Italian cuisine is a Mediterranean cuisine consisting of the ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques developed across the Italian Peninsula since antiquity, and later spread around the world together with waves of Italian diaspora.
Italian cuisine has a great variety of different ingredients which are commonly used, ranging from fruits, vegetables, grains, cheeses, meats and fish. In the North of Italy, fish (such as cod, or baccalà), potatoes, rice, corn (maize), sausages, pork, and different types of cheese are the most common ingredients. Pasta dishes with tomato are common throughout Italy. Italians use ingredients that are fresh and subtly seasoned and spiced.
Each area has its own specialties, primarily at a regional level, but also at the provincial level. The differences can come from a bordering country (such as France or Austria), whether a region is close to the sea or the mountains, and economics. Italian cuisine is also seasonal with priority placed on the use of fresh produce.
One of the main characteristics of Italian cuisine is its simplicity, with many dishes made up of few ingredients, and therefore Italian cooks often rely on the quality of the ingredients, rather than the complexity of preparation. Italian cuisine is at the origin of a turnover of more than €200 billion worldwide.
Cheeses and dairy products are foods of which Italy has a great diversity of existing types. The varieties of Italian cheeses and dairy products are very numerous – there are more than 600 distinct types throughout the country.
Olive oil is the most commonly used vegetable fat in Italian cooking, and as the basis for sauces, replaced only in some recipes and in some geographical areas by butter or lard. Italy is the largest consumer of olive oil, with 30% of the world total – it also has the largest range of olive cultivars in existence and is the second largest producer and exporter in the world.
Italian cuisine is well knownfor its use of a diverse variety of pasta. Pasta include noodles in various lengths, widths, and shapes. Most pastas may be distinguished by the shapes for which they are named—penne, maccheroni, spaghetti, linguine, fusilli, lasagne, and many more varieties that are filled with other ingredients like ravioli and tortellini.
Bread has always been, as it has for other Mediterranean countries, a fundamental food in Italian cuisine. There are numerous regional types of bread.
Meat, especially beef, pork and poultry, is very present in Italian cuisine, in a very wide range of preparations and recipes. It is also important as an ingredient in the preparation of sauces for pasta. In addition to the varieties mentioned, albeit less commonly, sheep, goat, horse, rabbit and, even less commonly, game meat are also consumed in Italy.
The beginnings of Italian cuisine can be traced back to ancient Rome – both the food itself and the spirit of eating. The Roman Empire stretched across a vast area of the ancient world, from the Middle East to North Africa to the Mediterranean. As the Roman Empire conquered different areas, the spices and ingredients of these lands were incorporated into Roman cuisine.
The first known Italian food writer was a Greek Sicilian named Archestratus from Syracuse in the 4th century BC. He wrote a poem that spoke of using “top quality and seasonal” ingredients. He said that flavours should not be masked by spices, herbs or other seasonings. He placed importance on simple preparation of fish.
The Romans employed Greek bakers to produce breads and imported cheeses from Sicily as the Sicilians had a reputation as the best cheesemakers. The Romans reared goats for butchering, and grew artichokes and leeks.
Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th century, introducing spinach, almonds, and rice. During the 12th century, a Norman king surveyed Sicily and saw people making long strings made from flour and water called atriya,
which eventually became trii, a term still used for spaghetti in southern Italy. Normans also introduced the casserole, salt cod (baccalà), and stockfish, all of which remain popular.
The oldest Italian book on cuisine is the 13th century Liber de coquina written in Naples. Dishes include “Roman-style” cabbage (ad usum romanorum), ad usum campanie which were “small leaves” prepared
in the “Campanian manner”, a bean dish from the Marca di Trevisio, a torta, compositum londardicum, dishes similar to dishes the modern day.
The Renaissance greatly influenced cuisine in Italy, with increased communication between neighboring countries in Europe. With dense urban centers the site of trade and commerce, the role of cuisine changed
within Italy, moving away from isolated agricultural traditions. Now, food became a source of enjoyment and cultural exchange. During this time, many different spices and ingredients passed through Italy’s ports, and kitchens of the wealthy were staffed with professional cooking staff.
Significant changes occurred with the colonization of the Americas and the introduction of potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums, maize and sugar beet — the latter introduced in quantity in the 18th century. It is one of the best known and most appreciated gastronomies worldwide.
Modern pizza evolved from similar flatbread dishes in Naples, Italy, in the 18th or early 19th century. Most would never guess it, but pizza originally started off as a dish for poor people, sold in the streets and not a food for upper class people. It is very interesting the way pizza rose from the local low-class meal in the poor districts of Naples to the world’s famous food today.
When Italy unified in the mid-19th century, the distinct flavors of different geographical regions of the peninsula became Italian cuisine. The regions of Italy, to this day, showcase the diverse array of ingredients and flavors.