Regionality of Italian Cooking

Travel in Italy can offer some surprises for many Americans who are not familiar with Italian history and the development of the various cuisines throughout Italy.  The diversity of the food has deep roots and slow or never changing habits.  I have had people traveling here wonder why they can’t find X dish when they are here in Tuscany…”Why can’t I find Italian food in Italy?” went the query.

Because “Italian food” is essentially a misnomer.

  • Geography:  Italy ranges from glacier-covered peaks in the Alps to its southernmost point being on the same latitudes as parts of North Africa.  In a country the size of California they have the kind of geography that has allowed them to host both the Winter and Summer Olympics.  Surprisingly enough to most people, the country has hosted the Winter Olympics twice and the Summer Olympics once.  This means that different foods and livestock characterize different regions of the country.
  • History:  Italian history as such did not exist until 1861.  Prior to the unification of the country the southern portion of the peninsula and Sicily were the Kingdom of Naples and the northern portion of the country was a collection of Duchys and Principalities, with San Marino and Vatican City thrown in as well.  Trade between regions was often strained and resulted in the development of items such as the salt-less Tuscan bread.
  • Grudges:  Italians as a culture can hold a grudge longer than just about any on earth.  The wars that lead to the development of aforementioned salt-less bread ended over 500 years ago, but the bread is still made without salt.  The black rooster on the label of Chianti Classico is a remnant of a 13th century disagreement over territory distribution between Florence and Siena.

Where does this leave the traveler when searching out good food while traveling in Italy?  My opinion, eat what the locals eat.  The variances in things as “simple” as tomato sauce really do correspond to the items that they are served with.  A second factor in this is immigration.  Immigration from southern to northern Italy is quite common so finding good southern Italian cooking throughout most of the country is fairly easy.  If you are looking for a restaurant straight out of Naples you can probably find one in most towns.   On the other hand, if you are a fan of the indulgent style of eating characterized in Bologna then visiting the city is recommended.

Hints for maximum restaurant enjoyment:

  • Find a restaurant that does not display English menus:  this means they cater to locals and the price/quality ratio will be infinitely better.
  • Look for asterisks on the menu:  it is required by Italian law that the use of any frozen ingredients be indicated on the menu…the more of these you see the higher the chances you will get mediocre food.
  • Seasonal foods:  even if you do not go for truffles or cinghiale, the more focus a place puts on the seasonal the better your meal will likely be.
  • Unusual foods:  do not immediately run if you see unusual dishes on a menu.  Tripe, liver, chicken neck, wild boar and even horse are not unusual in traditional foods here.  Even if you do not order them, it usually means that absolutely everything in the place is going to made from scratch.

Other than that, eat as much as possible, as often as possible and with as much gusto as possible…you can walk it off sight-seeing.


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