their streets were and still are full of Osterie.
Osterie are taverns where travelers and locals would stop for a glass of wine and a bite: Cicchetti, an assortment of aperitives including liver, spleen, nerves, half eggs with anchovies, omelets, artichokes, octopus, fried fish, cotechino with polenta.
Liguria cuisine is very simple mainly made with herbs and local vegetables.
Located between the Mediterranean sea and the Alps, its microclimate is perfect for vegetables, fruits, wild mushrooms, and wild herbs to flourish.
Pra’ just outside Genova is famous for the quality of its basil. Pesto alla Genovese is originated here
Also, fillings for tarts are usually made with herbs and cheese, and tortelli are filled with wild herb Borage.
As Venice, Genova is also a harbor town, and its cuisine highly influenced by its trade.
Here we also find baccala’ and stockfish, a way to preserved fish learned from the trade with Norwegian.
During the Italian Renaissance, the region was populated by all sorts of shops, and its chefs were sought after by the various lordships.
Still today there are many similarities between Ligurian, Provencal, Catalan and Portuguese cuisine.
In general, Ligurian cuisine is simple and made with inexpensive ingredients homegrown vegetables, flour derivatives, olive oil, and local seafood.
Contrary to what many believe, Naples cuisine is more linked to the aristocracy than farmers and their “cucina povera”.
It goes back to the 18th century when the fame of French cuisine was rapidly spreading around the world.
Maria Carolina of Austria, the wife of Ferdinando IV di Borbone king of Naples and Sicily, had a passion for French cuisine and hired French chefs to prepare the meals at the palace.
Soon all the aristocracy followed the trend and many French chefs moved to Naples to cook for the local aristocracy and wealthy families.
The cuisine in the South of Italy was already rich with delicious local produces from the warm and fertile land.
Neapolitan cuisine became a sophisticated combination of French techniques and Southern ingredients.
The fertile volcanic soil, the strong southern sun, and the breeze from the sea give its fruits and vegetables amazing sweetness and outstanding flavors.
A special name was also given to the French chefs who were working for the most wealthy families: Monsu’, an adapted pronunciation of the French word: monsieur.
Monsu’ were regarded as celebrities and had their fame and recognition.
In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which includes the entire South of Italy), those Monsu’ created many recipes using local ingredients and passed those creations and love for food to the generations to come.
Sicilian cuisine has ancients roots going all the way back to the Magna Graecia civilization 8th-century BC.
Their diets were based on fruits, vegetables, herbs, seafood and of course olive oil.
The exceptional combination of the fertile volcanic soil, the sea, and the hills created the perfect habit to grow outstanding produce like in Naples.
Arabs arrived in Sicily in the 8th century AC introducing sugar cane, rice, jasmine, cotton, anise, sesame, cinnamon and saffron.
Almonds and pistachios are grown locally and appear in many recipes, sweet as well as savory.
Also in Sicily, we find the baccala and stocafisso like in Liguria and Venice, Northern recipes brought by the Norman invasion.
After the Norman, Sicily was invaded by the French and subsequently by the Spanish.
Many of those recipes we find in Camilleri’s books and TV series: Il Commissario Montalbano.
New ingredients were introduced from America: chili, peppers, potatoes and turkey, and the eggplants from the Indies.
Especially eggplants took over in the region around Catania, as they grew abundant in the fertile volcanic soil of Etna.
During the Italian Renaissance, the Sicilian baronial families contributed to the enrichment of the Sicilian cuisine.
Here, as in Naples, we find the Monsu’, French chefs cooking for the noble families.
Local girls would help those chefs in the kitchen, learning the art of cooking.
Going back home those girls will cook those dishes for their families using less expensive ingredients.
So for every extravagant Sicilian dish, you will find a version for the rich families and one for the farmers.
The history of Roman cuisine is so broad, rich, and complex that I have written articles specifically dedicated to different aspects of Roman food.
Rome is the town where I grew up, and I have way too much information I would like to share with you. Writing only a section in this article would be too much constrained.
So you can read more about Roman cuisine in the articles:
- The Amazing Trajan’s Ancient Roman Markets
- The Fascinating Ancient Roman Food And Recipes
- A Historic Walk Through The Charm Of Romans Market
More authentic Italians resources
If you are interested in learning more about Italian cooking, check out the article Italian Ingredients: A comprehensive guide, with links to my favorite brands and a printable shopping list.
Find my recommendations of authentic Italian cooking books translated into English in my Amazon shop section: Cooking Books
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