The History of Italian Food 

When you think of Italy, there’s a good chance that the first thing that pops into your head is Italian food. Italy has built a vibrant, rich culture in which food plays a significant role. While traditionally Italian food is linked to family and cultural roots, Italian food is now a major attraction for travellers.

From fresh seafood to pasta and risotto, Italian food offers an exciting and delicious experience for those who travel to Italy. Read on to learn more about Italian food history facts and traditions and better understand how Italy became the food icon that it is today. 

Table of Contents

The Origins of Italian Cuisine

As a whole, Italy is comparatively a young country. The Kingdom of Italy was officially formed in 1861 through the unification of many existing city-states. The merging process took many years because not everyone was pleased with the idea of unifying. In 1871, the official capital of Italy moved from Florence to Rome, and Italy became fully united. The republic known today emerged after World War II.

Since Italy was formed by uniting several city-states and cultures, the history of Italian food can become more complex. Each region in Italy has its own culture with distinct food traditions and specialties. While some of these distinctions have faded over time, many food traditions still differentiate regions. 

Many external factors played a role in the dishes created by each region and the availability of ingredients. Arabic culture also influenced Italy in many ways and helped shape Italian cuisine. As different cultures introduced new ingredients and spices to Italy from the New World, Italians began to add more variety and diversity to their dishes. Although, as a general rule, Italian dishes today can be simple and tend to focus on two to four primary ingredients.

Cuisine in the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages

Cuisine in the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages

In the early years, food in Italy was more experimental and diverse than the traditional food practices you can expect today. Introduction to new ingredients and spices allowed Italians to try new dishes, and invading nations brought their own culinary influences. 

New ideas and religion also impacted the foods people in Italy could eat and how they prepared their meals. Extreme shifts in ideology between the Roman Empire and Italy in the Middle Ages led to varying food practices. 

Food in the Roman Empire

The Romans loved to experience life in excess. The Roman upper class valued extravagant parties and long nights of drinking wine and gorging on fine foods. The rich hosted lavish parties that required long days of preparation and complex ingredients. 

The Roman culinary style was a fusion of many different flavors. Romans enjoyed incorporating new spices and ingredients from the lands they conquered into their cooking. Mediterranean seafood, spices from the Middle East, grains from Northern Africa and various meats were popular in traditional Roman dishes. 

With its wide availability, wines, grains and olive oil became three staples of Roman cooking. The fertile soil also allowed Romans access to plenty of cheeses, vegetables and legumes. 

As the Roman Empire waned, invading northern tribes also brought butter and beer into the north part of what is now Italy. This process led to a distinct northern Italian cuisine. 

Italian Cuisine in the Early Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the rise of Christianity influenced what was considered acceptable to eat. The Church imposed new rules about what people should eat, and meat became associated with immorality. Extravagant banquets were renounced while fasting and abstinence increased in popularity, especially among the clergy. 

Up until the year 1000, Italian monks (and much of Europe) were under a strict diet of bread and legumes, with an occasional indulgence in cheese and eggs and seasonal fruit.

On the other hand, Sicily was under Arab control at this time and experienced a much different influence. The Arabs introduced Sicilians to various spices, dried fruit and dried herbs. The Arabic rulers brought pasta to Sicily for convenience, and the Italians took the food and transformed it into an art. Pasta quickly rose in popularity and spread to Napes and Genoa and eventually other European nations including, France and Spain. 

Food in Italy During the Late Middle Ages 

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, life (and food) began to blossom in Italy once again. New cultural ideas and early productive cores supported the rise of a new social class called the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie was an upper middle class that contributed to an increase in demand from artisans. The Crusades increased communication between neighboring nations, and commerce within and outside Italy’s borders expanded. 

Pleasure foods reemerged as a social and economic status symbol, and cooking became more of an act of enjoyment and refinement. Citizens braised meats and vegetables and dressed them in rich, flavorful sauces and dressings for indulgent meals. 

Italian Cuisine During the Renaissance

Italian Cuisine During the Renaissance

The Renaissance was a time of revival and rebirth. Art, music, literature, poetry and food flourished during this era. In Italy, one of the defining characteristics of the Renaissance was that humanism developed and quickly spread throughout Europe. Important Italian figures such as Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio also rose to fame. 

Italian food in this era expanded its roots, and new traditions arose. 

Tuscany During the Renaissance

Tuscany had an essential role in the renaissance of modern Italian food, especially in the 14th century. The newly formed commerce, bourgeoisie and craftsmanship practices called for innovative and exciting cuisine refinement to help establish a symbol of their social and cultural status. Interest in experimentation with food reignited in this era, and new motivation arose in developing elite, quality foods.

Tuscany was an ideal region to experiment with food as it had access to a wide range of diverse produce and fertile lands. The rolling hills in Siena and Florence produced copious amounts of olive oil, peas and cabbage. Lambs and calves were bred in a part of Tuscany that is still known for raising one of the best breeds of calves in the country. 

Local sellers and farmers converged at Florence’s market to sell and barter milk, cheeses, and eggs. Other Tuscan regions such as Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano grew in popularity for their exquisite red wines. 

During the Renaissance, Tuscany excelled in producing varieties of simple foods without heavy sauces. Soups and beans were essential ingredients, as were the spices basil, sage and rosemary.

Typical Food in the Italian Renaissance

Food evolved and flourished throughout Italy during the Renaissance period, although there was a significant disparity between the wealthy and poor. 

Rome was home to the Pope, which was one of the wealthiest and most luxurious courts. The papal entourage embraced the idea of honoring the Lord at the table. Excess feasts were viewed as grand celebrations and symbols of status and importance rather than indulgent sins. Banquets included dishes such as roasted roes and pheasants, chicken cooked in sauces, cookies, pinenuts and even desserts such as marzipan and whipped cream. 

In Venice, La Serenissima held a monopoly of sugar import and production since the Crusades. Venice was also the sole importer of Oriental spices for the whole of Europe. In the Renaissance, these factors naturally influenced the evolution of food in Venice. Venice became associated with sugar and developed candied fruits and sugar sculptures.

Smaller Italian towns thrived on agriculture and trade, creating simple dishes from the ingredients they had access to in their regions. Soups, bread and simple meat dishes were typical meals for most of the population. Potato gnocchi, tagliatelle and macaroni were all created in the Renaissance era. 

Italian Food in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries

The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries saw the development of more sophisticated cuisine in Italy. Italy was a leading nation in food innovation in Europe up until the 17th century, when France emerged as a fierce rival with powerful new foods and flavors. A strong rivalry sparked the motivation to define Italian foods and identify what Italian cuisine really means. 

Until this time, chefs had attempted creating a national, pan-regional cuisine ideal, which included various elements from each region. Eventually, this changed as chefs starting crafting regional dishes as a celebration of all their differences. This practice ignited modern Italian culinary tradition with a theme of unity within the variety. 

In the 17th century, chefs in Italy began to define Italian cuisine and focused on unifying Italian foods by celebrating regional differences and experimenting with more complex food arrangements. Tiramisu is believed to have originated in the 1600s. In fact, most of Italy’s most famous desserts are from this era, including torrone and zuppa del duca, or the duke’s pudding. 

One of the most important developments in Italian cuisine at this time was the first modern cooking books. In 1634, Giovan Battista Critci published a text on southern cuisine, the first of its kind in Italian cooking tradition. Another essential text in the history of Italian cuisine was a recipe book published in several volumes by Antonio Latini. 

Formal Italian cookbooks paved the way for future generations to embrace tradition and follow age-old family recipes. 

The Evolution of Italian Food in the 19th Century 

The 19th century saw many changes throughout the world and in Italy. Italy finally officially united as a whole country, and breakthrough scientific research changed people’s eating habits. Technological innovations and advancements in organic fertilizers increased agricultural production, reducing prices and making more food accessible to the majority. 

Increased communications and the improving rail system made it easier to ship products across the country more efficiently. Sterilization and pasteurization practices also emerged in the late 1800s. These processes allowed Italians to pack and preserve meats and dairy for longer periods, lowering production costs and increasing accessibility.

Each of these changes contributed to Italian cuisine developing more into the cultural phenomenon that it is today. More iconic Italian dishes were created in this era, including pesto, carbonara and the fan-favorite: pizza.

Raffaele Esposito is credited with introducing Italians to the Margherita pizza after making it in honor of the Queen of Italy, Margherita di Savoia, in Naples. The recipe received nationwide attention, and pizza was shortly after adopted as one of Italy’s masterpieces. 

Italian Food in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Italian Food in the 20th and 21st Centuries

The last two centuries have led to many changes and new developments in communication, technology, trade and transportation. These improvements made importing and exporting goods easier, and more people became aware of foreign foods and non-local recipes. 

Major cultural shifts and historical events, including war, depression and resurgence shaped the way Italy has cultivated and used food. Looking into the progress of Italian dishes in the 21st century, you can find many recipes, ingredients and cooking methods born out of previous traditions and regional specialties. 

Italian Cuisine Throughout World War I and World War II

World War I devastated Italy and caused a food shortage. Resources were limited, and many people lacked sufficient quantities of crucial nutrients, leading to severe deficiencies resulting in the spread of pellagra and other illnesses. After World War I, ideas of futurism influenced Italian art and, eventually, cuisine. Futurism attempted to embody efficiency, progress, creativity and movement, leading to several exciting new dishes. 

Before World War II broke out, Italy was under the fascist rule of Mussolini. Italians had to be frugal in every respect, especially with food. Cheap and flavorful dishes were the primary source of nourishment for many families. As war broke out, many ingredients such as sugar, coffee, salt and butter were rationed. Italians improvised and used substitutes to keep feeding their families familiar foods. 

Italian Food in the 1950s, 60s and 70s 

Post-World War II Italy was the start of what is considered contemporary Italian cuisine. New appliances such as refrigerators, gas cookers and ovens made cooking more convenient and efficient. Foods that were once regarded as extravagant now became more common in middle-class families, including chicken breast and veal. 

More cooking resources began pushing recipes optimized for convenience, simplicity and easy execution. The country was healthy and wealthy enough to focus on eating more rather than consuming enough to survive. 

As women entered the workforce, a new demand for quick, ready-made meals and processed foods arose. Fast food chains slowly entered the Italian market. This new addition to the Italian food scene inspired many chefs, home cooks and creators to retrace older traditions and go back to fresh ingredients and locally sourced foods, inspiring a new wave of reviving classic recipes. 

Italian Food Culture Today

Today, food remains a treasured aspect of Italian culture, although many Italians embrace new food practices from other countries. Recent years have witnessed the increased popularity of fusion cuisine, which combines food elements from two or more cultures for a new dish. 

Many Italian chefs today adhere to traditional recipes and keep the essence of Italian food history alive. Italian food traditions reflect Italy’s national history and bring Italians together on all occasions. 

The rest of the world still clings to traditional Italian food. With miles of crystal clear coastline, famous wines and delicious cuisine, Italy is a favorite travel destination among tourists all over the globe. 

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8 months ago

What a beautiful summary of Italian cuisine!

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