Italian cuisine is as varied as the regions of Italy, which extend from the snowy Alps to the semitropical Mediterranean. To many non-Italians, the food of Italy means pizza, spaghetti, ravioli, lasagne, veal or eggplant parmigiana, and minestrone -the dishes most frequently found on the menus of Italian restaurants outside Italy.
In Italy, however, the food is much more varied, comprising a wide variety of regional dishes. Popular in the north are the bagna cauda (a garlicky sauce) of Piedmont, risotto (saffron-flavored rice) of Milan, fegato alla Veneziana (wafer-thin slices of liver with onions) of Venice, pesto (a sauce of basil, pine nuts, and oil) of Genoa, tortellini (little rounds of dough stuffed with meat or cheese) of Bologna, and fagioli all'uccelletto (fresh beans cooked with sage and tomato) of Tuscany.
Representative dishes in central Italy include the abacchio al forno (roast lamb flavored with rosemary) of Rome and the sfogliatelle (shell-shaped pastries) of Naples. In the south, a dish common in Calabria is tiella (a casserole of vegetables and macaroni). Sicilians enjoy maccheroni con le sarde (macaroni with a sauce of fresh sardines), and Sardinians are fond of buridda (a fish soup).
The basic flavor of food is determined by the kind of fat used in its preparation, either butter or olive oil. In the prosperous industrialized north, where a temperate climate and good pasture allow for an excellent dairy industry, food is generally cooked in butter. In the poorer warmer south, where olive trees thrive, cooking is mostly done with olive oil. In Rome and farther south, pork fat is also used.
Italian cooking commonly has two characteristics: thriftiness and simplicity; a little can be made to go a long way. The main staples, inexpensive spaghetti and rice, furnish a tasty, filling dish to which only a little of the more costly ingredients, such as meat, are added.
Delicious thick soups, made from scraps of meat, from fish and seafood, and from legumes and other vegetables, are eaten with a sprinkling of grated cheese for flavor and with fresh bread, to make a satisfying and inexpensive meal.
Meat, considered a luxury, is seldom served as a large roast. Instead, it is usually prepared in small, thin, carefully trimmed slices (scaloppine), of which veal is the best known. A few eggs, a little flour, and a handful of vegetables make a frittata, a filling omelet. Bread dough covered with tomatoes, a few slices of cheese or sausage, and a sprinkling of herbs becomes a nourishing pizza.
In southern Italy, pasta (for example, spaghetti or macaroni) is often prepared with oil and garlic or with pieces of fish rather than with cheese, as in the north.
Italian cooks have a profound respect for the natural flavor and harmony of foods, and they generally use only fresh ingredients whose flavor has not been spoiled by chemicals or refrigeration. As a result, marketing in most Italian households is done daily, or even twice a day, for such items as bread, salad greens, vegetables, and fruit.
In the preparation of a meal, amounts of food are so carefully calculated that there are few, if any, leftovers. Although Italian cooks spend much time in preliminary steps -preparing the ingredients of a sauce or a stuffing, for example- they cook their dishes rapidly.
This rapid cookery, whether boiling, simmering, stewing, roasting, or deep- and shallow-fat frying, preserves not only the flavor but also the texture and color of the ingredients. (There are, of course, a few dishes, such as minestrone -combinations of vegetables, dried white beans, and a smoked pork product- that must be cooked slowly.)
Texture and color are of prime importance in Italian cuisine. Vegetables, including artichokes, broccoli, zucchini, and spinach, should remain crisp, and tomatoes should retain their brilliant reds. Green and yellow peppers must shine like bright glass, and prosciutto (thinly sliced smoked ham) should have a rich pink glow. A heap of buttered noodles must suggest sunshine on a plate.
Bread, Pasta, and Rice
Bread is the staff of life of every Italian. It has always been baked by professional bakers, since coal or wood has always been in such short supply that it could not be used for home baking. Fine-textured, snow-white bread, shaped into long loaves, is the favorite kind, though people in the lower income groups eat less expensive, coarser-textured round loaves.
Pasta is the best-known Italian staple. Spaghetti is the most common form, but pasta comes in many shapes and sizes. In northern Italy the pastas are often homemade. They include fettuccine and tagliatelle, flat egg noodles, and ravioli, a dough turned into small pouches that contain spinach, cheese, or savory forcemeats.
In the southern regions the pastas are generally manufactured commercially and without eggs, so that they can be stored in the hot climate for long periods of time. The shapes are thicker and more robust in the north. They include lasagne, broad flat bands; rigatoni, tubes of varying size; fusilli, long twisted strands; and canelloni, big tubes for stuffing.
The southern pastas are served with more substantial and more highly seasoned tomato-base sauces than the more delicate pastas of the north, which are often dressed only with butter and freshly grated Parmigiano (Parmesan) cheese. Throughout Italy, pasta is served as a separate course and is never used as a side dish. Pastas must not be overcooked but should be al dente; that is, firm to the bite.
The al dente principle also applies to the preparation of rice, which is a more usual staple in the north, where it is grown, than spaghetti. Rice is served with a variety of seafood, meat, and vegetable sauces or plain (in bianco), with butter and cheese.
Meat and Fish
Veal, white and bland, from milk-fed animals, is the favorite meat of Italy. It is most frequently cut into thin, small slices (scaloppine) that are sautéed in butter and served with a sauce prepared with wine, tomatoes, or lemon.
Beef, which is less common than veal because of the lack of fodder to fatten mature cattle, is preferred in small, fat-trimmed cuts rather than in large roasts or thick steaks.
Pork is served as roasts and chops, but it is also processed in innumerable ways, including the famous Parma ham and the many kinds of salami. Lamb, chicken, duck, goose, and turkey are luxury foods rather than common fare.
Seafood is abundant along the Italian coast. In addition to the more common varieties of fish, Italians eat eel, squid, octopus, mussels, clams, and codfish. Typical seafood dishes include zuppa pescare, a fish soup made from anything at hand; pesce fritto, fried fish; and baccalá in umido, dried codfish with tomatoes.
Cheese, Vegetables, and Fruits
Cheese, a staple rich in proteins, frequently substitutes for meat. There are dozens of delicious Italian varieties, ranging from the creamy ricotta and the bland, semisoft bel paese to the green-veined gorgonzola, and the hard, grainy Parmesan that is grated for sprinkling over other foods.
Vegetables play an important role in the daily diet, often as the main dish of a meal. From artichokes to zucchini, they are cooked in many savory ways and imaginative combinations. Fresh fruit is the standard ending of an Italian meal.
Some desserts, such as zuppa inglese, a custard-covered rum cake, or crostata, an open-faced fruit pie, are made at home for festive occasions. However, pastry, the most important form of sweet, is seldom made at home, and throughout Italy excellent pastry shops offer an enormous variety of cakes and cookies. Similarly, gelati, the ice creams and fresh fruit ices, are never made at home.
Italian food is fragrant with herbs, including the flat-leaved Italian parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and marjoram. Cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron are popular spices. The dishes that are pungent with garlic, which is so often associated with Italian food, come from the south of Italy. Throughout the country lemon juice and rind are used to give a piquancy to many meat and vegetable dishes.
An important adjunct to an Italian meal is the wine of the country. Homemade or local wine, sometimes diluted with water, accompanies almost all Italian meals.
One of the best-known wines is Chianti, a robust red vintage from Tuscany, but other regional wines, such as the sparkling white Asti Spumanti (from the Piedmont), Soave (from Verona), Lacrima Christi (from Naples), as well as the various Italian vermouths, are equally refreshing. Liqueurs, such as Strega, are also drunk.
Italian coffee, a favorite beverage, is pungent and dark-roasted. Demitasse coffee (caffè espresso) is drunk black, usually with sugar. Coffee or tea follow the meal; neither is ever served with a meal. Fruit syrups, sodas, and colas are popular soft drinks.
Contributions to International Cuisine
Italian food has its origins in Greek, Middle Eastern, and Roman cooking. The Romans, who enjoyed good food, adopted many of the food habits of their subject peoples -for example, the use of spices and of sweet-sour sauces for game and vegetables came from the Middle East.
Through the centuries, Italian cooking reached heights of refinement. In 1533, when Catherine de' Medici married the French dauphin Henry (who later became King Henry II), she took to the French court her skilled Italian cooks.
They astounded the French with their cakes, cream puffs, and ices and with their refined methods of preparing meats. They also introduced vegetables hitherto unknown to the French, such as artichokes, broccoli, and peas. This Italian influence marked the beginning of the haute cuisine of France.
Italy's contribution to the world of good food is its simple, exquisitely prepared dishes. Italian restaurants, which serve basically the same foods as are cooked at home, though more subtly prepared, are best known for their pasta dishes. These include slender linguine with clam sauce, green spinach noodles, and broad lasagne layered with two kinds of cheese and a meat and tomato sauce.
Thin veal scalloppine, cooked for a few minutes in butter and sprinkled with lemon juice, and veal parmigiana, a breaded cutlet topped with Parmesan cheese, are other international favorites. The best known of all Italian desserts is zabaglione, a wine-flavored custard. Also famous are spumoni and tortoni, kinds of ice cream.
Italian breakfasts are simple: coffee with hot milk and a roll or bread with jam, or merely black coffee.
The principal meal, traditionally served at noon, often begins with an antipasto (appetizer) that includes such delicacies as tunafish, marinated mushrooms, pimiento, black olives, prosciutto, radishes, and anchovies. This is followed by soup or a dish of pasta or rice. The main course is fish or meat, such as codfish, veal roast, pork chops, or minute steaks, accompanied by a vegetable or a salad. Dinner concludes with a sweet or cheese and fruit, and caffè espresso.
The evening meal is light, usually consisting of a soup, perhaps a vegetable and rice combination, and an omelet or cold meats. Cheese and fruit are also served.