Tradition in Italian Cuisine

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Tradition in Italian Cuisine

The reason so many people fall in love with Italy has much to do with its cuisine. Italian cooking has been influenced by diverse groups of people and places, historically and in modern times. The Americas, for instance, had a huge influence on Italian cuisine. Tomato sauce, polenta, and anything piccante (hot) would not exist in Italian cuisine without the introduction of tomatoes, maize (corn), and peppersall plants native to the Americas.

The world has adopted parts of Italy's cuisine, but not the structure of its meals. In Italy a meal is a leisurely sequence of events served in courses on separate plates, each appearing in the appropriate sequence. Americans often find it frustrating for a meal to be so lengthy, but, for Italians, dinner is often the main event and the focus of celebrations.

The cooking style is usually quite simple. There are no really elaborate sauces, and what sauces do exist are used only in small amounts, just enough to moisten pasta or delicately anoint meat or fish. Italian chefs claim, with some justification, that the secret to Italian cooking is sapori e saperi (flavors and skills), which implies doing little to excellent fresh ingredients.

Similarities and Differences

While there are many differences between regions, and between households within a region, the concept of Italian food would not exist unless there were many similarities as well. There is a tendency for food experts to stress the differences instead of the similarities within the Italian food tradition. But there is much that links it as a single cuisine. Some examples are the structure of the meal, the pasta course, and potatoes used as a vegetable rather than as a staple source of carbohydrates. There is also the ubiquitous antipasto of sausages and cheeses. The types of sausage and cheese may be localin Remembrance of Tastes Past, Davide Paolini estimates over sixteen hundred typesbut nonetheless they are all cold cuts and cheese served on a plate before the pasta course. There are also rules common to almost all Italian cooking, such as not pairing cheese with seafood, or lemon with tomato sauce.

Having said all that, there are regional cuisines, and restaurants tend to be specific to a region. A restaurant serving dishes from too many regions would not be popular with Italians. There are also many foods associated with specific localities. Among the best-known examples are pizza with Naples, saffron risotto with Milan, Austrian-type dumplings with Trentino, balsamic vinegar with Modena, fiorentina steak with Tuscany, polenta with Venice, prosciutto and Parmesan cheese with Parma, ragù with Bologna, pesto with Genoa, truffles with Umbria, sheep's-milk cheese with Sardinia, and chocolate with Perugia.


Every Italian region has a tradition of its own with regard to Carnival, Easter, Christmas, and other holidays. Most foods prepared for them are sweet, but there are some savory dishes as well.

The best-known New Year's dish is lentils with cotechino or zampone (both pork sausages, the former stuffed into a pig's foot). The lentils represent coins and thus richness. Croccanti are brittle caramel and almond candies, which, molded into various shapes, decorate the center of the table at New Year's dinner. Torta della Befana is a fruit tart with a bean hidden inside (whoever finds the bean is crowned king or queen for the day) and is traditional for the Feast of the Magi.

For San Giuseppe Day on 19 March, sfince (called zeppole in Naples), fried dough seasoned with honey of Saracen origin, is popular in Sicily. For the feast of San Giovanni on June 24th, tortelli filled with greens and ricotta are traditional in Parma. Amatriciana, a pasta sauce of bacon and tomato, is traditionally served on the Sunday following Ferragosto (Assumption Day). Bigne di Giuseppe (fried doughnuts) filled with cream or chocolate are eaten for Father's Day in Rome.

Carnival is a holiday full of food symbolism. Mardi Gras is literally Fat Tuesday, and the term Carnevale derives from Old Italian carnelevare (removal of meat). Both of these are major celebrations to initiate Lent, a period when people deprive themselves of some favorite food or other pleasure. Quaresimali, for example, are hard almond cookies prepared especially for Lent. Pizza del giovedi grasso, two circles of pizza with a filling of pork, cheese, eggs, and lemon, is served on the last Thursday before Lent. Maritozzi (raisin buns) are traditional for Lent in Rome.

On the Amalfi Coast and throughout much of the South, there is migliaccio di polenta, a casserole of polenta, sausage, and cheese. In Abruzzi, a Carnival dish of crepes in broth with Parmesan is consumed. Carnival is also an occasion for simple fritters: chiacchiere in Lombardy, cenci in Tuscany, and frappe in Rome may sound quite different, but they look and taste very similarfried crunchy pastry strips sprinkled with powdered sugar. Sanguinaccio (literally, "blood pudding") is a chocolate dessert served at Carnival time around Naples.

A large variety of foods are made to celebrate Easter, from soups to main dishes to sweets, with egg as the dominant ingredient. Pancotto, for example, is bread soup containing butter, oil, salt, cheese, and egg, and is a traditional Easter dish in Lombardy. Brodetto is an eggand-lemon soup made at Easter in Florence. An Eastertorta (cake) can be sweet or savory. Torta Pasqualine, for example, is an Easter dish from Liguria traditionally made with thirty-three sheets of very thin pastry, to symbolize each year of Christ's life. The sheets are filled with greens, artichokes, ricotta, and hard-boiled eggs.

Pizza can also be savory or sweet. Pizza di Pasqua ternata is a sweet Easter pizza topped with preserved fruits and nuts from the Umbrian town of Terni. Ciambella or brazedela is a ring-shaped, traditional Easter breakfast bun in Emilia-Romagna. In Naples, Easter is celebrated with pastiera, a type of ricotta pie. Colomba Pasquale (Easter dove) is a popular bird-shaped Easter cake.

Every Italian region has its own tradition with regard to Christmas sweets. Instead of fruitcake, there are a variety of fruit breads. In Liguria there is pandolce, made with candied fruits, nuts, and flavorings. In Tuscany there is panforte, also called panforte di Siena, a hard, flat concoction popular since the thirteenth century. This characteristic sweet, made of toasted nuts stirred into hot honey caramel, has many virtues, including the fact that it can be stored for long periods of time.

Since the 1950s, panettone (literally, "Tony's bread") has become popular all over Italy at Christmas time. The custom of consuming panettone, especially during the year-end holiday season, spread from Milan throughout Italy. There are variations, however. Pampepato is a Christmas cake from Ferrara made with pepper, chocolate, spices, and almonds. In Rome the Christmas cake is pan giallo, a fruit-and-nut cake, originally made with saffron, thus its name, which literally means yellow bread.

In Naples women prepare for the arrival of Christmas with delicacies made of pasta di mandorla (marzipan) and with struffoli, tiny pieces of soft pastry formed into balls, fried, coated with honey, and sprinkled with bright and colorful candied sugar and pieces of candied fruit peel. Sicily has cuccidatu or bruccellato, a ring-shaped cake stuffed with dried figs, raisins, and nuts, and spiced with cloves and cinnamon.

Christmas also provides its share of savory specialties. In many homes, fish is the preferred main course for Christmas Eve dinner. In Lombardy, stuffed turkey and tortelli (similar to ravioli) filled with squash and crushed amaretto cookies are traditional for Christmas, while in Bologna tortellini (small, hand-pinched, filled ring-shaped pasta) is traditional for Christmas Day.

Papassine is a traditional Sardinian sweet for all occasionsEaster, Christmas, and All Saints' Day, for examplemade with dried fruit, lard, orange, and eggs.


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Judit Katona-Apte