Though there are many individual regional cuisines in Italy, northern and southern Italian cuisines are primarily differentiated by the cooking fat and style of pasta commonly used. Northern Italian cuisine (other than on the coast) favors butter, cream, polenta, Mascarpone, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano cheeses, risotto and fresh egg pasta. Southern Italian cuisine tends toward Mozzarella, Caciocavallo and Pecorino cheeses, olive oil and dried pasta. Southern Italian cuisine also makes greater use of the ubiquitous tomato.
"If it had been an Italian instead of a Frenchman who codified the world of cuisine, [cooking] would be thought of as Italian."—Escoffier
Who would think that this small, boot-shaped country would be such a cultural leader among nations? While its current land mass consists of only 116,000 square miles, the Italian heritage and influence were once at the heart of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Renaissance and other great eras of history. As they say in the restaurant business, location is everything—and this peninsula's prime position in the Mediterranean, bordered also by the Adriatic Sea and the Alps, has involved it with in virtually every European power battle, including some with the neighboring Near East and Africa.
While the Greeks had established colonies in the southern coast as early as the fifth century BC, the Etruscans invaded central Italy three centuries later, bringing a bit of Asia Minor with them. But it was the Roman Empire with its invasions, commerce a nd competitive states that first spread the attributes of all its conquered cultures widely about. The subsequent Holy Roman Empire carved up the region among France, Spain, Germany and Austria.
Italy has survived these battles in numerous forms, from commercial city-states, to independent duchies, to Spanish feudal systems. During the Italian Renaissance, trade, science, music, spices and the arts flowed both in and out of Italy in great waves, further contributing to its assimilation of multi-cultural elements. In fact, during this period the Italians developed our modern day cooking techniques and in turn taught them to the French. While the Italians were later suffering the domination of othe rs, it was the French who codified these techniques and subsequently became famous for them, returning them to Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While the Italians are the unsung heroes of today's culinary arts, it is not surprising they were not concerned with documenting their contributions. The Italian people have a seemingly relaxed, laid-back and spontaneous attitude: with so many centuries o f continual battles and conflicts, the Italian people have always endured—they know that no government, politician or even natural disaster will ever truly conquer them. The culture and people always survive on their own. Structure is superfluous.
Geographically speaking, Italy revels in a most desirable range of agricultural settings, with rich soil as well as temperate climates in the central mass, warmer regions in the south and extreme cold only in the higher elevations of the Alps. Consequentl y, the cultivated crops and livestock are of premium quality, which the Italians ensure through numerous guilds and government enforced standards of quality. Italians may not respect many laws, but those concerning the superiority of their food products a re not ones to be violated.
The most difficult part of planning a gastronomic trip to Italy is not figuring out where to go, but rather what regions you could afford to miss. The specialties of each area are so distinct and vibrant that you will want to explore every region, and not just for the food, but for the people, arts and sights as well. One could easily spend a lifetime in this small country and never get bored with its many great dishes. Perhaps that is why many consider Italian cuisine to be "the world's favorite food."
Pasta, Risotto & You (with recipes)
from Kate's Global Kitchen:
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This page modified January 2007
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