Italian cuisine is the food typical of current-day Italy but has developed through centuries of social and economic changes, dating to antiquity, long before the Italian peninsula was unified under current-day Italy.  Italian cuisine is known for its regional diversity, most notably between the north and the south of the Italian peninsula. It offers an abundance of taste, and is one of the most popular and copied in the world.  Its influence can be seen in other world cuisines, especially that of the United States.

Italian cuisine is generally characterized by its simplicity, with many dishes having only two to four main ingredients.  Italian chefs rely heavily on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation.  While ingredients and dishes vary by region, many dishes that were once regional have proliferated with variations throughout the country.  Significant changes also occurred with the colonization of the Americas and the introduction of potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums, maize and sugar beet, this last introduced in quantity in the 18th century.

Antiquity

Italian food can trace its roots as far back as the 4th century BC.  Through the centuries, neighboring regions, conquerors, high-profile chefs, political upheaval, and the discovery of the New World have influenced its development.

The first known Italian food writer was a Greek Sicilian named Archestratus from Syracuse in the 4th century BC. He wrote a poem that spoke of using “top quality and seasonal” ingredients. He said that flavors should not be masked by spices, herbs or other seasonings. He placed importance on the simple preparation of fish.

Simplicity was eventually abandoned and replaced by a culture of gastronomy as the Roman Empire developed. By the time “de re coquinaria” was published in the 1st century AD, it contained 470 recipes calling for heavy use of spices and herbs. The Romans employed Greek bakers to produce bread and imported cheeses from Sicily as the Sicilians had a reputation as the best cheesemakers. The Romans reared goats for butchering and grew artichokes and leeks.

Middle Ages

With culinary traditions from Rome and Athens, a cuisine developed in Sicily that some consider the first real Italian cuisine.  Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th century, introducing spinach, almonds, and rice.   During the 12th century, a Norman king surveyed Sicily and saw people making long strings made from flour and water called atriya, which eventually became true, a term still used for spaghetti in southern Italy.  Normans also introduced casseroles, salt cod (baccalà), and stockfish, all of which remain popular today.

As refrigeration did not exist, meats and fish were smoked, dried, or kept on ice.  Brine and salt were used to pickle items such as herring and to cure pork.  Root vegetables were preserved in brine after they had been parboiled. Other means of preservation included oil, vinegar, or immersing meat in the congealed, rendered fat. For preserving fruits, liquor, honey, and sugar were used.

The northern Italian regions show a mix of Germanic and Roman culture while the south reflects Arab influence, as much Mediterranean cuisine was spread by Arab trade.  The oldest Italian cookbook is the 13th-century “liber de coquina” written in Naples.  Dishes included “Roman-style” cabbage “ad usum Romanorum”, “ad usum campanie”, which were small leaves prepared in the Campanian style, a bean dish from the Marca di Trevisio, a torta, “compositum londardicum”, which are all similar to dishes prepared today. Two other books from the 14th century include recipes for Roman “pastello”, Lasagna pie, and called for the use of salt from Sardinia or Chioggia.

The forerunner of regional Italian food started to form after the fall of the Roman Empire when different cities began to separate into city-states and form their own traditions. Many different types of bread and pasta were made, and there was a variation in cooking techniques and preparation. The country was split, as regional cuisine was represented by some of the major city-states in Italy. For example, Milan (north of Italy) is known for its risottos, Bologna (the central/middle of the country) is known for its tortellini and Naples (the south) is famous for its pizzas and spaghettis.

Saffron has been used in Italy for centuries.  In the 15th century, Maestro Martino was chef to the Patriarch of Aquileia at the Vatican. His book “de arte coquinaria” describes a more refined and elegant cuisine. It also contains a recipe for “Maccaroni Siciliani,” made by wrapping dough around a thin iron rod to dry in the sun. The macaroni was cooked in chicken stock flavored with saffron, displaying Persian influences. Of particular note is Martino’s avoidance of excessive spices in favor of fresh herbs. The Roman recipes included “coppiette” (air-dried salami) and cabbage dishes. His Florentine dishes included eggs with Bolognese torta, Sienese torta and Genoese recipes such as “piperata” (sweets), macaroni, squash, mushrooms, and spinach pie with onions.

Martino’s text was included in a 1475 book by Bartolomeo Platina printed in Venice entitled “de honesta voluptate et valetudine” (“On Honest Pleasure and Good Health”). Platina puts Martino’s book in regional context, writing about perch from Lake Maggiore, sardines from Lake Garda, grayling from Adda, hens from Padua, olives from Bologna and Piceno, turbot from Ravenna, rudd from Lake Trasimeno, carrots from Viterbo, bass from the Tiber, roviglioni, and shad from Lake Albano, snails from Rieti, figs from Tuscola, grapes from Narni, oil from Cassino, oranges from Naples and eels from Campania. Grains from Lombardy and Campania are mentioned as is honey from Sicily and Taranto. Wine from the Ligurian coast, Greco from Tuscany and San Severino, and Trebbiano from Tuscany and Piceno are also mentioned in the book.

Early modern era

The courts of Florence, Rome, Venice, and Ferrara were central to the cuisine development in what would become Italy. Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the steward to Ippolito d’Este, published “Banchetti Composizioni di Vivande” in 1549. Messisbugo gives recipes for pies and tarts (containing 124 recipes with various fillings). The work emphasizes the use of Eastern spices and sugar.

In 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to Pope Pius V, wrote his composition in five volumes, giving a comprehensive view of Italian cooking of that period. It contains over 1,000 recipes, with information on banquets including displays and menus as well as illustrations of kitchen and table utensils. This book differs from most books written for the royal courts in its preference for domestic animals and courtyard birds rather than game.

Recipes include lesser cuts of meats such as the tongue, head, and shoulder. The third volume has recipes for fish in Lent. These fish recipes are simple, including poaching, broiling, grilling, and frying after being marinated.

Particular attention is given to seasons and places where fish should be caught. The final volume includes pies, tarts, fritters, and a recipe for a sweet Neapolitan pizza (not the current savory version, as tomatoes had not yet been introduced to Italy). However, such items from the New World as corn and turkey are included.

In the first decade of the 17th century, Giangiacomo Castelvetro wrote “Breve Racconto di Tutte le Radici di Tutte l’Herbe et di Tutti i Frutti” (A Brief Account of All Roots, Herbs, and Fruit), translated into English by Gillian Riley. The book lists Italian vegetables and fruits along with their preparation. He featured vegetables as a central part of the meal, not just as accompaniments. Castelvetro favored simmering vegetables in salted water and serving them warm or cold with olive oil, salt, fresh ground pepper, lemon juice, or orange juice. He also suggested roasting vegetables wrapped in damp paper over charcoal or embers with a drizzle of olive oil. Castelvetro’s book is separated into seasons with hop shoots in the spring and truffles in the winter, detailing the use of pigs in the search for truffles.

In 1662, Bartolomeo Stefani, chef to the Duchy of Mantua, published “L’Arte di Ben Cucinare.” He was the first to offer a section on “vitto ordinario” (ordinary food). The book described a banquet given by Duke Charles for Queen Christina of Sweden, with details of the food and table settings for each guest, including a knife, fork, spoon, glass, a plate (instead of the bowls more often used), and a napkin.

Other books from this time, such as Galatheo by Giovanni della Casa, tell how waiters should handle themselves while serving their guests. Waiters should not scratch their heads or other parts of themselves, or spit, sniff, cough or sneeze while serving diners. The book also told diners not to use their fingers while eating and not to wipe sweat with their napkin.

Modern Era

At the beginning of the 18th century, Italian culinary books began to emphasize the regionalism of Italian cuisine.  Books written then we’re no longer addressed to professional chefs but to bourgeois housewives.  Periodicals in booklet form such as “La cuoca cremonese” (The Cook of Cremona) in 1794 give a sequence of ingredients according to season along with chapters on meat, fish, and vegetables. As the century progressed these books increased in size, popularity, and frequency.

In 1779, Antonio Nebbia from Macerata in the Marche region wrote: “Il Cuoco Maceratese” (The Cook of Macerata). Nebbia addressed the importance of local vegetables and pasta, rice, and gnocchi. For stock, he preferred vegetables and chicken over other meats.  In 1773, the Neapolitan Vincenzo Corrado’s ‘Il Cuoco Galante” (The Courteous Cook) gave particular emphasis to vegetarian food, such as fresh herbs, roots, flowers, fruits, seeds and all that is produced in the earth for our nourishment. This book was the first to give the tomato a central role with thirteen recipes.

Tomatoes are a typical part of Italian cuisine but only entered common usage in the late 18th century.  “Zuppa alli pomidoro” in Corrado’s book is a dish similar to today’s Tuscan “pappa al pomodoro.” In 1790, Francesco Leonardi in his book “L’Apicio moderno” (“Modern Apicius”) sketches a history of Italian Cuisine from the Roman Age and gives as first a recipe of a tomato-based sauce.

In the 19th century, Giovanni Vialardi, chef to King Victor Emmanuel, wrote A Treatise of Modern Cookery and Patisserie with recipes “suitable for a modest household”. Many of his recipes are for regional dishes from Turin including twelve for potatoes such as Genoese Cappon Magro. In 1829, Il Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico by Giovanni Felice Luraschi featured Milanese dishes such as a kidney with anchovies and lemon and gnocchi alla Romana. Gian Battista and Giovanni Ratto’s La Cucina Genovese in 1871 addressed the cuisine of Liguria. This book contained the first recipe for pesto. La Cucina Teorico-Pratica written by Ippolito Cavalcanti described the first recipe for pasta with tomatoes.

La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene” (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), by Pellegrino Artusi, first published in 1891, is widely regarded as the canon of classic modern Italian cuisine, and it is still in print. Its recipes predominantly originate from Romagna and Tuscany, where he lived.

Key Ingredients

Pesto, a Ligurian sauce made out of basil, olive oil and pine nuts, and which can be eaten with pasta or other dishes such as soup.

Italian cuisine has a great variety of different ingredients that are commonly used, ranging from fruits, vegetables, sauces, meats, etc. In the North of Italy, fish (such as cod, or baccalà), potatoes, rice, corn, sausages, pork, and different types of cheeses are the most common ingredients. Pasta dishes with the use of tomato are spread throughout Italy.  Italians like their ingredients fresh and subtly seasoned and spiced.

In Northern Italy, though, there are many kinds of stuffed pasta, polenta, and risotto that are equally popular if not more so.  Ligurian ingredients include several types of fish and seafood dishes. Basil (found in pesto), nuts, and olive oil are very common. In Emilia-Romagna, common ingredients include ham (prosciutto), sausage (cotechino), different sorts of salami, truffles, grana, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and tomatoes (Bolognese sauce or ragù).

Olive oil is the most commonly used vegetable fat in Italian cooking, and as the basis for sauces, often replaces animal fats, butter or lard.  Traditional Central Italian cuisine uses ingredients such as tomatoes, all kinds of meat, fish, and pecorino cheese. In Tuscany, pasta (especially pappardelle) is traditionally served with meat sauce (including game meat). In Southern Italy, tomatoes (fresh or cooked into tomato sauce), peppers, olives, and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, oranges, ricotta cheese, eggplants, zucchini, certain types of fish (anchovies, sardines, and tuna), and capers are important components to the local cuisine.

Italian cuisine is also well known (and well regarded) for its use of a diverse variety of pasta. Pasta includes noodles in various lengths, widths, and shapes. Most pasta may be distinguished by the shapes for which they are named—penne, maccheroni, spaghetti, linguine, fusilli, lasagne, and many more varieties that are filled with other ingredients like ravioli and tortellini.  The word pasta is also used to refer to dishes in which pasta products are a primary ingredient. It is usually served with sauce. There are hundreds of different shapes of pasta with at least locally recognized names.

Examples include spaghetti (thin rods), rigatoni (tubes or cylinders), fusilli (swirls), and lasagne (sheets). Dumplings, like gnocchi (made with potatoes or pumpkin) and noodles like spätzle, are sometimes considered pasta. They are both traditional in parts of Italy.

Pasta is categorized in two basic styles: dried and fresh. Dried pasta made without eggs can be stored for up to two years under ideal conditions, while fresh pasta will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator. Pasta is generally cooked by boiling. Under Italian law, dry pasta can only be made from durum wheat flour or durum wheat semolina and is more commonly used in Southern Italy compared to the North, where traditionally the fresh egg variety is preferred.

Durum flour and durum semolina have a yellow tinge in color. Italian pasta is traditionally cooked “al dente” (Italian: firm to the bite, meaning not too soft). Outside Italy, dry pasta is frequently made from other types of flour, but this yields a softer product. There are many types of wheat flour with varying gluten and protein levels depending on the variety of grain used.

Particular varieties of pasta may also use other grains and milling methods to make the flour, as specified by law. Some pasta varieties, such as pizzoccheri, are made from buckwheat flour. Whole wheat pasta has become increasingly popular because of its supposed health benefits over pasta made from refined flour.

With respect to regional variation, each area has its own specialties, primarily at a regional level, but also at a provincial level. The differences can come from a bordering country (such as France or Austria), whether a region is close to the sea or the mountains, and economics. Italian cuisine is also seasonal with priority placed on the use of fresh produce. 

Italian Wine

Italian wine is produced in every region of Italy, which is home to some of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. Italy is the world’s largest producer of wine, with an area of 702,000 hectares (1,730,000 acres) under vineyard cultivation, and contributing a 2013–2017 annual average of 48.3 million hl of wine. In 2018, Italy accounted for 19 percent of global production, ahead of France (17 percent) and Spain (15 percent).  Italian wine is both exported around the world and popular domestically among Italians, who consume an average of 42 liters per capita, ranking fifth in world wine consumption.

Etruscans and Greek settlers produced wine in Italy before the Romans planted their own vineyards in the 2nd century BC. The Romans greatly increased Italy’s wine-producing area using efficient viticultural and winemaking methods and pioneered large-scale production and storage techniques such as barrelmaking and bottling.

Although vines had been cultivated from the wild “Vitis vinifera grape for millennia, it was not until the Greek colonization that wine-making flourished. Viticulture was introduced into Sicily and southern Italy by the Mycenaean Greeks, and was well established when the extensive Greek colonization transpired around 800 BC.  It was during the Roman defeat of the Carthaginians in the 2nd century BC that Italian wine production began to further flourish. Large-scale, slave-run plantations sprang up in many coastal areas and spread to such an extent that, in AD 92, emperor Domitian was forced to destroy a great number of vineyards in order to free up fertile land for food production.

During this time, viticulture outside of Italy was prohibited under Roman law. Exports to the provinces were reciprocated in exchange for more slaves, especially from Gaul. Trade was intense with Gaul because the inhabitants tended to drink Italian wine unmixed and without restraint.   Although unpalatable to adults, it was customary, at the time, for young people to drink wine mixed with a good proportion of water.

As the laws on provincial viticulture were relaxed, vast vineyards began to flourish in the rest of Europe, especially Gaul (present-day France) and Hispania. This coincided with the cultivation of new vines, such as “biturica,” an ancestor of the Cabernets. These vineyards became so successful that Italy ultimately became an import hub for provincial wines.

Italian Appellation System

In 1963, the first official Italian system of classification of wines was launched. Since then, several modifications and additions to the legislation have been made, including a major modification in 1992. The last modification, which occurred in 2010, established four basic categories that are consistent with the latest European Union wine regulations (2008–09). The categories, from the bottom to the top level, are:

  • Vini (Wines – informally called ‘generic wines’): Wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, the label includes no indication of the geographical origin of the grape varieties used or the vintage. (The label only reports the color of the wine.)
  • Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): Generic wines that are made either mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of authorized ‘international’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them, grape variety or varieties and vintage may be indicated on the label. (The prohibition to indicate the geographical origin is instead maintained. These wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU.)
  • Vini IGP (Wines with Protected Geographical Indication also traditionally implemented in Italy as IGT – Typical Geographical Indication): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy and following a series of specific and precise regulations on authorized varieties, viticultural and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemico-physical characteristics, labeling instructions, etc. In 2016, there existed 118 IGPs/IGTs.
  • Vini DOP (Wines with Protected Designation of Origin): This category includes two sub-categories: Vini DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) and Vini DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin). DOC wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years. They generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory that are particularly known for their climatic and geological characteristics, quality, and originality of local winemaking traditions. They also must follow stricter production regulations than IGP wines. A DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG if it has been a DOC for at least 10 years. In addition to fulfilling the requisites for DOC wines, DOCG wines must pass stricter analyses prior to commercialization, including a tasting by a specifically appointed committee. DOCG wines must also demonstrate superior commercial success. In 2016, there existed 332 DOCs and 73 DOCGs for a total of 405 DOPs.

A number of sub-categories exist pertaining to the regulation of sparkling wine production (e.g. Vino Spumante, Vino Spumante di Qualità, Vino Spumante di Qualità di Tipo Aromatico, Vino Frizzante).

Within the DOP category, ‘Classico’ is a wine produced in the original historic center of the protected territory. ‘Superiore’ is a wine with at least 0.5 more alc%/vol than its corresponding regular DOP wine and produced using a smaller allowed quantity of grapes per hectare, generally yielding a higher quality. ‘Riserva’ is a wine that has been aged for a minimum period of time. The length of time varies with type (red, white, Traditional-method sparkling, Charmat-method sparkling). Sometimes, ‘Classico’ or ‘Superiore’ are themselves part of the name of the DOP (e.g. Chianti Classico DOCG or Soave Superiore DOCG).

The Italian Ministry of Agriculture (MIPAAF) regularly publishes updates to the official classification.

It is important to note that looser regulations do not necessarily correspond to lower quality. In fact, many IGP wines are actually high-quality wines. Talented winemakers sometimes wish to create wines using varietals or varietal percentages that do not match DOC or DOCG requirements. “Super Tuscans“, for example, are generally high-quality wines that carry the IGP designation. There are several other IGP wines of superior quality, as well.

Unlike France, Italy has never had an official classification of its best ‘crus’. Private initiatives like the Comitato Grandi Cru d’Italia (Committee of the Grand Crus of Italy) and the Instituto del Vino Italiano di Qualità—Grandi marchi (Institute of Quality Italian Wine—Great Brands) each gather a selection of renowned top Italian wine producers, in an attempt to unofficially represent the Italian wine excellence.

In 2007 the Barbaresco Consorzio was the first to introduce the “Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive” (additional geographic mentions) also known as MEGA or subzones. Sixty-five subzone vineyard areas were identified in 2007 and one additional subzone was approved in 2010, bringing the final number to 66.  The main goal was to put official boundaries to some of the most storied crus in order to protect them from unjustified expansion and exploitation.

The Barolo Consorzio followed suit in 2010 with 181 MEGA, of which 170 were vineyard areas and 11 were village designations.  Following the introductions of MEGA for Barbaresco and Barolo the term Vigna (Italian for vineyard) can be used on labels after its respective MEGA and only if the vineyard is within one of the approved official geographic mentions.  The official introduction of subzones is strongly advocated by some for different denominations, but so far Barolo and Barbaresco are the only ones to have them.

Geographical Characteristics

Important wine-relevant geographic characteristics of Italy include:

  • The extensive latitudinal range of the country permits wine growing from the Alps in the north to almost-within-sight of Africa in the south.
  • The fact that Italy is a peninsula with a long shoreline contributes moderating climate effects to coastal wine regions.
  • Italy’s mountainous and hilly terrain provides a variety of altitudes and climate and soil conditions for grape growing.

Italian Regions

Italy’s twenty wine regions correspond to the twenty administrative regions of the country. Understanding the differences between these regions is very helpful in understanding the different types of Italian wine. Wine in Italy tends to reflect the local cuisine. Regional cuisine also influences the wine. The 73 DOCG wines are located in 15 different regions but most of them are concentrated in Piedmont, Lombardia, Veneto, and Tuscany. Among these are appellations appreciated and sought after by wine lovers around the world: BaroloBarbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino (colloquially known as the “Killer B’s”). Other notable wines that have gained attention in recent years in the international markets and among specialists are: Amarone della Valpolicella, Prosecco di Conegliano- Valdobbiadene, Taurasi from Campania, Franciacorta sparkling wines from Lombardy; evergreen wines are Chianti and Soave, while new wines from the Centre and South of Italy are quickly gaining recognition: Verdicchio, Sagrantino, Primitivo, Nero D’Avola among others. The Friuli-Venezia Giulia is world-famous for the quality of her white wines, like Pinot Grigio. Special sweet wines like Passitos and Moscatos, made in different regions, are also famous since old times.