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A Very Brief History of Famous "Italian" Vegetables

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Look at the sumptuous, hyper-realistic Italian still life paintings of the sixteenth century and you'll see perfect fruit—particularly peaches, plums, grapes, and figs. Gourds abound, as do turnips, celery, asparagus, and onions. Chard, cabbage, and cardoons appear. The sixteenth-century Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo's distinctive portraits, creative compositions of vegetables and fruit, show figures with a short, cucumber nose, perhaps a pair of pea-pod lips, onion or sometimes peach cheeks, and garlic ears. A prickly chestnut chin and hair made of cherries. A perfect artichoke sticks out of a coat pocket. His portraits offer a glimpse at the native fruit and vegetables found at the time, before the world opened up and the introduction of new foods became a seamless and iconic part of Italy's gastronomic culture, shifting the nation's entire cuisine.

Carciofi alla Giudia – Roman Jewish-Style Artichokes
Carciofi alla Giudia – Roman Jewish-Style Artichokes

Among those new introductions—and missing in Arcimboldo's portraits—is one of the prettiest of all fruits and vegetables: the tomato.

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One of Florence's famous summer salads, panzanella, was just as popular in the Renaissance as it was today, and it was even made the same way. Except for one big difference—no tomatoes. Ironically, some of the vegetables that Italy is known best for are not native to the peninsula. But Italians did an excellent job not only of making these vegetables, introduced through trade and travelers, their own, but also of creating some of the best culinary examples of these heirlooms that you can find worldwide.

Local Tuscan tomatoes.
Local Tuscan tomatoes. Photo by Emiko Davies

There are few things as symbolic of Italian cuisine as tomatoes, and yet they are a relative newcomer to Italy's gastronomic world, when compared to ancient garlic, fennel, or artichokes, which were enjoyed by the Etruscans. Native to Central and South America, specifically the area between Mexico and Peru, tomatoes were filtered into Italy by the Spanish in 1596.

Not having a name for the plump fruit, it was given the name of another: pomodoro, Latin for “Golden Apple.” Initially considered an ornamental plant, tomatoes found their way into botanical gardens as collectable specimens—and were even viewed with suspicion (their leaves look similar to a poisonous related plant)—before finding favourable conditions for growing in southern Italy, particularly around Naples. The red fruits fed the starving population and quickly took pride of place in the kitchen.

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Photo by Emiko Davies

A similar thing happened with other foods introduced from the Americas to Europe in the 1500s. The common bean (which became cannellini and borlotti beans) and potatoes, for example, gradually found their ways into Italian gardens, kitchens, and bellies, and today play a part in some of Italy's most treasured national dishes, from pasta e fagioli to gnocchi.

Zucchine alla Scapece
Zucchine alla Scapece

Zucchini is also native to the Americas, though when it arrived in Italy, it was not the small, sweet zucchini we know today: The name comes from Italian for pumpkin, zucca (“ini” implying that they are small), which gives you an idea of what the squash was probably like. What we now know as zucchini probably were developed in Italy in the late nineteenth century—so zucchini is technically an heirloom Italian vegetable, even if its ancestry is American. These beautiful, little zucchini later came to the Americas by way of Italian immigrants in the 1920s, who carried them with them on their transatlantic crossing.

Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmigiana)
Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmigiana)

Even the eggplant, indispensable to parmigiana and pasta alla norma, has its origins elsewhere (South Asia, to be specific). It was another unfamiliar vegetable to the Italians when it arrived around the same time as tomatoes, and was also long-thought to be dangerous to consume. (It didn't help that its name was enough to put superstitious people off: melanzana, or mela insana, crazy apple.) But eggplants, which grow particularly well in southern Italian regions like Puglia and Sicily, became essential to famous regional dishes like parmigiana.

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Thank goodness the tomato made it to Italy—otherwise, would we have Caprese salad? Share other Italian recipes you're grateful for in the comments.

Tags: vegetables, Italian regional cuisine, tomatoes, eggplant, Italian cooking