With a huge array of traditional dishes, Italian cuisine is based on celebrating simple, local, fresh, high-quality ingredients, while protein is often a secondary thought. A typical meal in Italy has three or four courses – it will start with a plate of antipasti, usually including grissini, cheese, selected cured meat such as mortadella, prosciutto, and salami, and vegetables such as artichoke hearts, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and pepperoncini. The meal continues with a small pasta dish, which is followed by a light protein dish such as a simple preparation of a leg of lamb.
Cooking techniques and cornerstones
Italy is well known for simple cooking styles and techniques such as al dente, for cooking pasta (and sometimes vegetables) that feels firm to the bite; al forno, referring to food cooked in wood-fired ovens; carpaccio, the ultra-thin slices of meat, fish, or vegetables; or the little-known Tuscan al fiasco technique of cooking beans in empty wine bottles. The cornerstones of Italian cooking include olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, simple sauces, balsamic vinegar, cheeses (Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and mozzarella), gnocchi, pasta, and rice (Arborio and Carnaroli).
Italian cuisine over the ages
Going back in time, the origins of Italian cuisine can be traced to ancient Rome, when people based their diet on olive oil, wine, and bread, along with helpings of legumes, cheese, and vegetables. The Barbarians introduced butter and beer, while pasta-making can be traced back to the Etruscans and their influence on Italy when they conquered Rome in 800 BC. In the 1st century AD, Marcus Gavius Apicius had compiled one of the world's oldest cookbooks, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), which was filled with recipes from ancient Rome. The cookbook makes it clear that the Greeks introduced breadmaking to Romans, while fermentation of grapes turned grape juice into wine.
In the Middle Ages, Sicily was under Arab Muslim rule, and they introduced dried fruit, dried pasta, cane sugar, lemons, oranges, and exotic spices to the island. During Renaissance, Venice was the sugar producer and importer of oriental spices for the whole Europe at the time. With the discovery of America in 1492, the "New World" ingredients were introduced to Italy, such as turkey, sweet corn, potato, chocolate, beans, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes, which are native to Peru and were introduced to the country by the Spanish.
In the mid-17th century, France became Italy's fiercest culinary rival, and the rivalry still exists today. With the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century, the distinctive flavors of different regions became Italian cuisine, showcasing a variety of dishes and ingredients. In the 19th century, sterilization and pasteaurization prolonged the shelf life of Italian staples such as meat and dairy, and food started to be closely linked to art, as writers, poets, painters, and musicians started to create the aesthetic of food through habits and debates.
Italian food regions
In order to truly experience the best that Italian cuisine has to offer, one should try dishes in their region of origin, and although each region has its own specialties, it's best to divide the country into three gastro-segments – North, Center, and South.
Cuisine of the North is based on hot soups such as minestrone, vegetables such as radicchio, and dishes rich in fat such as butter or lard. The staples are truffles, polenta, risottos, cheese, potatoes, and game.
Cuisine of the Center part of Italy is based on cured meat, fresh pasta such as maccheroni alla chitarra, meat and game sauces, pork, oil-cured eggplants, and cheeses such as Pecorino and the elastic Scamorza, as well as Umbrian mushrooms and truffles.
In the South, the food is Mediterranean, based on fish and shellfish, pizza and pasta, mozzarella di bufala, extra-virgin olive oil, and fragrant dishes spiced with oregano, citrus fruits, and basil.
In the end, it's important to note that Italian dishes vary from one household to the next, and from one nonna to another, each with its own little differences and tweaks.