The world’s favorite national cuisine? Nice try, Mexico. Keep cooking, India. Close but no cigar, China. Better luck next time, France. The winner, hands down, is Italy.
Don’t take our word for it. In 2011, Oxfam named pasta the world’s favorite food. And in 2016, the Guinness World Record for high-altitude meal delivery was set atop Mount Kilimanjaro (5,897m; 19,347ft), not with a pair of fish tacos or a chicken madras, but … a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese (1).
There is hardly any latitude without a pizzeria. The northernmost in the world is apparently in Kirkenes (The Ritz, an all-purpose ‘Pizzeria Diskotek Fotballpub’). The southernmost in the world could very well be the Rotiseria Sol Y Mar in Ushuaia, Argentina.
Every nation on Earth – with one notable and very ironic exception (2) – seems to have at least one Italian restaurant. You can go for Italian dining in Kabul, Tehran, and even Pyongyang. The North Korean capital has three branches of a local chain generically named “Italy Pizza”. (The fruit pizza on the menu may not be to everyone’s taste).
Too bad, then, that it’s all a sham. Italian cuisine does not really exist. Or rather, “Italian food” as a unified category only exists outside of Italy. Inside the boot-shaped country, there are only regional cuisines, with some dishes being entirely local and others existing in a variety of local versions.
A variety that sometimes frustrates even the most knowledgeable foreigners. On one of his television tours of Italy, celebrity British chef Jamie Oliver was visibly frustrated by locals’ insistence that their pasta be prepared as this and not like thisbecause it’s always been like thisand this that’s how they did it over there!
The past offers an explanation: although Italy has a lot of ancient history, the modern, unified state of Italy is a fairly recent invention, only appearing in 1861. All those separate duchies, republics and principalities that existed before had long stories and their own history. laws, customs, cultures and cuisines.
This is one of the reasons why different regions of Italy, and sometimes even individual towns, jealously guard the distinctiveness of their culinary tradition. Traditional Tuscan bread is made without salt, a consequence of an old (and now abolished) salt tax. Parma – and nowhere else – is the original homeland of both Parmesan cheese (cheese) and prosciutto (Ham).
Climate and geography also play a role: the north, more suited to dairy farming, prefers cream and butter for cooking with olive oil. And then there are the foreign influences. Sicily and other parts of the south have incorporated Arabic influences, such as a preference for spices and herbs, couscous and oranges.
Here’s a map that gives an overview of Italy’s culinary diversity and a chance to reacquaint yourself with the country’s geography.
Starting from the north, we have:
- Aosta Valleyknown for his melted and fountain cheeses, kale and valpelline Soupe.
- Liguriafamous for its focaccia and pesto.
- PiedmontThe origin of Vitello Tonnato (veal in tuna sauce), and also known for Brasato al Barolo (beef cooked in red wine).
- Lombardya rice-growing region, hence the tens of Risotto receipts. The region is also known for its Osso Bucoa cut of beef with the bone cut open to the marrow.
- Trentino Alto Adigewhich is home to Italy’s German-speaking minority, with repercussions for local favorites, such as knodeln (canederli in Italian), strudel and grain.
- Venetorich in culinary influences and production, which includes cichettia tapas-style appetizer, and Tiramisu (literally: “pull-me-up”), a rich dessert.
- Friuli Venezia Giuliawhich has a tradition of serving bolito misto (mixed plate of boiled meats) with beer, reflecting the Austrian influence.
- Emilia-Romagnawhose capital is Bologna, nicknamed grassa (“the big one”) and famous for its bolognese tagliatelle. Italians would never, like the rest of the world, combine spaghetti with Bolognese sauce (3).
In the center there is
- Tuscanyhumble boaster with his ‘povera cucina’, homeland of pecorino Brunello cheese and wine.
- Umbriafamous for truffles and, unfortunately for the pigs who fear to sniff out these subterranean delights, also for its porchettaa rich roast pork dish.
- stepsknown for its olives and lasagna, especially vincisgrassia variant said to have been prepared in honor of Alfred von Windisch-Graetz, an Austrian general in the war against Napoleon
- Laziowhich involves Rome, and therefore also a central place in the food history of Italy: from the pasta carbonara more than guanciale (pork cheek, an important ingredient for pasta amatriciana) with oxtail.
- Abruzzowhere they grow and eat a lot of pepperoncinifor example in the maiale ‘ndocca ‘ndocca (“pork piece by piece”).
- Tiny Molisewhere you can get the best spaghetti with chitarra (guitar spaghetti), square rather than round, or the coniglio alla molisana (grilled rabbit with sausage and herbs).
And finally, the south, with
- Campania, which includes Naples, the homeland of pizza. The region is also known for its meatballs and its long tradition of strong coffee.
- Pugliawhich excels in handmade pasta (including orecchietteor “little ears”).
- Basilicataproud of his Bacal with I pepperoni cruschi (salted cod with dried peppers), and on its extensive cultivation of pepper in general.
- Calabriawhere you can get good involtini di pesce spada (breaded swordfish rolls).
- Sardiniafamous for its thin, crispy bread called sardo flap and his malloreddus al sugo di salsicciaa Gnocchi-like pasta with sausage sauce.
- Sicilywith his arancine di riso, a popular appetizer; his Sardinian pasta (sardine pasta); and its citrus groves, which have given sorbet to Italy and the world.
Here’s a similar take on the regional diversity of Italian cuisine, with fewer examples but all in the picture – in fact, the foods make the menu itself.
Italians can argue about the strengths of Italian cuisine and how to prepare them, on one thing they all agree: Italy is the land of good food. The further they travel from their home country, the worse the experience becomes: from fattening to tasteless to toxic.
America, despite having done so much to popularize the dish, is the home of “fake pizza”. China, even if it is from where Marco Polo imported it, is the land of “fake pasta”. And they aren’t too kind either to their neighbors in the Mediterranean, crossed by two meridians: one for overcooked pasta, the other for muddy coffee.
First card found here at Walks of Italy. Second map found here at A gourmet world. Yanko Tsvetkov’s third card Atlas of prejudices found here at shiny cards.
Update May 10, 2018
Here is another version of Italian regional recipes, created and sent by Marco Zanini:
Massimo Barbieri sent a similar card, focusing on wine varieties produced throughout Italy.
Strange Cards #902
Got a weird card? Let me know at [email protected]
(1) A Pizza Hut stunt to celebrate the chain’s expansion into its 100th market, Tanzania (location of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain). The pizza was delivered from Dar-es-Salaam by plane, jeep and a trekker post, using a specially designed backpack to keep the food hot and cold.
(2) The Vatican—in the center of Rome—does not seem to have a restaurant.
UPDATE May 10, 2018. Reader Loye W. Young points out: “The Vatican does indeed have a restaurant, Restaurant (I ate there), and it serves Italian food (pizza being the standout, of course). It’s a cafeteria, but also offers take-out meals, and even some catering. (Apparently even Vaticanistas need pizza and Coke for long meetings.)”
(3) Likewise, spaghetti with meatballs is an American invention and an abomination for cuisine-conscious Italians.
(4) Like Italy itself, the modern pizza is a fairly recent invention. The first pizzeria in Italy was only created in 1780 by Pietro Colicchio, in Naples. In 1889, Raffaele Esposito popularized the dish by designing the daisy pizza in honor of a visit to the city of the new Queen of Italy. Hence the name, and the patriotic ingredients, in the three colors of the Italian flag: red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). The dish took off in Naples, and via Neapolitan immigrants, in America too – and faster than in the rest of Italy. The word “pizzeria” did not appear in printed matter in Italy until 1918.