The food recognized as Italian cuisine today has actually been around longer than, well, Italy. Many of the 20 areas that form the well-known "boot" plus two islands were officially unified into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and completed the annexation process (after several wars and treaties) in 1922.
Though there is evidence of pre-historic habitation, Italy is the product of the migrations, invasions and dominations of other European and Middle Eastern cultures, settling and influencing this country which, geographically, is about the size of Arizona. It is surrounded by water to the west, south and east (basically the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas) and the Alps to the north where the highest peak in the range is on the Italian-French border (Mont Blanc at 15,782 feet.)
After the Phoenicians, the Etruscans gave way to the Greeks who were taken over by the Romans. Over the next 2,000 years, parts of Italy would be and still are influenced by those cultures as well as the Arabs, Normans, French, Austrians, Germans and Hungarians. During the Renaissance, powerful, wealthy families ruled "city-states," i.e. Genoa, Florence, Venice and Milan, mostly in the north. The south was home to fishermen and farmers and was less populated and not nearly as wealthy.
Members of the Sons of Italy Culture Committee present some of the dishes that will be featured during their upcoming cooking class on July 8. From left to right, John Gianangeli, Frank Fregiato, Fred Renzella, Cynthia Fregiato, Tony Polsinelli, Ike Liberati and Janice Whipkey.
Spaghetti and meatballs is what many Americans think of when they hear “Italian food.” In fact, it’s unclear whether spaghetti came from Asia or the Arabs, and the tomato didn’t arrive in Italy until after Christopher Columbus brought it back from the New World. The Italians, however, were the first to combine the two.
Fresh, few and simple describes ingredient lists for Italian cuisine. Many dishes are made with four or five and seasoned with a little salt and pepper. Italian cooks say quality rather than quantity is the key to flavor.
In Italian cuisine, sauces and dressings are rarely heavy. Usually pasta dishes and salads are drizzled with local olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and fresh garlic.
Food has always been an important part of Italy's lifestyle and culture. In fact, a Greek Sicilian named Archestratus is considered the first Italian food writer for his poem from the fourth century BCE. From the Middle Ages until now, cookbooks full of Italian recipes have helped define this popular cuisine. One, "La scienza en cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene" ("The Science of the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well"), written by Pellegrino Artusi, was published in 1891 and is still in print because of its authentic and definitive account of this genre. Even in the 1700's, Italian medical texts stressed fresh foods rather than refined.
Each of Italy's 20 regions has a proud heritage and specialty dishes of its own. Three that stand out for their claims to fame are Emilia-Romagna, Puglia and Campania.
Emilia-Romagna is referred to as "Italy's food basket" because many of the country's signature foods originate here. In 187 BCE, the Romans built a main highway through this region which later linked northern Europe with growing eastern cities like Genoa and Venice. Notably, this region is the largest legal producer of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cooked cows' milk cheese aged a minimum of 12 months. This product is strictly monitored by the government. For instance, cows are fed only hay and grass, and the only additive to the cheese is sea salt.
Since 100 BCE, the area of Parma has been producing prosciutto, the delicacy that gourmands know as prosciutto. The government again stepped in to ward off counterfeit ham, so the pigs are raised within a specific area and fed whey from the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese makers. The ham is cured with only salt and fresh air for 13 to 30 months, losing up to 25 percent of its water content and concentrating the flavors. When seeking out the real thing, look for a five-point crown and a hefty price tag.
Another product of this region is balsamic vinegar. The must (juice) is pressed from late harvest Trebbiano, Lambrusco or other indigenous grapes and simmered over an open fire for 18 hours, reduced down by as much as two-thirds. It takes 770 pounds of grapes to make 15 quarts of this vinegar. It's filtered and put into oak barrels until spring when it's poured into casks of oak, cherry, ash or chestnut and aged for a minimum of three to 100 years. This product is again regulated heavily and is only authentic if the bottle has a seal from the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena stating its origin.
Puglia, or Apulia, is the region making up the "heel" of the "boot" on the southeastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Full of farming communities, it was historically not a prosperous region, but today it produces 70 percent of Italy's olive oil and 10 percent of Europe's wine. Historically, a feudal society and a dry climate kept most of the residents working poor, and the menu still reflects this.
Meat came from sheep and goats that could forage in scrub grasses, but were mainly utilized for milk, creating cheeses to add to traditional pasta and vegetable dishes. Fish has also always been part of the diet and economy here. Durum wheat is grown in the north area of Puglia, providing flour for the region's indigenous pasta, "orecchiette" (meaning "little ears"), and fresh-baked breads.
According to archeological evidence, "green gold," olive oil, has been produced in Puglia for 10,000 years. In fact, many of the trees are at least 1,000 years old, making this area one of the oldest agrarian arboreal locations in the world. In the Terra di Bari area, olive trees have been cultivated for over 5,000 years, and Benedictine monks were among the first to develop the olive trees into olive groves for larger-scale production of sweet, clear oil. In Terra di Otranto, evidence shows the Messapi growing olives in 1,000 BCE. These ancient trees produce dark green oil with a fresh herbal scent.
The rich soil from Campania's Mt. Vesuvius, an active volcano, and the warm climate in the southeast front of Italy's "boot" make this region a fertile region for tomatoes, peppers, artichokes and many other vegetables, as well as citrus trees. An heirloom tomato from here known as the San Marzano is prized by chefs around the world as the "best" tomato for sauce because of its flesh, low number of seeds and low acidity.
Another regional product is Mozzarella di bufala Campana-mozzarella cheese made from the milk of local water buffalo. Created by the ancients in this region, it, too, is now certified and regulated by the government to ensure authenticity.
The pizza of today got its start here in Naples 300 years ago. Oddly, it didn't really gain popularity in Italy outside of Naples until the past 40 years after becoming a United States diet staple. There are, of course, rules now for an "authentic" Neapolitan pizza: dough rising for six hours, rolled by hand to a certain size, with only San Marzano tomatoes and sauce and specific cheeses and toppings.
Campania is also known for pasta, so much so that the region's inhabitants were dubbed "Mangia Maccheroni" (pasta eaters) in the 1800's. Pasta was not invented here, and it isn't clear who exactly did invent it, but the Italians in Campania developed industrial production and export of the durum wheat product. Locals here were also the first to add tomatoes to pasta, which was a cuisine revelation.
A simple liqueur called limoncello is another of Campania's own. Made from the Sorrento Ovale lemon (sweet, juicy, fewer seeds), the peel is steeped in pure alcohol and added to simple syrup. It has been used as a digestivo after dinner for more than 100 years, and recipes are handed down through generations. This lemon is so special that it, too, is grown under the watchful eyes of the government and is protected by the European Union.
Hungry? Wondering where to learn more about authentic Italian food and recipes without applying for a passport? The Sons of Italy Lodge, 3348 Belmont St. in Bellaire, will be hosting a class in Italian cooking on Sunday, July 8 from 4:30 to 8 p.m. The fee is $25 for non-members, and space is limited. Tony Polsinelli has developed a menu of authentic Italian dishes to make and eat using some of the ingredients from this article: two types of pasta, three to four sauces, polenta and limoncello. The event is sponsored by the Sons of Italy Culture Committee. For reservations or information contact the lodge at 740-676-7137.
Valenti can be reached at email@example.com.