Why "Italian Food" Is Actually 20(-ish) Cuisines

September 12, 2017

It's Italy Week! All week long, we're celebrating everything Italian and Italy-inspired: recipes, stories, and travel tips.

Photo by Emiko Davies

Italian cuisine is so incredibly rich, so defined by its diverse regional landscapes, dialects, and habits, that we have to wonder: Is "Italian cuisine" is a legitimate construct? Should it be called by its twenty separate regional cuisines instead? It was the idea of exploring these incredibly distinct regional dishes that led me to write a series of articles on the history and context of Italy's beloved recipes for Food52—about 200 of them and counting. These are some of the highlights, the dishes that tell the story of the uniquely varied gastronomic world that is Italy.

It started with a plate of pici, thick Tuscan noodles that are rolled by hand, have a decent chew to them, and are particularly, curiously delicious when coated with breadcrumbs that have been fried in oil flavoured with anchovies, garlic and chilli. (Only a Tuscan would think of dressing pasta with bread.)

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Then there were Piedmont's biscotti di meliga, crunchy polenta cookies for dipping into custardy zabaione, which also made their way into Food52 Baking Cookbook.

Wander further north, where Italian can often be spoken with a German accent, towards the mountains of Austria and Switzerland, and you'll find this buckwheat cake from Trentino-Alto Adige, a moist, gluten-free cake with a lining of tart lingonberry jam through the middle. It is a great example of how diverse Italian regional recipes are, especially when compared to something on the other side of the country—take Sicily's cassata, for example: a crazy, colourful, unique ricotta, chocolate, and marzipan-filled sponge cake, undoubtedly the most important in Sicily's dessert repertoire. For me, it's on par with Naples' Pastiera Napoletana, a wheatberry and ricotta pie scented with orange blossom water and cinnamon, as the most incredible of Italian desserts.

Sicilian cassata is not for the faint of heart. Photo by Emiko Davies

On the western coast of Italy, Liguria is where you'll find arguably (always arguably) the best focaccia in the country. The focaccia from Recco is impossibly crisp and thin, hiding oozing soft cheese in its middle. Just outside of Milan, this vintage raisin bread named after the tramway has more raisins than you would ever imagine putting into bread. It was carefully recorded by author Carol Field, whose research with Italian artisan bakers turned into The Italian Baker, a seminal cookbook.

Pasta is filled with a variety of ingredients, depending on where it's from. In Ferrara on the border of Emilia-Romagna, cappellacci are stuffed with butternut squash. In southern Tuscany, tortelli are filled with chestnuts and ricotta. Head to the Dolomites mountain range in the northeastern region of the Veneto and you can find casunziei filled with beets and served in melted butter with a sprinkling of poppyseeds.

In his book, Delizia!: The Epic History of Italians and Their Food, John Dickie describes the complexities behind the idea that “Italian food does not exist.”

How can Sicilian food, with its couscous, swordfish and citrus salad, possibly belong to the same culinary realm as the subalpine region of Piedmont, with its truffles, rich wine-infused meat dishes, and agnolotti? Many Italians, proud of their own local eating traditions, would say simply that they cannot. In Italy, even something as simple as bread can change from one small town to the next.

Yet, saying that Italian food does not exist is “hazardous” too. He continues to point out that many foods and habits are shared across a few regions, such as polenta, certain pasta shapes, even couscous, are of ambiguous origin. Sicilians may hold it as theirs, but it is also well known in the Tuscan port city of Livorno.

To toast to this celebration and collection of regional Italian recipes, there couldn't be anything more perfectly suited than a Garibaldi, a cocktail named after the man who played a large role in the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. It's essentially a fancy name for Campari (which comes from Milan) and orange juice (Sicily is orange-growing country), which represents the coming together of the north and the south. Cin cin!

Delve further into the intricacies of "Italian cuisine":

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The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.

1 Comment

beejay45 June 26, 2018
"Only a Tuscan would think of dressing pasta with bread."

Not true! In Puglia they have St. Joseph's Pasta or Mafaldine di San Giuseppe, which is very similar. Know-it-all me, only because I just watched a video about it on YouTube a couple days ago, on a channel called "Cooking with Nonna." Unlike "Pasta Grannies," recipes and explanations are provided by the host.