Italian Cuisine: Introduction

As part of my own education into all things culinary, I’ve decided to add another subject thread to keep me busy, and keep me in things to write about. (The first subject thread, in case you haven’t noticed, is food ingredients based on it’s historical age). The new thread is world cuisines, where I try to get a basic knowledge about a regional or national cuisine.

To start this off, I’ve chosen my favorite cuisine – Italian (with apologies to all of you francophiles out there, Italian cuisine is the best on the European continent…although the French do have better technique).

There are two basic myths that Americans believe when it comes to Italian food:

1) What they eat in the Piedmonth area is the same as what they eat in Sicily.
2) It’s all about pasta.

In fact, Italy has a wide range of culinary variants, based off of where you are located in the country. Saying the Venetians eat similarly to Sicilians is akin to saying that New Englanders eat similarly to those in Georgia. It’s just ain’t true.

As with any cuisine, a regions culinary tradition is based on the products available to the citizens. Pork is big in Tuscany, dairy in Parma, Naples the tomato (after a long journey from the new world); each area brings to the table something different.

Understanding modern Italian cuisine starts with understanding recent Italian history. Italy, as it we know it today, didn’t exist until 1870. Prior to that, it was mostly city-states with their own form of government, and own ways of dealing with feeding their citizenry.

However, all of the cuisines are known for the flexibility. A simple Mushroom Risotto may have hundreds of recipes giving different flavors and options relative to the ingredients available to them. This is why I love Italian food over French. Where there is only one defined way to make béarnaise sauce, there are hundreds of marinaras or ragus. Diversity is grand.

Now, onto the pasta myth…yes, spaghetti is wonderful. But it’s not the most popular dish in Italy. In truth, soups are far more popular than a dish that’s primarily pasta. Remember, Italian food has evolved from a peasant cuisine, meaning that meals were often based on what was in the pantry and how much time one had to make a dish. Sometimes, when the pantry was full, yes, pasta would be made. But often one was left with a pantry with minimal ingredients, and one would be left making Acqua Cotta (Water Soup).

We’ll learn more about the foods as I research more of the regions of Italy. Stay tuned.