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
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
When Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer, traveled to Beijing in the 13th century, he supposedly brought what would become one of Italy’s most famous foods home with him: pasta. Without the Chinese contribution, the legend goes, Italians might not have their dazzling array of pastas from lasagna to linguini.
Archaeologists know for certain that noodles of some sort were first found in China. The world’s oldest noodle dish contained strands of ground, dried millet in spaghetti-like strands coiled in an earthenware bowl about 4,000 years ago in a region near present-day Beijing. Noodles older than the Coliseum are a strong argument that Chinese chefs were getting creative with pasta centuries before the rest of the world knew the joys of a plate of well-sauced spaghetti. By the time Marco Polo got there, Chinese cuisine had refined noodle dishes to a high art. He almost certainly enjoyed them while he was there.
However, the millet and buckwheat noodles in Chinese dishes aren’t much like Italian semolina pasta, and Italy’s archaeological sites boast their own tradition of pasta-making. As early as 400 years before Julius Caesar transformed Rome from a republic to an empire, people in the region were making a wheat paste, forming it into sheets or strands and boiling it. Etruscan frescoes depict what appears to be pasta-making in action. The rolling pin and cutting wheel in the painting are early versions of tools still familiar to many Italian chefs today. Marco Polo’s trip was still more than 1,600 years away when that scene was painted.
Another source for Italian pasta’s native roots is the most famous Roman writing on cooking, the Apicius cookbook. By the time the Roman guide to feasting was written sometime around the early fourth century, dishes made with sheets of finely ground wheat dough were already in it. Laganum, one of the most popular, is a clear forerunner of modern Italian lasagna, although it had to wait centuries to receive its tangy tomato layers. Cicero was said to be a fan of laganum and ate it often.
Possibly the best proof that Marco Polo was already familiar with pasta is that he already had a name for it when he came back and wrote about his travels. He described the noodles he ate in the court of Kubla Khan as vermicelli, a term he didn’t describe for his readers because he assumed they knew exactly what he described. Fortunately for historians, writing had come into fashion not only for explorers, but for common citizens. A soldier from Genoa named Ponzio Baestone left a will in which he mentioned macaroni – 16 years before Marco Polo returned from China.
Chinese dishes have their own tradition, but it’s clear that Italian pasta has home-grown roots. From the earliest Roman laganum to today’s glorious spaghetti, linguini and ziti, pasta is an Italian original. We can thank Marco Polo for plenty of other wonders, but he didn’t bring pasta to Italy because it was already there.Tweet read more