Regional Diversity in Italian Cuisine
CAPATTI, A. MONTANARI, M, Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History, Columbia University Press, 2003
Italian cuisine has more to offer than a slice of pizza or a plate full of spaghetti with tomato sauce. The different regions of Italy have developed in centuries the most diverse cuisines, in a wide range of habits, styles, use of local and fresh ingredients.
The main factors in the developing of Italian cuisine are essentially two: the changing of times, from the pre-Roman era to the modern age, and the different influences due to the separation of Italian regions throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Modern history.
If, on one hand, food preparation was very important in the past, on the other today we have only one cookbook dated to the Roman age, the “re coquinaria”, written by Apicius in the first century BC. Thanks to the fall of the Roman Empire, the story of Italian food’s diversity begins. Northern Italy develops dishes based on meat and butter, while Southern Italy focuses more on fish-based dishes and different kind of cheese like provolone and mozzarella.
One of the most compelling differences is the one about diverse types of bread and pasta: a fresh kind develops in the northern regions, which will lead to ravioli and tortellini, while a dry kind emerges in Sicily which will evolve in the large-produced kind of pasta we all know today. While Milan is known for risotto, Bologna for tortellini and Florence for the famous Fiorentina, Napoli gives pizza to the world and Sicily the eldest kind of icecream or sorbet.
But the history of Italian food and regional variety is not only a story of influences due to conquest and dominions. It is also a tale of relationships between Italy and distant lands such as China, the North Africa and the Americas: we all remember Marco Polo and his trips, or the Arab influences in the developing of Sicilian cuisine, or Cristoforo Colombo with his trips to the land he never knew as America.
Despite the globalization of our days, the differences in the Italian cooking styles still show a strong diversity through the various regions. It is a difference regarding also, and maybe above all, the way the food and its preparation are thought, even before thinking the way it is cooked. Each region carries its own tradition and stands upon a deep history and culture.
A very interesting book, Italian Cuisine: a Cultural History, written by Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari, explains the origins of Italian cuisine’s diversity and regional influences through a wealth of cookbooks written in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Though temporally, spatially and socially diverse, the different kinds of Italian regional cuisine form a common experience that we can call “Italian cuisine”. Some of these traditional recipes are collected in the last cookbook by the Accademia Italiana di Cucina Pandolfini, with a strong focus on the tradition behind those recipes and what preserving the past means in Italian cooking.