Italy is a country that has exported its gastronomy to the world. History tells us that Italian cuisine was influenced by other countries, such as Greece, Africa and Asian countries. The Greeks, Africans and Asians settled in Italy and brought with them their type of food and ways to cook it. For example, the Greeks made flat bread, which it is thought to be the forerunner of the pizza. The act of eating for Italians is not a simple act as it has a greater meaning. It is a time of socialization, a time when the family gathers together around a table, a table that presents a rich variety of dishes. Thanks to its varied climate and soil, Italy produces a large variety of cereals, fruits and vegetables. For example, we can find wheat, rice and corn in the north.
The people of the north use these cereals to cook their traditional dishes, such as risotto, which is made from rice and polenta, where the latter is a type of flour made from corn, while corncobs can be grilled or baked. Also polenta was, in ancient times, a typical food for poor families in northern Italy.
Some families were in the habit of eating polenta in their daily meals. In Southern Italy the climate is dry and the land is rather arid; farmers living in this area plant olive trees for the olives and also to produce olive oil.
Olive oil is widely used in the Italian Gastronomy. Also in the south people like to prepare food using many seasonings. Oregano, for example, is a type of condiment typical of the Italian cuisine. Although oregano is common in all Europe, it is in the south of Italy where the best scented oregano can be found. People in the south prepare oregano sauce and store it in bottles.
Italians also use quite a lot of cheese in the gastronomy. The best known are: the parmigiano reggiano and granna padano. In 1840, the parmesan was introduced in most of the Italian dishes. In Liguria, the cheeses most used are: the gorgonzola, the mascarpone and lodigiano. These are different cheeses used in different dishes. Sweets are also very famous in Italy, for example the region of Sicily is well known for producing the cannoli, a pastry dessert filled with custard. The main meal in Italy is eaten at midday and is composed of three dishes. The first, usually rice or pasta. The second, or main dish, consists of beef, chicken or fish. And the last is the dessert.
As pasta is the pride of the Italians, and has become part of the everyday life for millions of people, we’ll talk a little about this special dish. The origin of pasta is not true. No one can say with certainty who invented pasta. There are reports that Marco Polo brought pasta from the east. But we also know that when he returned to Italy in 1295 there was already information about the existence of pasta.
Some say it was the Arabs who invented pasta, as they knew wheat before the Italians. Well, so far all these stories are questionable, but one thing researchers are certain of is that the climate of Italy was always good for growing durum wheat, which becomes semolina and it is used to make pasta.
Dry pasta became popular in the fourteenth, fifteenth and seventeenth century as it was an important part of the Italian diet due to its low price and because it had many versatile ways of cooking. Dry pasta is made only of semolina and water.
Gastronomy is beyond any doubt a very important part of the Italian culture. It is known, loved and imitated worldwide, and has been able to give pleasure and joy in all latitudes. We know what the reaction of any individual is when in any chaotic and industrial city anywhere in the world, and after feeling tired and depressed, this person sees a sign announcing Italian food: his heart feels comforted.
It is a rich, nutritious and healthy cuisine, transmitted for centuries through family life. It essentially is a peasant cuisine and, as such, it is linked to the land and the fruits it produces in the course of the seasons; it is therefore a genuine cuisine based on natural ingredients. It is rich in unique delicacies, such as pasta with vegetables: essential ingredients of the local traditions, but it also offers a variety of meats, excellent fish (abundant in the seas around the peninsula), aromatic cheeses and delicious desserts.
However, it is clear that the strong element in the Italian Gastronomy is the “first course”, in all its varieties: “dry” pasta, or in broth, different types of stewed rice preparations, soups, minestrones, puddings, etc.. But we neglect that many of the most widespread traditional cuisine dishes come from a poor and rural cuisine and from the less well-off people who over the years have created brilliant gastronomic “specialties” despite their difficult living conditions.
An example of this are the soups made of bread and vegetables -such as ribollita and acquacotta of Tuscany– and a lot of dishes which although they are based on very economic ingredients have become a classic in the Italian cuisine.
This proves that the good taste of a dish is essentially due to the unique and magical combination of flavors and aromas, cooking times, doses of ingredients, individual creative ability and dedication during the preparation. Very often, a small detail or a change in the preparation of a meal can work the miracle, and turn a “normal” dish into a real triumph of taste.
That’s why, passion is a prerequisite in Italian cuisine, while without passion it is not possible to achieve excellence, as in all other aspects of life. While with regional variations, the cuisine also displays the traditional “main” dishes all over the territory and does its utmost to create the best delicacies when it is made with a wider number of ingredients and by refined and expert cooks. Finally, here is an advice to prepare an Italian lunch.
A good start would be some “crostini”, Neapolitan-style toasts, topped with a long list of cold, or warm ingredients, and after this comforting Mediterranean starter, continue with a first plate of Sicilian-style macaroni with broccoli. Then we continue with the main course: a splendid young lamb with potatoes. We could end here but —as we know— there is always a little room for a dessert. Therefore, we can add an aromatic tiramisu: a perfect dessert to cap a truly exceptional lunch.
Gastronomy in the Center of Italy
In central Italy meat and vegetables are the stars of the cuisine. Thick vegetable soups, such as the ‘minestrone’ and ‘cipollata‘, whose base is onions, are a delicious example. Not forgetting also the artichokes, asparagus, mushrooms, green beans, spinach or truffles, which are prepared very simply and eaten alone or as an accompaniment to roast or grilled pork, lamb or beef. Also, one cannot fail to try the kebabs ‘alla porchetta’, which are made with pork previously roasted, chopped and stuffed with herbs. Fish is a staple dish but it is worth mentioning a cuttlefish dish prepared in Lazio and the grilled carp in Umbria. Olive oil is used as seasoning along with herbs, and animal fat is used for cooking.
In mountainous areas spicy ingredients are used to counteract the cold climate. Pasta can also be found in the diet, just like in the rest of the country, while in this area is not very common and it is usually garnished with a spicy sauce. And without overlooking the ‘all’amatriciana’ pasta which can be a real bomb for stomachs not accustomed to spicy flavors. Cheese from sheep’s milk is a good accompaniment. The ‘Pecorino’ is typical of the area, and it can also found with a slight spicy taste in the ‘Roman Pecorino’ presentation.
Southern Italy is characterized by a simple cuisine, which has its main base in olive oil. The fists courses include a variety of vegetables: tomatoes, zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant or peppers seasoned with herbs, not to mention the perennial lampasciuoli onions, mushrooms and wild asparagus.
The type of pasta that cannot be missed and the macaroni and spaghetti are, aside from pizza, the preferred by the southerners. They are a delight when they’re seasoned with a sauce made with pork, sausage, egg, ricotta and mozzarella. Also, it is a must to try pasta made with whole flour and maize semolina, which is often accompanied with a vegetable sauce, a delight for our palates.
And as to fish, the variety to choose from is huge: sardines, octopus, golden mullet or flounder, sole, etc; not to mention very fresh or some prepared seafood preparations, such as the soup “Zuppa Tarentina ‘, which is typical of the region and has a pleasant taste. Meat are also of a very good quality.
Some cheeses must be borne in mind, such as the ‘Burrata‘; it’s made with cow’s milk and filled with mozzarella and fresh cream; while the ‘Burrino‘ substitutes mozzarella for butter. They are soft, but if you prefer a more cured cheese try the ‘Provolone’. And for dessert nothing better than fried pastries filled with cream or honey and candied fruits.
Cuisine of the Islands
The islands have their own cuisine which has been influenced by the people who settled in them over time. Sardinia has a Catalan taste in some dishes like the ‘Favata’, which contains beans, bacon, sausage and chorizo, or the ‘Leprudida’ which is very similar to the Spanish olla podrida. But the ‘Torro’s Ciabettino’ is noted for its spectacular nature, as this recipe consists of veal stuffed with a piglet, which in turn is stuffed with a hare, which is stuffed with various poultry meats.
Sicily is fully Mediterranean. Excellent pasta and fish —often in combination— are the foundation of its gastronomy; its land produces the best cereals. To try the macaroni with fish ragout, with vegetables or simply in their broth, can be an unforgettable experience.
Also the ‘Arancini di riso’, rice balls with peas, chicken giblets, fresh cheese and boiled egg, coated in batter and fried, are exquisite. Also, it’s a must to try the delicious cake mixed with fruit, dark chocolate and ricotta, which is known as ‘Cassata’ and which has Arabic origin. Cheeses on both islands are usually made with sheep’s milk, but if you prefer a strong cheeses you better try the ‘Piacentino‘, a very cured cheese seasoned with peppercorns.
Wines: In order to make meal an absolute delight, it is appropriate to water it down with fine Italian wines; there are 194 appellations of origin that attest the quality of wines. Along with the Marsala, Brunello di Montalcino, Spumante d’Asti, Barolo, Barbera, Chianti or Valpolicella, there are other lesser known wines that have very good bouquet. It is of course advisable to try any of these delicious wines. Italian liqueurs are the ideal end to a delicious meal.
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