To understand any cuisine, you have to understand the context of its evolution. This essentially comes down three things:
1) The resources available in give region (soil fertility, animals in the region, what varieties are availble)
2) The wealth (or non wealth) of the citizens
3) The influence of other cultures via immigrants or trade routes.
Italy, with its deep traditions, and its influences on other cuisines, is no different. The major influences from other cultures start waaaay back in Italian history. Up north. we have the Etruscans. In the south, the Greeks brought forth their way of life. In Sicily, we have the Saracens, an Arab tribe from the Sinai.
Each group brought something to the table (so to speak). Etruscans invented the mush made from grain which evolved into polenta. The Greeks brought a chowder called brodetto, which later evolved over time into bouillabaisse, The Sacarens introduced rice and spinach into the Italian culture. Without them, no risotto or aricini.They also brought with them art of making ice cream, wine, drying meat via salting and other methods of preserving food.
Trading brought forth the items we associate with Italy today. Sausage and beer came from Gaul during the Roman Empire. Tomatoes, chocolate and corn came from Mexico, pimentoes came from Peru. Various squashes came from North America, as did turkeys.
Invaders into the region also brought their traditions and food, but has often integrated into the already standing techniques. Salt Cod was brought in by the Normans andd raw meat techniques were brought in by the Huns (steak tartar anyone?).
But as mentioned, there are more influences than just where food comes from. Poverty and wealth have a tremendous affect upon what a person eats. Italy is no different.
There is an invisible gastronomic Mason-Dixon line in Italy, that runs along the Garigliano River starting on the West Coast, all the way to the Trento River in the East. North of that line is more wealth and more resources due to the trading routes of Venice and Florence, and the quality of the farming soil. North of that line, pasta is more along the lines of egg noodles, made at home or purchased in its dough state. South of the line, pasta is what we Americans are more familiar with.
The North can afford more meat, and the south eats with more vegetables and fish. The North drinks more coffee, the south drinks less. The North cooks with butter and olive oil, the south with olive oil alone.
When we Americans think of “Italian” food, we tend to think more of the foods of the south. This is due to the immigration of Sicilians and Neopolitans to our country. Think of Pizza, which is the most Neopolitan of foods.
My point here is to understand that what makes a cuisine, any cuisine, is largely based on ecomomic interests. Why are countries invaded? Why does trade take place? Why does a one area of the country eat more meat than another? The answer is almost always wealth. As I explore each region of Italy, I expect to see more and more examples of that.