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Italian Regional Cuisines

Italian cuisine is regional. Extremely; though you may think about, say, Tuscan, or Friulano, or Piemontese cooking, the variations are actually much more local.

A couple of examples:

  • To celebrate Christmas, the residents of the Tuscan city of Siena enjoy Panforte, a nutty fruitcake sweetened with honey that dates back to the middle ages, and Ricciarelli, chewy orange-laced amaretti. Come the season, every bar and pastry shop makes them and proudly puts them on display. In Florence, which is just a half hour's drive from Siena, you wouldn't have found either, at least not freshly made, until quite recently, and Florentines who buy Panforte (much is bought by tourists) say it's a Sienese thing.
  • Friuli Venzia Giulia has many ties with central Europe, and as a result the cuisine includes ingredients one simply doesn't find in much of the rest of Italy. Sauerkraut, for example, which the inhabitants of the highlands above Trieste combine with beans to make Jota (pronounced Yota), an unusual but tasty bean soup that's one of the area's signature dishes. Jota is made with sauerkraut as far inland as Gorizia, about 40 miles, where they also add barley, but if you continue on to Cormons, another 9 miles, you'll find it made with brovada, pickled turnips, rather than sauerkraut. And if you continue on to Udine, another 15 miles, people consider it to be foreign and don't make it.

The reason for this culinary fragmentation is simple: With the exception of the nobility and the clergy, before WWII most Italians simply didn't travel, and as a result every town and every valley has something unique. Neighboring towns and valleys will also share techniques, or recipes, albeit with individualistic twists, but from one end of a region to the other the picture can change completely. Therefore, when speaking of regional cuisines, it's a good idea to keep in mind that we are really dealing with a series of local cuisines, each of which is related to those around it.

Having said this, one can make some broad distinctions from North to South.

The Use of Fats
Though now extravirgin olive oil is popular throughout Italy, this has not always been true. With the exception of a few areas near lakes that exert a moderating influence, Northern Italy is too cold for olive trees to grow, and as a result much of the population used butter for cooking. In much of Central and Southern Italy, and the Islands, on the other hand, people cooked with olive oil. Much but not all; rendered lard was used in Campania, Basilicata, the Abruzzo, and Calabria until recently.

The Kinds of Pasta Used
In the days before industrialization, dry pasta made from durum wheat, water, and a pinch of salt (spaghetti, rigatoni, and so on), was easier to make, and therefore more popular, in the South, where warmer temperatures and increased sunlight hastened the drying of the pasta. And indeed, though there are now dry pasta factories everywhere, modern Italians generally feel that southerners still make the best dry pasta.
Central and parts of Northern Italy (especially Emilia Romagna and Piemonte) are instead known for fresh pasta made with eggs, flour, and salt, for example tagliatelle, tajarin, or pappardelle, all of which are flat forms. The center and north are also known for stuffed pasta, for example ravioli or tortellini, and one can find these kinds of pasta in areas where they didn't eat much flat or dry pasta until recently, for example Lombardia. What did they eat in the sections of the north where pasta wasn't as popular in the past?
Polenta, or corn meal mush, which was a staple food of the poor, and risotto; most of the world's best short-grained strains of rice, including Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano are North Italian.

Popular Vegetables
The South is much warmer and has a much longer growing season than the North. As a result vegetables that thrive under hotter conditions, especially tomatoes, are more popular in the South, which thus also has many more dishes with red sauces than the North. Among the other more Southern vegetables are eggplant and broccoli raab. In the North, on the other hand, one finds plants better adapted to cooler temperatures and less sunlight, for example head cabbages, black leaf kale, cardoons, and radicchio.

Foreign Influences
Given its position in the middle of the Mediterranean, Italy is a crossroads, and many foreign powers have left their mark. As you might expect, you'll find quite a bit of French influence (regional French, not haute cuisine) in the areas of Liguria, Piemonte, and the Valle D'Aosta bordering France, and Austro-Hungarian influences in the Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige, and Friuli Venezia Giulia. There is also Spanish influence, especially in Milano, which was under the Spaniards for a time; this Spanish influence surfaces again in the South, which was ruled by the Bourbons until the unification of Italy in mid 1850s, and in Sardinia, which was ruled directly by Spain for a time. You'll find English influence in Tuscany, where the classic bistecca alla Fiorentina and zuppa Inglese, English steak and English trifle, respectively, were initially prepared for the enjoyment of the sizeable English colony that settled Tuscany in the 1800s. And you'll find Jewish influences in Rome, dating to the 1500s, when Jews fleeing the Inquisition settled in the Eternal City. Finally, in Sicily you'll find a fascinating mixture of Roman influence, Arab influences dating both to the time that Sicily was an Arab province, and to more recent trade with North Africa (cuscus, for example), Norman French influence, and Spanish influence.

In short, Italian food is as varied as the land and the people, and this means that there are a great many delights to be discovered.

Buon Appetito!
Kyle Phillips

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