History of Food in Italy
Pizza and pasta may be the ubiquitous face of Italian cuisine, but the country’s culinary history is much more diverse and is reflected in the great variety of its regional cuisines. Some dishes and ingredients have their roots in Italy’s ancient Etruscan and Roman civilizations, while others were brought from distant shores by merchants and conquerors, but all have merged to create one of the world’s most delicious and lauded cuisines.
Etruscans and early Romans ate off the land and the sea, using wild game and fish as occasional protein while mostly relying on beans and ancient grains. Farro was used to creating6 thick soups and porridge-like dishes that may have been the precursors of modern polenta, the dish favored among northern Italians. Roman soldiers carried their own individual supply of farro to sustain them on long marches.
Everyday Romans ate much like their early ancestors, relying on beans and grains, plus fruits like figs and occasional fish from the Tiber. A common condiment was garum, a fish sauce made from pressing anchovies in salt. Aristocratic Romans indulged in great feasts with often exotic meats, sweet wines and dishes flavored with honey. One of the most famous gourmands was Lucullus, who inspired the adjective “lucullan,” meaning extravagant. Another famous Roman was Apicius, credited as the author of the first cookbook, a fourth century B.C. compilation of Roman dishes.
After Rome and the Italian peninsula fell under the influence of northern tribes, the cuisine reflected the dark times. Dishes were simple, made from staples like roasted meats and whatever could be grown and harvested nearby. In the south, notably Sicily, things were different, as Arab conquests introduced spices and techniques from North Africa and the Middle East. Their influence can still be seen today–almonds, citrus, iced and the juxtaposition of sweet and sour dubbed “agrodolce” have become hallmarks of the island’s cuisine.
As northern cities like Florence, Siena, Milan, and Venice grew in power and influence, the rich and comfortable enjoyed sumptuous banquets with dishes flavored with garlic, honey, nuts and exotic imported spices. Contrary to legend, noodles were not introduced to Italy by Marco Polo, although he is thought to have brought rice to the region, now celebrated in Italy’s famed risotto dish. Pasta, some food historians believe, was introduced in the south by the Arabs in the eighth century.
New World Foraging
European explorers, many of them Italian sailors, explored the New World and brought back potatoes, tomatoes, maize, peppers, coffee, tea, sugar cane, and spices. Some ingredients, like maize and peppers, were quickly incorporated into the Italian food pantheon, but others took time. The tomato, now regarded as a quintessential Italian ingredient, was not widely used until the nineteenth century, but polenta (cornmeal) quickly replaced farro in the north. Spices also enabled cooks to preserve meats, while sugar was used to candy fruits and nuts, dubbed “sweetmeats.”
One of Italy’s most famous culinary ambassadors was Catherine de Medici, who left her native Florence to become Queen of France in the sixteenth century. She is credited with bringing the sophisticated cuisine of Renaissance Italy to the French court, introducing a long list of Italian ingredients, including lettuce, truffles, artichokes and frozen desserts. Two centuries later, France and Austria ruled parts of northern Italy and brought their culinary influence to bear on the regional cuisine, particularly desserts, now favored as mid-afternoon snacks in many northern cities.
Throughout much of Italy’s history, common people ate very differently from the rich, relying on locally grown beans and grains, a few homegrown vegetables, or foraged greens and herbs. Tuscany, now regarded as a place for culinary pilgrimages, was long known as the land of the bean eaters. But this Italian tradition of cooking seasonally and relying on the freshest, sometimes simplest, ingredients is now a worldwide passion. Classic Italian ingredients like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta and herbs like basil and rosemary are now pantry staples everywhere–even farro, the ancient Roman grain, is making a splash in the culinary world.