More Gnocchi Please! Italian Food, Facts & Fun

Bruschetta with tomatoes – yum!

With roots dating back to the Roman Empire, it is no wonder why Italian cuisine is highly desirable around the world. Today, Italian influenced restaurants are commonplace in cities such as New York, Moscow and Beijing. The foundation of Italian cuisine dates back to the fourth century B.C., where ancient Greek, Arabic, Byzantine and Etruscan cultures influenced the cooking techniques and ingredients of the Italian Peninsula. With the close proximity of the Mediterranean, early Italian food was heavily influenced by ingredients such as sardines, olives, artichokes and basil.

I heart pizza with arugula

While many regional cuisines were developed by highly skilled and well known chefs, Italian food was developed by communities, meaning that chefs are not often associated with the development of innovative cooking techniques and recipes. The first noted collection of Roman recipes was compiled into a book titled Apicius. This book served as a collection of popular dishes of the Roman Empire, and was written in the fourth century. Some of the common recipes listed in this book include boiled eggs, fried veal, stuffed sardines and whipped pear cake.

Modern Italian cuisine varies greatly from the early Roman influences. Perhaps the greatest influence of Italian cuisine can be traced to the New World. Soon, new ingredients such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn and peppers were widely used in Italian cooking. Perhaps the greatest influence of the New World was the tomato, with Marinara Sauce, Pizza and Sauce Bolognese being tomato derived dishes of Italian descent.

Heaven… Italian pizza and glasses of white wine in Chianti, Italy.

Italian cuisine is considered a highly regional cuisine. In the South, Sicilian food gave way to culinary innovations such as pasta and deep fried rice croquettes. With over 2,000 years of development, Sicilian food was influenced by many cultures such as the Greeks, Spanish and North African tribes. Ingredients such as apricots, saffron, clove, pepper and pine nuts were common among Sicilian cooks. From these influences, popular cooking techniques such as Caponata, Zabaglione and Granita were developed.

In the Northern part of Italy, Germanic influences merge with the techniques of Roman cooking. Since the climate of Northern Italy is colder, there is less influence from staples such as olive oil and tomatoes. Instead, butter, cheese, rice and beans are more popular in regions such as Tuscany, Val d’Aosta and Lombardy. Risotto became a staple of Northern Italian fare, with the Lombardy region being the most popular area for rice inspired recipes such as Minestrone alla Milanese. This dish contained a creamy mixture of risotto rice along with meat, broth, saffron and cheese. In Val d’Aosta, fontina cheese is the regions specialty. This fermented dairy product is used to create classics such as Costoletta alla Valdostana, a dish consisting of veal covered in fontina cheese.

Since Tuscany boarders the Mediterranean, fish is a major staple of this sub regional identity. The cooler climate also allows ingredients such as asparagus and truffles to influence regional specialties. Common dishes found in the Tuscany region include Tortellini al Brood and Zuppa Toscana. Another city in the north of Italy which is known for its food is Bologna. Perhaps the greatest culinary influence of this city is Sauce Bolognese, a sauce made of tomatoes and meat. Ragu is another popular invention of Bologna, giving this region a reputation for hearty dishes, cured meats and craft cheeses.

Gnocchi is my favorite… Potato Gnocchi with Sage Butter

Another region of importance when it comes to Italian cuisine is Naples. In fact, Naples has influenced global Italian cuisine more than any other region on the peninsula. Pizza originated from the region of Naples as well as the slender form of pasta known as spaghetti. With tomatoes, olive oil and herbs influencing the cities cuisine, Neapolitan cuisine is known for its rich and savory dishes.

While the traditional culinary innovations of Italy were developed by local populations, there are a number of famous Italian chefs who have made their mark on the international culinary scene. Benedetta Vitali, is a modern day Italian chef who applies her trade in Florence, Italy. Along with her husband, Fabio Picchi, Vitali opened the restaurant Cibreo in 1979, a restaurant which remains one of the most popular in the entire country. The first Italian chef to earn three stars in the prestigious Michelin guide was Carlo Cracco, who’s restaurant, Ristorante Cracco, is known for its culinary innovation and simplicity.

While there are many modern day Italian chefs with global popularity, there are a number of chefs who greatly influences Italian cuisine over the centuries.  Bartolomeo Scappi was a sixteenth century chef who was the personal cook for Pope Pius V. Scappi wrote the culinary text, Opera, a five volume text which gave a comprehensive view of Italian cuisine. Scappi collected communal recipes to create a record of a national Italian cuisine.

The famous restaurants of Italy are as diverse as the cuisine itself. In Rome, Antica Pesa is perhaps the most famous restaurant. Dating back to the nineteenth century, this restaurant is situated in a very historic building. In San Pellegrino, Osteria Francescana is considered one of the best restaurants in the world and is the most modern restaurant in the entire country.  Another famous Italian restaurant is Dal Pescatore. The chef, Nadia Santini, is one of the most renowned female Italian chefs. The restaurant, located in Mantova, features its own helicopter pad to whisk away its exclusive clientele.

Let’s not forget dessert – Tiramisu!

With over 2,000 years of culinary innovation and regional development, it is no wonder why Italian cuisine is highly desired around the globe. From early Roman influences to modern day restaurants and food practices, a visit to Italy will certainly impress even the most gourmet of foodies.

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