A lot can be learned from a culture from the gastronomic history and traditions found in the region, and the world has hardly a better example of a culture whose culinary history has inspired more people to eat, cook, and travel than Italy. So we’ve compiled a brief survey of some of Italy’s most famous and popular dishes and their histories.
It may seem obvious, but there’s much more to pizza than cheap delivery on a Friday night. There’s some disagreement as to where it was first developed as the evidence points equally to Greece and Egypt. But the Romans took to it readily once invading armies brought it to their doorstep. Rome’s great poet, Virgil wrote,
[…] Their scanty meal to mend, cakes of flour.
Ascanius observ’d this, and they smiling said:
“We devour the plates from which we fed.”
Since then, pizza has become possibly the best-traveled entrée on Earth and serves appetites from the most basic to the most refined.
Another dish of specious origins, chicken parmigiana is more the product of Italian immigrants to America and Europe than of Italy. Nevertheless, we credit Italy for this classic representation of Italian cuisine, and if it isn’t a direct offspring of the boot-shaped country, it’s definitely the product of the creativity of its people. That’s good enough for us. The fresh and aromatic tomatoes and gently breaded fillet of chicken in a delicately warmed cheese sauce that we know so well is enjoyed by people the world over. Regardless of where it comes from, this exquisite balance of Italian-inspired ingredients has since been thoroughly mastered by our friends from western Europe.
Veal, of course, is a cut of meat taken from a young cow, and marsala is a type of wine from a region in Sicily of the same name. Chicken is a common meat substitute for those who dislike the caging and killing of immature cows. Those who sympathize with the cows, and feel chicken is too boring often take a sirloin as a substitute. Either way, this is a simple but very distinctive dish served with bread or pasta to absorb the marsala.
Shrimp Fra Diavolo
An Italian phrase meaning ‘brother devil,’ fra Diavolo is the name of a variety of spicy sauces usually made from tomatoes. Frequently attributed to Mediterranean origins due to its heavy use of seafood sources of protein- this is in truth another product of Italian immigrant tradition in the United States. The reliance on shrimp and other shellfish gives this dish its distinctive kick. It is sometimes referred to as the Italian’s answer to Jambalaya.
It may come as a surprise to learn that some of our favorite Italian dishes have broader origins than we might have thought. But there is some consolation to see that we have actually been enjoying the products of an even broader culture than that of a single European country- and it leaves us with the new possibility of discovering Italian cuisine all over again for the first time.