It’s easy to paint a broad-brush stroke across all of Italy when describing one of the most popular cuisines in the world.
However, you might just miss the mosaic of subtleties that comprise Italy’s fabulous patchwork of regional dishes, heavily influenced by locale, necessity, and intricate history.
It is a fair statement to say that the 20 regions that comprise Italy could be considered a loosely stitched patchwork of nation states, as Italians often see themselves through their regional identity first and as Italians after.
Ask most Italian Americans about their Italian heritage and you won’t have to dig too deep to discover the region from which their families hail.
Italian cuisine is distinctly regional, sometimes fiercely so.
When you first visit Italy, you might find it surprising that many familiar dishes won’t always be found in all parts of Italy. Even within a region, you will find wide variations on their classic regional dishes, reflecting not only the personality of the cook, but the nuances seeping in from every nook and cranny of each region.
Many of the differences can be attributed to geography, from the mountains that stretch across the north, snaking down the length of the country, to being a peninsula almost entirely surrounded by the sea, or completely so, as in the case of the island regions of Sicily and Sardinia.
Then add in the thousands of years of invaders or the adoption of returning explorers’ culinary discoveries and you’ve got an exotic blend of culture, tradition, and cuisine. The dishes of each region have stories whose significance deserve a closer look, although it seems that we’ll just be dipping our toe into this complex subject. I’ll give you an overview of the three main geographical areas, which comprise the north, central and south Italy. I’ll begin with the north, where I reside, and perhaps this will whet your appetite to lean closer in as we delve deeper into the individual regional cuisine.
The mountainous regions will feature hearty, meaty fare, while the sea encircles nearly the whole country, making fish dishes plentiful and well loved. Both north and south love their pasta and each region has their favorite, although you’ll find a southern meal isn’t complete without a pasta course, whilst the north prefers to regularly mix it up with gnocchi, risotto and polenta dishes.
Broadly speaking, you could say that the northern cuisine is more butter- and dairy-based, with abundant use of rosemary and sage. Though the Alp and Dolomite mountain ranges delineate Italy’s northern border today, historically, the borders in Europe have been quite fluid, with the culinary influence of the French and Hapsburg empire seeping over the borders to settle into Italy’s present-day northern cuisine.
In the sun-drenched south, you will find more Greek and Arabic influences, with a cuisine featuring fragrant olive oils and many varieties of tomatoes both fresh and dried, spiked with hot peppers, and accentuated with basil and oregano. Sicilians add citrus, raisins, almonds and exotic spices that set their cuisine apart. The Spaniards’ influence, most notably saffron, is found throughout the south and also in Milan and Sardinia where they once ruled.
by Marla Gulley Roncaglia, Italian Cuisine Expert for the Menuism Italian Food Blog