The year was 1889…
King Umberto I and his Queen were visiting Naples, a prosperous waterfront town. Wherever they went, the royal couple was treated to the best of haute cuisine and French food. Tired of constantly eating gourmet food, the Queen craved for something simple and asked Chef Rafaelle Esposito to bring a dish that was favored by the workers of Naples, found on the streets, and extremely simple in its composition. The Chef offered her the dish topped with his personalized touch, and the Queen loved it! Thus was born the Pizza Margherita, named so after the Queen Margherita of Savoy. By the way, the personalized touch given by the chef was soft white cheese, tomato sauce and basil leaves- in semblance to the Italian flag. Though this is one of the most found pizza toppings today, back then, adding topping to pizza itself was revolutionary.
The pizza of Naples was not only the Queen’s favorite; Italy’s migrant chefs took the dish to other countries and it became a worldwide hit. In America, chefs from Italy started their own restaurants starting from the 19th century and the pizza became so popular that now, it’s as American as blue jeans and apple pie.
Pizza, pasta, lasagna, risotto, gelato, and of course, espresso – if you are dreaming of exploring Italy solely for its food, we totally understand! But remember, these are but just a few of Italy’s culinary treasures and there are plenty more that differ from one region to another. In fact, what we know today as Italian cuisine, is a catalogue of specialty dishes of 20 different regions that were unified to create Italy. Each of these regions are completely different in their topography, climate and culture, and this variety reflects on the cuisine.
Italian food has incredible variety, and yet can be safely declared ‘comfort food’. Despite its diversity, if there’s one aspect that harmonizes regional food traditions, it’s the preference for fresh ingredients of excellent quality that makes Italy an outstanding food destination.
Here, let’s go beyond just pizza and pasta and discover the best of Italy’s regional delights after first delving into the rich history of Italian cuisine.
A brief look at the history of Italian Food
Feasts and banquets were the mainstay of Roman monarchs in the medieval period. Thanks to its strategic location, Rome had access to exotic ingredients from North Africa, Mediterranean regions, and Arabia – so plenty of spices, cereals and fish were combined to create new dishes for each banquet. There was free flow of red wine mixed with honey and water at the banquet table.
For the working population of Rome, banquets were a rarity. They had bread with cheese, olive oil, legumes, vegetables, and of course, wine. The ninth century saw Sicily falling under the control of Arabs. So, this part of Italy adopted a fusion cuisine that introduced Arabian spices and dry fruits to their regular routine. This was also when dried pasta was introduced to Italy. The later Middle Ages saw economic improvement after unsettlement, and good food gained prominence again, along with creative ways of displaying it on the platter. So, the pictures you’ve seen in comics of bird meat with feathers, pork with its head, and plenty of fruits, salads, sauces, and sides, were all a part of this phase of history. Desserts and sweet-meats like the cassata, confetti and gelato were created as part of this fusion food – an influence of neighboring countries and Italy’s own preferences.
Let’s see the remaining part of Italy’s food history through its regional delights in the following sections.
When in Rome…welcome your food with enthusiasm, for dining is not just a task to complete – it’s looked forward to and savored. Banquets in 16th century Rome offered guests music along with food; each course was introduced with trumpet music to make the suspense enjoyable. And, of course, there were plenty of dishes, hence a lot of trumpeting.
Now, unleash the trumpet in your mind as you savor Rome’s delectable culinary wonders like the Alleso di Bollito, a simmered beef sandwich; the Cacio e Pepe, a pasta dish with the rich flavors of sheep cheese and black pepper; Carbonara, Roman-style spaghetti; Porchetta, a slow-roasted pork dish, or Trapizzino, a Rome-special pizza-sandwich stuffed with traditional Roman dishes.
While these are classic Rome specialties, when you are on the go, you can have simpler dishes like pizza (best when it’s Neapolitan style), pasta (but of course), gelato (there are plenty of outlets), panini, espresso, and white wine.
Now, if you want to visit a place exclusively for its food, you can visit the cluster of regions that make up the Emilia Romagna and have your best culinary holiday ever. What more can you expect from the place that introduced Balsamic vinegar; Culatello di Zibello, a cured pork dish; Tagliatelle al ragu, meat sauce on a specially made pasta; and Parmigiano Reggiano, a cheese special to this region?
With fertile lands that have offered the freshest of ingredients since ancient times, this region is not only resourceful; it’s also fascinated with food. Visit museums that are dedicated to the cuisine of this region to understand this interest. For specialty dishes, try the Erbazzone, a spinach and meat tart; Tortellini en Brodo, a pasta soup dish; pumpkin ravioli; and Crescentina, a round, puffed bread. And for dessert, try Zuppa Inglese, a trifle made with pink Italian liqueur, chocolate, vanilla and cream.
It couldn’t have been fun for Tuscany, being a center for cucina povera or “poor cooking” or Tuscans being called mangiafagioli or bean eaters, because of their peasant style cooking. But the Tuscans took these names in their stride and maintained the authenticity of their cuisine. Why wouldn’t they when they could churn out such rich and delightfully flavorful food using the simplest of ingredients. Even today, Tuscany’s bread is saltless – a trend that started in the sixteenth century in opposition to salt taxes.
So, here’s a sample what to try when you visit Tuscany – for antipasti (appetizer), Crostini Toscani, liver pates served on crisp toast; or Affettati Misti, a platter of cured meat; for the main course, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a grilled steak specialty of Florence; Stracotto, braised beef, or Tortelli di patate, a potato-based pasta. Tuscany is famous for its soups – try a different one each time you dine out. The Ribolitta, a chickpea and vegetables soup; Pappa al pomodoro, bread and tomato soup; or Zuppa di farro, a soup made with spelt grain are just a few examples.
Lampredotto, offal served with broth and bread and Porchetta, roasted pork with herb seasoning are two major street food dishes in Florence. As for desserts, the Bombolone, similar to doughnuts; Necci, chestnut crepes; and Buontalenti, a gelato special to Florence are must-haves. Tuscany is also home to the Chianti, a wine with a rich flavour – make sure to try this and take it back home.
If you’ve been wondering why Risotto hasn’t featured yet in this discussion on Italian cuisine, it’s because we were waiting for Lombardy’s rich culinary heritage to be introduced here. Ever since the Arabs introduced rice as a food crop to Italy in the tenth century, the cultivation of rice kicked off, and North Italy was found to have the perfect conditions to grow short-grained rice.
Milan, as a territory of Spain, took a liking to rice, thanks to dishes like the Spanish Paella, and started developing its own influence on this versatile grain. Chefs in Milan infused flavors of the city’s specialty ingredients – saffron in particular and used a slow-cooking technique to create Risotto alla Milanese.
Lombardy has a treasure trove of ancient recipes that are still popular in the region – Polenta Taragna, a cornmeal and buckwheat flour combination dish; Cassoeulua, a stew made with cabbage and pork, Tortelli di zucca, flavor-filled pasta; and Torrone di Cremona, a nougat-like sweet that has its own festival in the city of Cremona where it originated.
When you want food with a view, Venice is your best destination. The endless stretch of canals provides not just an excellent setting for your dining, but also the highest quality seafood. So, don’t be surprised when you see the vast varieties of seafood on the menu here. Venice, however, also has its own passion for risotto, though again, seafood is used to flavor this rice dish.
Since ancient times, Venice has been an important port and a town of seafarers – so dried food preserves like baccala and anchovies are used in many dishes. When in Venice, try local specialties like Baccala Montecato, a simple dish made with stockfish, garlic and olive oil; Polenta e schie, a polenta made with Venetian shrimp; Risi e bisi, a rice and peas dish; and Sarde in saor, a sardine specialty bursting with flavors. Venice also offers to its food lovers the Cicchetti, tapas-style small eats that are served with drinks. When it comes to desserts, Veneta is the birthplace of Tiramisu, Italy’s gift to the world; one just can’t leave Venice without tasting this.
No two regions of Italy are the same. Similar dishes will differ in taste and flavor, due to subtle changes in ingredients and techniques, heavily influenced by the region and its culture. Italy has a treasure of dishes apart from pizzas and pastas, though even these basic food items taste great in their country of origin. So, make a go at those aperitifs, antipasti, insalata, dolce, caffe, and enjoy the versatile flavors of Italy.