Few cuisines are as universally beloved as that of Italy. Yet, while pizza and pasta are eaten around the world, few people realise that Italian food is fiercely regional, reflecting the geographic and cultural diversity of the Italian peninsula. As a general rule, northern Italian food tends to be heavier, making use of butter, rice, polenta and cheeses, while the south specialises in sauces based on tomatoes, olive oil and spices. The coast is famous for seafood, while central Italy is known for meat dishes such as wild boar. Particular highlights include:
Pizza: Originating in Naples in the mid-19th century, traditional pizza is available up and down the Italian peninsula. Another variant of pizza local to Italy is ‘Roman’ pizza. While Neapolitan pizza tends to be circular and relatively thick and soft, Roman pizza is cooked in long, rectangular baking pan with a thin, crisp base.
Pasta: Popular all over the Italian peninsula, pasta tends to vary from region to region in shape and topping, with northern Italians tending towards butter and cream sauces, while southern Italian sauces tend to be tomato-based. Particularly iconic pasta dishes include tagliatelle alla Bolognese (not spaghetti), originating in Bologna; carbonara, or eggs, pecorino, guanciale (a meat similar to bacon) and black pepper, originating in Rome; puttanesca, or spaghetti with tomatoes, olive oil, anchovies, olives, capers and garlic, developed in Naples in the mid-20th century; and Pasta alla Norma, a Greek-inspired pasta dish of tomatoes, eggplant, ricotta and basil, originating in Catania, Sicily.
Risotto: Risotto – or creamy rice with a variety of ingredients, including seafood, mushrooms, cheese, and sausage – originates in the north of Italy.
Cannoli: Cannoli – tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with sweet ricotta – originate on the island of Sicily. Tradition holds that the preparation of cannoli dates back to the period of Muslim rule on Sicily due to their similarity to Middle Eastern fried pastry deserts such as Zainab’s fingers and qanawāt.
Gelato: While the exact origins of frozen desserts remain unknown, the inventor of gelato was Procopio Cutò, a Sicilian entrepreneur who established one of Paris’s first cafes, Café Procope. Having inherited a machine capable of making sorbets from his grandfather, Cutò amended his grandfather’s recipe, replacing honey with sugar and adding salt to make the ice melt more slowly. Today, gelato is widely available across Italy – and unlike the mass production of ice cream and gelato elsewhere – is usually produced in artisanal small batches, incorporating local ingredients.
Italy is also the world’s largest producer of wine. In addition to the internationally popular prosecco and pinot grigio, Italy is home to captivating local varieties such as Brunello, Vermentino and Barbera d’Alba. Iconic Italian liquors include grappa bianca and limoncello.
Italy also invented modern coffee culture in the late 19th century with the invention of the steam-driven espresso machine, which brewed finely ground and compacted coffee very fast, with high water, at high pressure. Today, Italian coffee culture is defined by rituals and rules: cappuccino only at breakfast, espresso drunk standing up at a bar – and never order a ‘latte’, unless you want to get a glass of milk.