Italian Food In A Word: Diversity

March 9, 2011
Written by Wendy Innes in
The Welcoming Table
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Italian food in all of its diversity.

Italian cuisine is one of the most richly diverse fares in the world. Food in Italy not only varies by region, but often by town and even by village, with each one having its own specialties. It is important to understand that the food that visitors find in Italy is much different from the “Italian” food found in the U.S. or other parts of the world.

Italians have very discerning palates. This is why sandwich shops or pizza shops will have several different kinds of what would seem to be the same thing to outsiders. For example, a sandwich shop may have three different types of ham and cheese in their sandwiches, but to tourists they are all ham and cheese sandwiches. It is safe to say that Italians have elevated food, coffee, and wine to an art form.

The food of Italy, much like its history has some varied and interesting influences.

Contrary to popular belief, Italian food does not begin and end with pizza or spaghetti and tomato sauce. Italy did not become a unified country until 1861, and each state within Italy had its own unique approach to food that made the most of the ingredients that were available locally, a practice that is at the heart of Italian food today.

The northern area of the country offers a cuisine that is far different from what most people think of when they think of Italian food. This region does not use pasta very much, if at all.

From time to time, this area has seen invasion from both France and Austria, both of which have left an indelible mark on the food. In the northern part of Italy, it is much more common to see rice, potatoes, cream, and butter used in dishes than in any other part of the country.

In the central part of the country, diners will find mostly pastas and roasts, because this region of Italy offers a great diversity in and of itself, as the north and south come together, and share their combined influences here. This is the region responsible for some of the most well known ingredients such as Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

The southern region of Italy is where the most well known Italian food comes from. Specialties like pizza, olive oil, tomato pasta sauce, mozzarella cheese (buffalo and cow’s milk), Marsala wine, and Cannolis, all originated in the southern region of Italy along with Sicily and Sardinia.

The dining culture in Italy is much different than in the U.S. Typically, in American homes and restaurants, people sit down, eat a meal that comes on one plate, and they are on their way in about an hour if they take their time. It is much different in Italy. The weekends in restaurants, and holiday meals in Italy, may last from four to five hours!

The only time that Italians eat relatively quickly is during the workweek, they take an hour for lunch, and an hour to nap, which is the primary reason Italians typically do not eat breakfast. If they do, it is usually a small pastry and coffee.

The leisurely meal starts around lunchtime and has several courses. Antipasto would be the equivalent to American appetizers. It consists of things like different varieties of vegetables, cured meats such as salami or ham, and possibly some seafood depending upon the region. Next comes primo, and it usually is the pasta course of the meal. Visitors to Italy are often surprised to find that pasta has much less sauce than in other places. This is because pasta is not considered a meal in Italy, but a part of a meal.

Secondo is next, and it is the meat course of the meal. Occasionally it is accompanied by a side dish called contorno. In addition, we would be remiss if we did not have dolce, or dessert.

With all this food, many people would think that there is no way to eat it all, and in fact, many Italian hosts are offended by food left on plates. But it’s important to remember that portion sizes in Italy are substantially smaller than in the U.S. So why not try it the Italian way? Enjoy a meal spread out over several hours of laughing with friends, and enjoying some of the best wines in the world. Buon Appetito!


The Welcoming Table