When we talk about Italy, what really amazes and confuses tourists, especially first-timers, is the Italian food diversity and all the cooking differences, even between few miles.
Countries abroad perceive the Italian cuisine as an apparent a self-contained category.
Yes, surely Italy is one single Country from the political point of view, but strong regional identities are at the basis of the Italian food diversity.
Each of the twenty distinct regions shows unique local recipes.
Italian food diversity comes from ancient times.
This is due to centuries of historical division and turmoil, typical of the Italian history after the fall of the Roman Empire.
When we talk about Italian food, the same specialties names, in some circumstances, hide so diverse preparations and ingredients even from city to city within the same region.
This diversity goes together with a great pride (named “campanilismo”) that locals feel for their home town, for the Italian food too.
Consequently, locals will always tell you that the cooking from their hometown is superior to those around them.
Even if the regions only be a few miles apart.
And this happens even today, despite the latest technology that leads to a global unity.
Pizza in the Italian food diversity.
Nevertheless, local specialties spread throughout Italy and, in some cases, even abroad: the typical example is Pizza.
The flagship of the Italian food, once you could find it only in Naples, where it was born.
Today, you can find a good pizza all across Italy, in Europe and even in America.
Yet, in the collective imagination, no pizza compares to the one you may eat in Naples.
Probably, the tradition, raw ingredients, the know-how, everything contributes to make the perceived best pizza in the world.
But, again: in Milan or Florence, or Rome you can taste an excellent pizza.
Diversity in Olive Oil.
Olive oil is another example.
In the past it was the dominant cooking fat in Southern Italy, today the greatest world producer.
In Northern Italy, butter was the preferred one.
Today, due to the the Mediterranean dietary popularity, olive oil has replaced butter almost anywhere.
Moreover, this olive oil success has lead to a great enhancement of many local olive trees cultivation, and local olive oil production.
Many olive oil enthusiasts have attended courses for taster, to become oil sommeliers and started a brand new career.
An intriguing episode in the Italian food diversity saga.
What about Pasta?
You can find pasta almost anywhere in Italy, and abroad.
But rice and polenta are still the staple starches in many northern Italy areas.
In addition, there is pasta and …. pasta.
In the South, you can easily find the traditional dried pasta, made from hard wheat (the same one you can buy in your favorite supermarket at home).
On the other hand, in Northern Italy regional cooking, don’t miss fresh pasta, made with soft flour and eggs.
Just think of the famous Italian “ravioli” or “tortellini”: flavorful fillings with fresh pasta wrapping all around.
Another chapter of the Italian food diversity thriller.
Gastronomy diversity in Italy involves also something ordinary like bread.
There are at least as many styles of bread as there are towns.
In Tuscany, you will find unsalted bread (pane toscano) you can either eat plain, seasoned with olive oil and garlic and grilled (bruschetta style).
Other recipes with Tuscan bread include the panzanella (bread salad) or the bread thickened bean and vegetable soup called the ribollita.
Alto Adige uses coarse rye flour to make bauernbrot, a dense bread eaten with the regional smoked ham locals call speck.
Turin serves crisp bread sticks (grissini), while Sardinia makes a thin brittle bread called either carta da musica (music paper), or pane carasau.
Salumi: even more diverse.
Each region can offer a traditional “salumi” production on its own, the salt or air cured meats that make Italian cuisine so famous.
Pork, or beef and poultry are at the basis of these preserved meats.
But the point is that each region can boast different breeds of cattle, pigs and goats whose meat shows different features.
Production techniques may differ from region to region: think of Prosciutto di Parma and Alto Adige’s speck, two different “salumi” both made of pork.
Hams and ‘prosciutto’ makers use whole cuts of pork.
Sausages producers, including the pistachio studded mortadella from Bologna and other varieties prefer chopped meat.
So many Cheese types per Region
Do you know cheese production in Italy enlists over 450 types of formaggio (cheese varieties)?
And that producers export abroad most of them in this really flourishing sector?
We all know Parmigiano Reggiano: we are very familiar to it.
Do you love grating the hard, grainy cheese over food? We definitely too!
But locals prefer to eat it out of hand, sometimes with fruit and wine.
Pro Tip: taste the contrast between sweet and salty, it’s something you fall in love very easily.
Each region offers locally made cheeses. Many of the less known are simply too delicate to export.
The best way to experience Italian cheese is to visit the production sites directly.
If you like cheese, ask My Tours in Rome to arrange either a cheese tasting session.
You can combine it with a wine session as well, if you like the idea.
Or ask for a visit to local artisan dairies: you’ll discover new tastes and flavors you’ll never forget.
Desserts diversity, a paradise for gourmands.
Tourists often marvel at the array of regional desserts in the Italian cuisine.
For instance, Emilia Romagna fresh fruit desserts rival the Sicily’s ricotta cheese specialties.
That is apple cakes against cannoli, cassata and marzipan desserts.
Pro tip: especially in Emilia Romagna, enjoy their apples and pears poached in red wine.
Tuscan cookers generally bake their desserts, including nut and fruit cakes and chestnut crepes.
In Lombardy, chefs bake cornmeal into torta sbrisulona, an almond flavored butter cake.
If you are in Milan or in Lake Como, please don’t miss Miascia, a rosemary flavored fruit and bread pudding.
Similarly, taste the Panettone, a raisin and citron flavored typical Christmas dessert.
Diversity is just a part of the story.
However, despite its diversity, the Italian cuisine’s common denominator is always freshness and a devotion to the high quality of ingredients.
The Italian dishes are by no mean elaborate.
Each recipe features as few as four ingredients or less.
Flavors shine through, thanks to the elegant simplicity.
Italy’s preference for simple foods has a collateral effect: the ease of preparation.
Nearly all Italian recipes are easy to prepare.
Beware of those recipes labeled as Italian but that are very, very elaborate.
This is one reason for the international popularity of Italian food.
Unfortunately there is also a dark side in this global success.
Many foreign chefs understand very well the role of fresh ingredients when cooking Italian food.
Yet, most often then not the Italian cuisine has been bastardized and reduced to mass produced fast food.
This logic lead Pizza, a dish with strong Neapolitan roots, to become one of the most popular fast foods in the world.
It can be found from the United States to India, with varying degrees of dissimilarity to the authentic item.
So, variety, ingredients freshness, cooking simplicity are the Italian cuisine’s main features.
Keeping this in mind, and choosing the right ingredients at the peak of ripeness, you can cook Italian food properly at home, anywhere in the world.
Nevertheless, if you wish to experience the true full range of Italian regional cooking, with all the traditional features, it’s necessary to visit Italy in person.
What’s you experience with Italian food? What is the main differences you found in Italian recipes at home and those you tasted locally?
PS: Did you notice we haven’t talked about the Italian wine diversity yet? That’s another intriguing story…..