Italian cuisine has developed through centuries of social and economic changes, with roots stretching to antiquity.
Significant changes occurred with the discovery of the New World and the introduction of potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums, maize and sugar beet, this last introduced in quantity in the 18th century. Italian cuisine is known for its regional diversity, especially between the north and the south of the Italian peninsula. It offers an abundance of taste, and is one of the most popular and copied in the world. It influenced several cuisines around the world, chiefly that of the United States.
Italian cuisine is generally characterized by its simplicity, with many dishes having only two to four main ingredients. Italian cooks rely chiefly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation. Ingredients and dishes vary by region. Many dishes that were once regional have proliferated with variations throughout the country.
Italian National Dishes
Pasta is a type of food typically made from an unleavened dough of durum wheat flour (semolina) mixed with water or eggs, and formed into sheets or various shapes, then cooked by boiling or baking. Rice flour, or legumes such as beans or lentils, are sometimes used in place of wheat flour to yield a different taste and texture, or as a gluten-free alternative. Pasta is a staple food of Italian cuisine.
Pastas are divided into two broad categories: dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca). Most dried pasta is produced commercially via an extrusion process, although it can be produced at home. Fresh pasta is traditionally produced by hand, sometimes with the aid of simple machines. Fresh pastas available in grocery stores are produced commercially by large-scale machines.
Both dried and fresh pastas come in a number of shapes and varieties, with 310 specific forms known by over 1300 documented names. In Italy, the names of specific pasta shapes or types often vary by locale. For example, the pasta form cavatelli is known by 28 different names depending upon the town and region. Common forms of pasta include long and short shapes, tubes, flat shapes or sheets, miniature shapes for soup, those meant to be filled or stuffed, and specialty or decorative shapes.
As a category in Italian cuisine, both fresh and dried pastas are classically used in one of three kinds of prepared dishes: as pasta asciutta (or pastasciutta), cooked pasta is plated and served with a complementary side sauce or condiment; a second classification of pasta dishes is pasta in brodo, in which the pasta is part of a soup-type dish. A third category is pasta al forno, in which the pasta is incorporated into a dish that is subsequently baked in the oven. Pasta dishes are generally simple, but individual dishes vary in preparation. Some pasta dishes are served as a small first course or for light lunches, such as pasta salads. Other dishes may be portioned larger and used for dinner. Pasta sauces similarly may vary in taste, color and texture.
In terms of nutrition, cooked plain pasta is 31% carbohydrates (mostly starch), 6% protein, and low in fat, with moderate amounts of manganese, but pasta generally has low micronutrient content. Pasta may be enriched or fortified, or made from whole grains.
Polenta is a dish of boiled cornmeal that was historically made from other grains. It may be served as a hot porridge, or it may be allowed to cool and solidify into a loaf that can be baked, fried, or grilled.
The variety of cereal used is usually yellow maize, but often buckwheat, white maize, or mixtures thereof may be used. Coarse grinds make a firm, coarse polenta; finer grinds make a creamy, soft polenta. Polenta is a staple of Northern Italian, Swiss, Slovenian and Croatian (where it is called palenta) cuisines (and, to a lesser extent, the Central Italian one, e.g. Tuscany) and its consumption was traditionally associated with lower classes, as in times past cornmeal mush was an essential food in their everyday nutrition. In Romania and Moldova, this dish is known as mămăligă.
As it is known today, polenta derives from earlier forms of grain mush (known as puls or pulmentum in Latin) that were commonly eaten since Roman times. Before the introduction of corn (maize) from America in the 16th century, polenta was made from starchy ingredients like farro (wheat), chestnut flour, millet, spelt (wheat), and chickpeas.
Pizza is a savory dish of Italian origin, consisting of a usually round, flattened base of leavened wheat-based dough topped with tomatoes, cheese, and various other ingredients (anchovies, olives, meat, etc.) baked at a high temperature, traditionally in a wood-fired oven. A small pizza is sometimes called a pizzetta.
In Italy, pizza served in formal settings, such as at a restaurant, is presented unsliced and eaten with the use of a knife and fork. In casual settings it is cut into wedges to be eaten while held in the hand.
The term pizza was first recorded in the 10th century in a Latin manuscript from the Southern Italian town of Gaeta in Lazio, on the border with Campania. Modern pizza was invented in Naples, and the dish and its variants have since become popular in many countries. It has become one of the most popular foods in the world and a common fast food item in Europe and North America, available at pizzerias (restaurants specializing in pizza), restaurants offering Mediterranean cuisine, and via pizza delivery. Many companies sell ready-baked frozen pizzas to be reheated in an ordinary home oven.
The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (lit. True Neapolitan Pizza Association) is a non-profit organization founded in 1984 with headquarters in Naples that aims to promote traditional Neapolitan pizza. In 2009, upon Italy’s request, Neapolitan pizza was registered with the European Union as a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed dish, and in 2017 the art of its making was included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
Risotto is a northern Italian rice dish cooked with broth until it reaches a creamy consistency. The broth can be derived from meat, fish, or vegetables. Many types of risotto contain butter, onion, white wine, and parmesan cheese. It is one of the most common ways of cooking rice in Italy. Saffron was originally used for flavour and its signature yellow colour.
Risotto in Italy is normally a first course served before the main course, but risotto alla milanese is often served with ossobuco alla milanese as a main course.