Can you imagine the world without Italian food? What a dull world it would be!
Pizza day has come and gone but we’re still lingering on Italian food. After indulging in different pizza recipes, we got inspired and started exploring Italian cuisine. To our surprise, we realized that our knowledge is mostly limited to pizza and pasta. What is Italy’s favorite meat? What about vegetable dishes? Can we name a famous Italian dessert other than tiramisu? Italian cuisine is one of the most influential in the world and yet we know so little about it.
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Is there more to Italian cuisine than these two types of food? If there is, it must be delicious. Probably high-carb and high-calorie as well but hey, part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like. These are the words of Mark Twain, not ours. Besides, there’s nothing wrong in having a cheat day and enjoy great food. You’ll make it up in the gym tomorrow.
Our goal is to experiment with new ways to prepare well-loved Italian dishes but also dig out some less familiar recipes originating from this country. Can we beat the good old spaghetti Bolognese? Can we bring the taste of Italy to our kitchens? Let’s find out!
The Rise of Italian Food
Like all rich and delicious cuisines, Italian cuisine has its roots in antique times. It has two main features that make it so special and well-loved:
– Simplicity. It’s really difficult to mess up a bowl of spaghetti, right? Most Italian recipes call for up to four ingredients. Italian food experts give primate to quality ingredients instead of complicated preparation of presentation. This love for simplicity goes back to antiquity when the first known Italian food writer named Archestratus wrote a poem about using only high-quality ingredients and forbade masking the flavors with the use of herbs and spices.
– An abundance of flavors. Despite being simple, Italian food offers a rich mixture of regional cuisines and ingredients.
Simplicity wasn’t always a predominant trait in Italian cuisine. On the contrary, ancient Romans were hedonists who enjoyed heavily spiced foods. Their favorite foods were quite different from today’s staples; they loved Sicilian cheese, leeks, artichokes, and goat meat. They also had Greek bakers make bread for them.
Italian food as we know it today began to take its shape after the fall of the Roman Empire when different cities gained autonomy and started forming their own traditions. In terms of food, this separation is visible in the different cooking methods between the north and the south, as well as the different types of dishes, pasta, and bread. Thus, the south became famous for pizzas, the north excelled in risotto recipes, whereas the central regions favored tortellini.
In fact, the oldest Italian cuisine is the one from Sicily, with influences from both Greece and Rome. When the Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th century, they introduced rice, spinach, and almonds. Sicily is also considered the home of spaghetti. Records from the 12th century state that people were making strings from ‘atriya’, a mixture of water and flour. During this period, the Normans brought casserole recipes and popularized sea fish like stockfish and cod.
The oldest Italian cookbooks date from the 13th and 14th century. They feature recipes for Roman-style cabbage, torta (pie), a bean dish, and lasagna. Another cookbook dating from the 15th century lists saffron as one of the spices used in a Sicilian macaroni recipe, which is a reminiscent from the Arab conquests. This book, titled “Libro de Arte Coquinaria”, clearly marks the transition from using heavy spices to relying mostly on fresh herbs for seasoning.
The most important cities in terms of gastronomy were Rome, Venice, Florence, and Ferrara. In the 16th century, pies and tarts with different fillings started to pop up, popularizing the use of sugar and various spices in desserts. The same period also marks a significant change in the type of meats consumed in royal courts and aristocratic homes; namely, fancy people started favoring domestic animals at the expense of wild game. They especially liked shoulder, head, and tongue cuts! The lavishness was tamed during the period of Lent when people turned to marinated fish which could be broiled, poached, grilled, or fried.
This is also the time when the early predecessor of pizza appeared. However, the recipe was sweet as tomatoes had not been introduced to Italy yet. Tomatoes entered Italian cuisine after the discovery of the New World together with ingredients like potatoes, maize, bell peppers, and sugar beet marking an milestone in the development of Italian cuisine.
In the 17th century, fruits and vegetables gained popularity. They were no longer regarded as side dishes but rather as individual meals, simmered or roasted with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. During this period, eating habits underwent some refinement as well. Books appeared with instructions how to set a table for guests and eating etiquette tips.
At the beginning of the 18th century, regionalism became apparent in cookbooks. Another important turn took place in this period – the first food related texts were published and the importance of local ingredients was stressed. Meats began to decrease in popularity at the expense of vegetarian foods like fresh herbs, fruits, seeds, and roots. Tomato took center stage in a great number of recipes and the first recipes for tomato sauce appeared. The first combo for pasta with tomato sauce dates from the 19th century, as does the first pesto recipe.
Italian Staple Foods
Even though different regions prefer different ingredients and have different ways of preparing foods, there are a few things the whole country has in common:
– fresh ingredients;
– subtle seasoning;
– pasta dishes with tomato;
– the use of olive oil.
The north of the country focuses its cuisine on:
– fish & seafood;
– rice, potatoes, truffles, and maize.
– as far as meat is concerned, pork and sausages lead the way, followed by prosciutto and salami.
– cheese is also well-loved, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano.
– food is often seasoned with basil, olive oil, and nuts.
– tomatoes are, of course, an integral part of this cuisine, with the most popular sauce being ragù, aka Bolognese.
In the central parts, people eat:
– all types of meat & fish
– pecorino cheese
– pasta is usually combined with meat sauce.
The southern cuisine is more focused on fruits and veggies. Besides fresh & cooked tomatoes, the following ingredients are considered staples:
– ricotta cheese
– fish (sardines, anchovies, and tuna)
The Almighty Pasta
How many types of pasta can you name? The trademark of Italian cuisine appears in a great number of shapes and sizes: macaroni, spaghetti, penne, fusilli, linguine, lasagna, rigatoni, gnocchi, accompanied by stuffed pasta varieties like tortellini and ravioli.
There are two basic pasta styles – fresh and dried. Fresh pasta is usually made with durum flour or durum semolina and very often contains eggs. It keeps for 2-3 days in the fridge. Dried pasta is made without eggs and can be kept for up to two years in a dark and dry place!
Pasta is traditionally cooked by boiling until al dente (this means it should be slightly firm when bit, not overcooked). Can’t decide which one to try? Try them all!
Holidays and Special Occasions
The love of food in Italy is especially obvious during weekends, special occasions, and holidays. In these cases, meals are composed of several courses and last for hours! So, when in Rome, eat like Romans do:
Before the meal, aperitivo (aperitif) is served. Usually, this is Martini, Campari, Prosecco, Spritz, or Vermouth. The aperitif is usually combined with an antipasto composed of bread, ham, and cheese appetizers.
The main meal is composed of a first course (primo), which is quite filling, usually pasta or risotto. The second course (secondo) is the main dish, usually meat in the North (chicken, pork, beef, veal) and fish in the South. Salad or cooked veggies are served as a side dish (contorno), usually arranged around the main dish.
Cheese and fruits are often served after the main meal as the first dessert, followed by a ‘real’ dessert like ice cream, cookies, or cake. Coffee is also served at this point, followed by a digestive, i.e. liqueurs like Amaro, Grappa, Limoncello, etc.
On normal days, the meal consists of a primo or secondo, side dish, and a cup of coffee.
Desserts & Beverages
The country that invented espresso and the term “la dolce vita” certainly deserves a special section dedicated to coffee and desserts, don’t you think? Compiling a list of the most quintessential sweet treats coming from the Boot wasn’t easy, but here goes:
This refrigerated dessert unites the Italians’ love for sweets and coffee. The name translates as ‘pick me up’ and it is considered to originate in Veneto, northern Italy. Tiramisu is made of ladyfingers dipped in espresso, complemented with layers of a cream cheese-whipped egg yolks-and- cream mixture.
Gelato, the famous Italian frozen delight actually comes from China! Traders brought it to the Boot in the 14th century but it took four centuries for Italians to become truly obsessed with it. Compared to American ice cream, gelato contains more milk, less cream and egg yolks. Also, it rarely contains sugar and is rather sweetened with fruit purees. Gelato is also churned at a slower speed, which makes it thicker and more flavorful than ice cream. Finally, gelato is also kept and served at a higher temperature than our ice cream, so it is softer and creamier.
Panna Cotta translates to ‘cooked cream’ and comes from Piedmont. Traditionally, it was made by cooking cream egg whites and honey. Today, the cream contains gelatin and is left to set in a mold. Jiggly Panna Cottas are usually served with fruit preserves, chocolate syrup, or caramel sauce on top.
Cannoli are pastry disks shaped as a tube and fried. The word means ‘little tubes’ and their place of origin is Sicily. They’re usually filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and candied fruits.
Another dessert coming from Sicily is cassata, a rich, spongy cake with ricotta cheese and candied citrus zest. The cake is covered in marzipan and garnished with candied fruits or marzipan-shaped fruits. Naples also has its variety of this cake, which replaces the ricotta cheese with gelato and is covered in sugar glaze instead of marzipan.
The island of Capri gave us torta Caprese, a simple but utterly delicious chocolate almond cake with a heavenly soft center. Yum!
Semifreddo means ‘partly cold’ and refers to a broader range of chilled desserts including mousse, gelato, fruits, and whipped cream. They are served frozen but not too hard, hence the name.
For Italians, coffee is more than a hot beverage which serves the purpose of waking you up in the morning. Coffee is an important part of the country’s culture, a daily ritual, and a way to socialize.
The Italian style coffee is known as espresso. It is made from a blend of roasted coffee beans and, contrary to popular belief, has less caffeine than other coffee types. The North and the South have different preferences when it comes to coffee as well – the further south you move, the darker the espresso gets!
Italy has developed several coffee recipes that are popular throughout the planet. Is your favorite on this list?
– Espresso is plain black coffee made using espresso machine. It is usually served in a demitasse cup and can be short, medium, or long. In Italy, it is simply called caffé (espresso is considered a technical term). Never ever call it ‘expresso’. No!
– Macchiato is espresso topped with steamed milk or foam;
– Latte macchiato is a cup of warm milk with a little coffee added;
– Caffe latte is equal steamed milk and espresso, usually served in a large mug;
– Cappuccino is espresso mixed with milk or topped with hot, foamy milk
– Ristretto is made with a smaller amount of water and is stronger in taste than espresso;
– Corretto translates as ‘corrected’. The substance used to ‘correct’ the coffee is a booze like brandy in small amounts;
– Marocchino, is an upside-down cappuccino – it starts with cocoa powder at the bottom of a small glass, then a layer of frothed milk, then finally, a shot of espresso;
– Bicerin is a thick mixture of cappuccino and hot chocolate, with a little milk. Milk foam, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and/or sugar are usually added on top;
– Caffè alla nocciola is a foamy espresso with hazelnut cream.
The love for coffee and the many varieties it appears in have produced a number of coffee rituals. So, if you want to learn to enjoy coffee like a true Italian, here is what you need to know:
– Have milky coffees in the morning. Unlike other types of coffee which are consumed after a meal, cappuccino, latte macchiato, or caffé latte are consumed first thing in the morning. Makes sense, since having that much milk after an Italian-style heavy meal would upset the stomach.
– True Italians almost never drink double coffee. They’d rather have coffee several times a day than one or two doubles. They also don’t like experimenting with additional ingredients, except for the above-mentioned combos. For instance, if you feel the urge to surprise your Italian guests with a mint or ice cream coffee, restrain yourself. They’ll probably be appalled.
Italy produces the largest amount of wine in the world! Wine production in the country is strictly controlled in order to obtain only the best quality wines. Italians love drinking wine, usually along with water during meals. In fact, meals are almost always served with wine, other beverages are practically banned! In the recent years, a sparkling champagne-like wine called Prosecco is gaining popularity in the country and abroad due to its high quality and lower price.
Beer is gaining popularity in the recent years, especially in the northern German-speaking regions. The most consumed type is pale lager, usually served in pizza restaurants.
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Other alcoholic beverages
Besides wine and beer, Italians are also very fond of liqueurs. Some of the most popular ones are Limoncello, a traditional strong lemon liqueur from Southern Italy; Amaro Sicilianos, a Sicilian digestif made with herbs; Grappa, a typical alcoholic drink of northern Italy; as well as the three internationally recognized Italian aperitifs Martini, Campari, and Vermouth.