Italy’s a compact country about the length of California, but the culinary differences between northern Italian food and southern Italian dishes are tremendous. While northern Italians love their rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, people in the south embrace flavors such as tangy tomato sauces, olive oil and fresh steamed seafood. Both north and south have contributed their share to classic Italian cuisine, but each region has its own distinct set of flavors.
Southern Italian Cuisine
Southern Italian cooking features the bright, lively Mediterranean taste that most people associate with Italian cuisine. From salad greens to seafood, freshness is paramount to southern Italian chefs. Peppers, eggplant and tomatoes thrive in the warm southern Italian climate, and they form the basis for some of the region’s most-beloved dishes. Eggplant parmigiana, tangy marinara sauce and minestrone enlivened with fresh herbs are southern classics. The wealth of great tomatoes led to the invention of Italy’s most popular food worldwide: pizza.
The Neapolitan pizza margherita combines the best of southern Italy in one delicious dish. Fresh tomatoes, creamy mozzarella cheese and a few leaves of peppery sweet basil turn a simply prepared crust into a feast. Purists can opt for the traditional pizza or choose some of the region’s other delicacies as toppings. Anchovies, freshly made sweet sausage, diced peppers and onions are practically made to go with pizza.
While northern Italy runs on butter, southern Italy makes the most of its abundance of olive oils. Olives grow beautifully in warm Mediterranean climates, but nowhere has olive oil become a greater culinary art form than in Italy. From deep green oils meant for salads to light yellow oils perfect for putting a golden crust on a piece of pan-seared fresh fish, olive oil is a southern Italian icon. You’ll find it in the kitchen and on the table as a dipping medium for the region’s crusty, open-textured breads.
Northern Italian Fare
Thanks to its mountainous terrain and its proximity to Switzerland, Austria and France, northern Italy loves the land. The Piemonte and Lombardia regions of northern Italy are prime cattle country, and their cuisine shows it. Butter-based sauces rich with cream grace northern Italian tables just as they do in France, but Italian chefs put their own delicious spin on them with fresh herbs and garlic. Stews and soups with the beef so abundant in the area are popular in the winter, but spring is for succulent veal. Thin breaded veal cutlets are as popular in Italy as they are in nearby Austria.
Hard sausages of every description helped northern Italians weather winters that came early to mountain valleys. Salami and other salted, preserved meats such as prosciutto are northern Italian delicacies that have gone worldwide. The Emilia-Romagna region of central northern Italy is home to prosciutto di Parma and another product synonymous with great Italian food: Parmesan cheese.
The mountainous terrain at the foot of the Italian Alps lends itself to pastures rather than fields, so cheese has been a staple for centuries. The sheep, goats and cows that graze there produce the milk that goes into Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, asiago and gorgonzola cheeses. With their variety of textures and tastes, northern Italian cheeses complement northern and southern dishes alike.
Whether you prefer a dish inspired by northern Italian cooking such as fettuccine Alfredo or a southern delight such as a Neapolitan pizza, you’ll find the same commitment to bold yet balanced flavor common to all great Italian cooking.Tweet read more
To the French, it’s joie de vivre; to the Italians, it’s che gioia vivere. Either way, it means the same thing: the joy of living. For Italians, the phrase describes the way they embrace every experience as one to be savored. From great music to fine art to outstanding food, every Italian considers certain pleasures a birthright. Love, Italian style isn’t just an ordinary romance; it’s seeing the romance in everything.
Art in Italy
If you were to list the world’s most exquisite artists, Italians would be represented more than any other culture. Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo and others changed the face of visual art and sculpture. The Renaissance began in Italy’s studios and libraries. One reason for this artistic flowering is Italy’s natural beauty, but part of it might also be the Italian psyche. To create something beautiful, an artist must first be sensitive enough to see beauty. Their eye for beauty didn’t keep Italian painters and sculptors from unstinting realism, though. The simplest horse drawings in da Vinci’s notebooks had an earthy, muscular presence along with their grace.
Art in Italy has never meant frescoes and sculpture alone. Every building, landscape or wardrobe is another occasion to make something beautiful. From vintage Venetian Carnevale masks to the latest Milanese fashions, opulent Italian style is a delight to wear and to see. Unlike the heavy, brooding Gothic architecture that evolved in other countries, early Renaissance architects designed piazzas and public buildings filled with light and clean, simple lines. These Italian artists in plaster and stone paid homage to the simple elegance of Roman architecture and added their own sophisticated polish. Modern Italian buildings still evoke the grace of their Renaissance roots because Italians still appreciate the beauty of a Mediterranean sun slanting through Venetian glass windows.
Magnificent Music and Movies
No other country could have created the pageantry and passion that is opera. Combining the best of a stage play with music as memorable today as it was when it was written hundreds of years ago, opera is still dominated by the Italian influence. That Italian gioia di vivere makes itself known in every soaring aria. Like all Italian art forms, opera combines refinement with a rustic charm that shines through in comic operas.
Opera isn’t Italy’s only contribution to great music. Great Italian, Italian-American and Sicilian-American performers like Louie Prima, Connie Francis, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra brought Italian passion to everything they did. The legendary Tony Bennett is still thrilling new generations of fans.
From Federico Fellini to Roberto Benigni, Italian filmmakers have become famous for their richly complex movies. Kaleidoscopic art-house films and emotionally moving masterpieces like “Life Is Beautiful” are equally emblematic of Italy’s thriving and varied movie industry.
Great Italian Food
An Italian dinner doesn’t just fill you up; it fills your senses. Peppers, tomatoes and fresh greens let you feast your eyes before you taste the first courses of your meal. Even the textures of crunchy bruschetta or creamy mozzarella in an insalata Caprese contribute to the diner’s delight. The Italian love of food is an appreciation for how it pleases every sense. Home cooking – or restaurant cooking that comes from the heart – is better than any overly precious plate of nouvelle cuisine to an Italian because it’s made with love.
Every Italian believes a meal is incomplete without at least a little time to savor food, wine and conversation – even for a quick lunch. Even when pressed for time and grabbing a quick bite, Italians chat as they eat. Whenever possible, friends and family gather for dinners, turning them into convivial events. As great as the food tastes, it’s improved with good company. It’s okay to leave food on the plate because you’re busy talking and laughing; Italians believe it’s more important to live in the moment. Dessert is just another reason to spend time in the company of those you love best, so linger over that slice of tiramisu.
One of the greatest baseball players in history and a cultural icon off the field as well, “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio was an American legend with Italian roots. Born Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, he eventually Anglicized his name, but he never lost his appreciation for the home-cooked Italian food he ate as a child. His reputation for staying close to his fans meant he often visited the same restaurants and sidewalk food stands they enjoyed, a fact that must have stunned other diners who recognized the handsome athlete at a neighboring table.
Joe’s early life as the eighth son of first-generation Italian-American parents meant he grew up on a combination of traditional southern Italian fare and classic early 20th-century American dishes. During the first World War when he was still a toddler, his family observed the same “meatless Mondays” that most families did to conserve resources for the war effort. The colorful Sicilian and southern Italian meals his mother made kept meatless Mondays from becoming dull and helped the young DiMaggio grow into the promising young athlete he would become.
Today, professional athletes depend on a team of nutritionists and dietitians to counsel their eating habits, but Joe came from a different era. The previous baseball great, Babe Ruth, was famous for his dietary indulgences, but DiMaggio ate a training diet that plenty of present-day athletes would find fairly familiar. With plenty of meat and eggs for protein and pasta or other carbohydrates for fuel, Joe’s usual menu during his career wasn’t too far off from the training tables in today’s MBA or NFL facilities, albeit with more red meat and dairy foods. He also appreciated an all-American New York hot dog or three.
Despite his fame as one of the best athletes ever to play the game, DiMaggio wasn’t content to be a hero on the baseball diamond. In 1943, he enlisted in the Air Force. Although he didn’t see combat duty and mostly participated in exhibition games and morale-boosting events, he still played a key role in the war effort and sought to do more. When he realized his relatively soft life had actually put ten pounds on his lanky frame instead of whipping him into shape, he requested a combat rotation but was declined. Just before the war’s end in 1945, DiMaggio was discharged for stomach ulcers, a problem for which doctors of the time recommended drinking plenty of milk and forgoing spicy foods.
If the Yankee Clipper was famous for his incredible performance on the field, especially his still-unbeaten 56-game hitting streak, he later married someone else at least as famous for her performances on the silver screen: Marilyn Monroe. She was initially reluctant to meet him, but when they met in 1954, her reservations about his being a typical athlete melted away; he was gracious, humble and gentlemanly. Their marriage lasted less than a year, but despite their incredibly high-profile personas, they tried to lead a normal married life, often cooking dinner together when their schedules permitted. One of their favorite foods was a simple broiled steak with a salad or some carrots on the side.
All of Joe’s life was a rags-to-riches story in the greatest American tradition, but he never lost the humility that kept him grounded. He frequented the meat-and-potatoes men’s club Toots Shor’s rather than Sardi’s and purportedly preferred a hot dog from a street vendor or a plate of garlicky spaghetti to the overly refined fare that was considered stylish in the 1950s and ’60s. After he ate, he’d often give interviews or sign autographs, never tiring of his fans; in turn, they respected the great man enough to let him eat his chops or meatballs in peace.
With his natural grace and quiet humility, DiMaggio was an American legend, but his Italian heritage helped endear him to the Italian-American community.Tweet read more