Picturing Italian food history in few words is not an easy task. In a country with such long and troubled history as Italy, the variety of its food is barely imaginable, even for Italians.
Nevertheless, let’s try to sum it up starting back from…
Some ancient inhabitants of Italian soil, more accurately around smodern Tuscany, were the Etruscans. Their typical dishes were cereal soups and meat. Still today Tuscany is widely known for its large use of meat.
Particularly famous is the Fiorentina, a thick tender beef steak cooked on the grill. Minestrone with spelt, lentils, broad beans or chick peas is also very popular winter dish from Tuscany.
Even olive oil, so much a distinctive feature of Italian food, dates back to the Etruscans.
Not to mention their banquets where wine was poured profusely. As widely known, conviviality is still the most important aspect of Italian food culture.
The Greeks and the Romans
In the VIII century BC Greeks colonized the south of Italy, leaving behind a distinctive inheritance culture, including food traditions.
Pickled olives, dry figs, lupines, so popular in modern fairies’ stalls in southern regions, were introduced by Greeks. As were almonds and walnuts, still today the most common ingredients in Sicilian and southern desserts.
In Italian food history a special mention is needed for Romans.Bread, fruit, vegetables, cereals (mainly corn), meat, fish, wine and oil were part of Romans’ daily diet. The popular Mediterranean diet, considered the most balanced ever, is still based on these ingredients.
Bread was the food of poorest people along with cereals in general. Still today bread has a particular meaning on Italian food. It must be respected and is usually present at the table with every meal. I remember my grandma always saying not to put bread upside down on the table. Italians eating abroad usually panic when they order a meal and bread is not served.
Even the precise timing and structure of every meal date back to ancient Romans. They used to have a small breakfast, an important lunch rigorously at midday (which Italians still follow religiously) and a light dinner. More or less what we still do at present.
And then the invaders came along
When the Roman Empire was about to collapse (V century AD), invaders from northern Europe seized the opportunity and went down the boot of Italian peninsula. They brought with them new culinary traditions such as baccalà (salted cod), smoked fish and meat, and casseroles.
At the same time, in southern Italy Arabs introduced almonds, rice, artichokes and spices. Arabs also provided one of the most distinctive features of Italian food, coffee. Still today, the only coffee resembling Italian espresso I could find abroad is Arabic coffee. Dark, strong and prepared with a particular ritual.
At school we were taught that in late Middle Ages, through the birth of the first Comuni and Signorie (local independent communes), a sense of nation was arising for the first time. With them another important aspect of Italian food history was about to be set, regional diversity.
Every large city had a typical dish, cake, cheese or wine. Bologna is famous for its tortellini, Milan for its risotto, the region of Campania for its mozzarella, Tuscany for Fiorentina.
Spanish, French and Austrian influences also played a huge role in the history of Italian food. Tomato is perhaps the vegetable that defines our cuisine. We couldn’t even imagine ourselves without it, and was introduced by Spanish conquerors.
Spritz, one of the most famous Italian aperitifs, is said to have been brought along by the Austrian army.
The unification of Italy and Pizza Margherita
Pizza Margherita is perhaps the most famous Italian dish abroad. Probably the reason lies not only in its deliciousness but also in this anecdote we were taught at primary school.
In 1889 King Umberto I and Queen Margherita went to Naples. On this occasion, the most famous pizzaiolo (pizza-maker) at that time was asked to prepare pizzas for the king and his wife. One of these was made with tomato, mozzarella and basil, a tribute to the Italian colors. Queen Margherita liked this pizza so much she wanted to praise the pizzaiolo in writing, and he therefore named his pizza after her.
Italian food history is obviously more than all this, it is made by all peoples that conquered Italy, lived there and left something behind.