History of Italian cuisine

The fascinating history of Italian cuisine

Italian cuisine is widely known and famous around the world. Its characteristics are in simplicity, focusing on two to four main ingredients. Although simple in preparation, the flavours and quality of ingredients play into its popularity. The history of Italian cuisine is as old and exciting as the country itself.  

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Origins of Italian Cuisine

It’s easy to group all the food in Italy into one category; however, many factors have played a role in the origins of Italian cuisine.

Italy is a relatively young country. The official Kingdom of Italy was formed in 1861 by merging existing city-states. The whole process took several decades as not everyone was on board with one unified kingdom. It wasn’t until 1871 that the capital moved officially from Florence to Rome that we got a unified country. The Italy we know today emerged after WWII when it became a republic.  

It’s easy to see how each state’s own culinary style has been influenced by various geographical, social and political factors. Over the centuries, as individual states evolved, so did their culinary style.

External factors and the availability of ingredients often played a role in dish creation. The origins of Italian cuisine have many Arabic influences that have changed since antiquity. Further introduction of ingredients from the New World also added variety to the dishes and styles of cooking.


Historical Influences on Italian Cuisine

Many elements influenced what we know today as Italian food. Some of that influence came from other cultures and the various discoveries of distant lands. There are even some Italian dishes that have been created outside of Italy but are unknown in the country itself.

bottles of wine and cider with grapes and apples
History of Italian Cuisine

How the Romans ate

The Romans, known for lavish feasts that included elaborate dishes and copious amounts of wine, did everything in excess. The rich hosted over-the-top banquets and experimented with different dishes and flavours that often required elaborate preparation and complex ingredients.

The Roman culinary style was a fusion of different flavours, often brought from conquered lands. Middle Eastern spices, grains from Northern Africa, fish from the Mediterranean and all kinds of meats dominated Roman tables.  With the ample availability of wine, olive oil and grain, the three became the Roman diet’s staple. The fertility of the soil also provided a healthy mix of vegetables, cheeses and legumes.

As the Roman Empire neared its end, invading northern Barbarian tribes introduced their own flavours. Butter and beer entered the culinary spectrum, mainly in the north. This led to new flavours and ingredients entering what eventually became known as northern Italian cuisine.

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Italian Cuisine and the Middle Ages

The rise of Christianity influenced the views on acceptable behaviour and food consumption. As the church imposed strict rules on its subjects, meat became associated with sin and immorality. Gone were the lavish banquets of the past and all associated excesses.  Abstinence and fasting, especially among the clergy, became the norm.

While the rest of the peninsula bowed under the Catholic Church’s rule, things were different in Sicily. Invaded by the neighbouring Arab conquerors, the people living on the island became exposed to a very different influence.

Exotic spices, dried fruit and dried pasta made their way into the Sicilian diet. While the Arabic rulers brought pasta with them because of its convenience, the Italians made an art of it. Pasta spread throughout the land and into Europe.

italian spices
Spices in Italian cooking

A new way forward

Over time, religious austerity gave way to more moderate celebrations that combined both fasting and excess. As the city-states became prosperous and wealthy, food once again became a symbol of wealth. Traditions of the past were rediscovered in culinary preparation and consumption.

italian cooking
History of Italian Cuisine

While lemons, oranges, sugar cane and almonds became part of southern cooking, more experimentation was happening in the north. Newly wealthy classes saw food as a status symbol and demanded new creations and refinement.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that tomatoes entered the scene, forever changing what we know as Italian cuisine. Potatoes, cabbage, sugar beets and peppers became the new staples, along with meat and fish. Tuscan hills became the source of wine and olive oil, infiltrating the kitchens of the time.

New culinary delights

The history of Italian cuisine became even more regionalized as time went on. Lavish banquets and culinary appreciation became the norm. Even the papal court didn’t shy away from extravagant shows of culinary and entertainment displays.

Sugar was a symbol of wealth, and Venice led the way. As the major port for commerce, Venice was a wealthy and influential state with sugar control. Access to oriental spices also played a role in localized flavours.

With the introduction of new foods from the colonies, Italian cuisine took some time to embrace them. Potatoes, corn, beans and even turkeys graced the tables and appetites of Italians of the time.  


The Modern Age of Italian Cuisine

The quintessential combination of pasta and tomato sauce didn’t really catch on until about the 17th century. Various trial and error experiments also produced tiramisu and pizza, foods we equate with Italian cuisine today.

During both World Wars, scarcity of food forced creative cooking by rationing portions. Cooks of the time were forced to work with what little was available. Once again, Italian cuisine had to adapt from lavish and elaborate to simple and creative.

Italian food collage with pizza, pasta, tomatoes and olive oil
Italian cuisine

Italian cooking continued to alternate between the two ends of the spectrum. While there was a need for change in the past, this new period experimented with the new as it brought back the basics. Modern cooking even takes on fusions of other cultural styles, making this an even more fascinating culinary style.

Characteristics of Italian Cuisine by Region

No trip to Italy is complete without sampling the local culinary delights. Depending on where you are, there are different options to satisfy your cravings.

Northeast Italy

Influenced by the invaders of the past, the culinary style of northern Italy includes fish and seafood specialties, complemented by buttery risotto, polenta and meat dishes. Here you’ll find sweet and sour tastes and spicy, pickled dishes, a nod to neighbouring cultures. Friend zucchini flowers and tiramisu also hail from here, as do well-known wines like Masi, Valpolicella and Soave.

plate of fried zucchini flowers
Fried zucchini flowers are the bee’s knees

Recommended food and culinary tours:

  • Parma: Learn all about the famous Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese with this private tour of the production facilities, followed by wine tasting.
  • Piedmont: Enjoy a truffle hunt with a truffle hunter and his trained dogs, followed by a tour of a local winery with a tasting of the famous Barolo wine on this guided culinary experience.

Central Italy

Based on the diet of the peasants, the cuisine of central Italy is simple and hearty. Here you can expect lots of tomatoes, beans, olive oil and ham. Excellent quality cheeses, hams, salamis and game in rich sauces and many flavours. Let’s not forget the mushrooms, truffles, lemon tort and olives.

lemons on a table in a bowl
Lemons frequently appear in Italian cuisine

Recommended food and culinary tours:

  • San Gimignano: Enjoy a traditional Tuscan meal at a prestigious winery in the heart of the Chianti region. Discover the most revered local wines and oils with this guided tasting experience.
  • Bologna: Take a bite out of Italy’s foodie city with this guided food tour. Sample local wine, gelato and different types of cheese as you explore the old town center.
  • Montalcino: Enjoy lunch and a Brunello wine tasting in a Tuscan castle. An ideal culinary experience for wine aficionados.

Around Rome

A throwback to Roman cooking, the dishes in this area are done with seasonal ingredients and heavily seasoned with garlic, onion, sage and rosemary. Here you’ll also find meat dishes, especially bacon and pig’s cheek. The necessity and scarcity of food made people very creative in working with what they had available.

The local specialty is dry white wine, complimented by a range of digestives and aperitifs. Coffee, in all forms, is also an important part of life here. Another great dish to try in Rome is fried artichoke, found in two popular dishes, carciofi alla romana and carciofi alla giudia. These vegetables have a long history here and can be found everywhere in Rome.

Artichokes are a popular dish in Rome

Love reading about Italian cuisine? You might like Artichokes in Rome

Recommended food and culinary tours:

  • Rome: Take a private cooking class with an expert chef and learn how to make the classics – pasta and Tiramisu.
  • Rome: Experience the best of the Eternal City’s culinary offerings with this delicious 4-hour night food tour and sample the best foods, wines and local products.

Southern Italy

Southern Italian food is versatile, and the flavours depend on the region. From the famous Neapolitan specialty, the pizza, to the robust flavours of Sicily. The dishes are packed with olives, all kinds of fish and seafood, cheeses and stuffed pasta.

Infused with the spices and seasonings of the past, sun-dried tomatoes, ricotta cheese and artichokes also play an important role. Home to the finest olive oils and wines is also one of the places with the healthiest diets in Europe. It’s easy to see why.

ingredients commonly used in Italian cuisine
History of Italian Cuisine

If you like this post, you might enjoy Where to Eat in Naples with Stanley Tucci

Recommended food and culinary tours:

  • Naples: Learn how to make pizza class in this culinary class, where you’ll learn how to prepare the dough from scratch, make the tomato sauce, and then enjoy your pizza with a glass of wine.
  • Pianillo:  Learn how to make fresh mozzarella, fresh pasta and tiramisu as you sip on organic wine in this fun cooking class.
  • Palermo: Learn how to prepare a traditional 3-course Sicilian meal with a professional chef. Start with a tour and shopping for ingredients at the Mercado del Capo, followed by a cooking class and lunch.

Bringing it together

The history of Italian cuisine is versatile, intricate and beloved by many. Italy is one of the best culinary destinations for variety and flavours. It is hard to pick a favourite, so the need to keep eating your way through the country is necessary.

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4 thoughts on “The fascinating history of Italian cuisine”

  1. Avatar of charlotterick

    This post made me so hungry! Very interesting post, good to know more about stuff we eat all the time! x

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