Writing about Italian foods is both easy and difficult. It’s easy because there is so much to write about, and difficult for the same reason. The challenge is choosing where to begin, and more importantly, where to end.
I’m choosing to begin by considering Italy’s topography. Most obviously, Italy is a peninsula. It has no bordering countries except in the north where the Alps separate it from its neighbors. Italy, however, is hardly isolated. It has over 4,700 miles of saltwater coastline, making it readily accessible by sea from literally everywhere. At the same time, the east and west coasts are separated by the Apennine Mountains, making east-west travel limited at best.
Politically, Italy is even more interesting. Until the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1871, the country consisted of a collection of city states, some dating back to the fifth century. Prior to unification, the city states were fiercely independent and competitive, and most maintained individual versions or dialects of the Italian language. In 1946, a Constitutional Referendum ended the monarchy and created the Republic of Italy. In 1957, Italy became one of the founders of the European Economic Community, a predecessor of the European Union. Italy, as we know it today, is younger than I am!
Italy is interesting economically, too. For centuries, much of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the middle and northern regions. Northerners also dominated the Italian government. The southern regions remained mostly rural and much less affluent. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, overpopulation and illiteracy became severe problems in southern Italy. Southerners also were victims of high taxes and protective tariffs placed on northern industrial goods. Consequently (and understandably), most of Italy’s nineteenth century emigrants were from the south.
Enter the food! For all the reasons cited above – topography, politics, and economics – foods and food supplies varied greatly from region to region and from one city state to another. Tomatoes grew best on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples. Olive trees, which thrived in the south, were unknown in the north. Pigs and cows, and the resulting pork fat, butter, hams, and cheeses were predominant in the central regions near Florence and Parma. Every area jealously guarded their recipes for cheese and salumi. Most of the people were immobile, but so was most of the food – movement restricted by topography, politics, and economics. Consequently, old world Italian cooks primarily used ingredients that were readily available to them – grown in their own garden or produced locally. As a result, foods not only differed from region to region, it often differed from village to village and from household to household. It should be no surprise then that Italians tend to revere their grandmothers – the iconic sources of old world Italian recipes. (Mothers are revered, too, but if I may be allowed a generalization, they are more revered when they become grandmothers and, typically, matriarchs of their families.)
My “rules-of-thumb” for identifying the origin of old world Italian recipes are straightforward. Recipes are most likely from southern Italy if they use tomatoes, olive oil, goat’s or sheep’s milk cheeses, and hard pastas. Middle and northern region recipes typically use butter, pork fat, cow’s milk cheeses, veal, beef, rice, potatoes, and soft (egg) pastas.
I must emphasize, though, that I am referring to old world Italy, not modern day Italy where (fortunately) everything is available everywhere. That makes it easy for us modern day folks. We can enjoy all these wonderful foods, regardless of their origin and past history. At the same time, I still think it makes each traditional meal just a little more special – a little more enjoyable – knowing something about its roots.
P.S. Thank you, Mary Ann. This one is for you!