Italy, along with Greece, is considered as the birthplace of Western civilisation. It is known for its diverse regional culture, beautiful coast, alpine lakes and mountain ranges (the Alps and Apennines). No doubt about the fact that it is often nicknamed as the ‘Bel Paese ’ (the Beautiful Country). Just like India, Italy is a peninsula, situated on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia in the north. Italy is boot-shaped and is surrounded by the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian Seas to the west, the Mediterranean and Ionian Seas to the South and the Adriatic Sea to the East.
Italian is the official language spoken by the majority of the population. But throughout the country, people of different regions speak several distinct Italian dialects. Italy boasts of having a diverse landscape, but can be primarily described as mountainous, including the Alps and the Apennines mountain ranges that run through the vast majority of its regions. Sardinia and Sicily are two major islands of this country.
The history of Italy dates back to the times when it was inhabited by many different civilisations. Small Greek colonies settled at the southern coast and island of Sicily; Gauls, ancestors of today’s modern French, inhabited the mountainous north. The central Italy was occupied by the Etruscans (a group originally hailing from somewhere in western Turkey), establishing a number of city-states, including what is now modern-day Bologna. In the fourteenth century, city-states such as Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Milan and Venice became centres of trade. The increased trade contact with foreign lands, transformed Italy into Europe’s centre of culture. Famous personalities such as Michelangelo, Dante, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli and Galileo contributed significantly to the fields of literature, arts, politics and science. Italian explorers, such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, introduced Italy to the rest of the world. Italy remained a centre of power until the 16th century but due to the discovery of the new worlds, trade routes shifted away from the Mediterranean and Italy began to lose its influence.
After the Second World War, Italy abolished the monarchy and declared itself a republic. With the strong support of the United States, Italy rebuilt its economy and became a supporter of what is now the European Union. Today, Italy is one of the most affluent and democratic country in Europe.
Italy also boasts of having the most number of cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites (49) in the world. The most famous cities of art in Italy are; Rome, Assisi, Florence, Siena, Venice, Pisa and Naples. Italy is not only famous for its cultural and historical background but also for its food. Italian cuisine has developed through centuries of social and political changes with its origins as far as the 4th century BCE. Italian cuisine has evolved from Etruscan (name for ancient Italy), ancient Greek and ancient Roman cuisines. With the discovery of new countries, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and maize were introduced in the 18th century. Italian food is noted for its regional diversity resulting in variety of tastes and is quite popular all over the world. Italian cuisine is also distinguished by being very seasonal with high priority placed on the use of fresh, seasonal products.
Italian food is known for its simplicity, with many dishes having only four to eight ingredients. In 2013, Italian cuisine was ranked by CNN as the best cuisine in the world. Widely known products such as Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese, Parma and San Daniele ham, Modena balsamic vinegar, Genoa’s pesto, Alba truffles and cured meats are just some of the examples that make Italian cuisine so popular. Italy’s wine is also world famous. One can taste a glass of wine in its native environment like Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany, Barbera or Barolo from Piedmont, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene in Veneto, Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna, the Sicilian wines or the white wines in Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige and the great red wine of the Valtellina. The Ancient Greeks used to call Italy, “Enotria’’ in reference to its production of extraordinary wines.
A Mediterranean food is known for its health benefits, thanks to olive oil. The Italian landscape is home to green olive groves where high-quality olive oils are produced. The most commonly used vegetables in a typical Italian cuisine are tomatoes, garlic, bell peppers (capsicum),onions, egg plants, cabbage, artichokes, fennel, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and lettuce. All these ingredients are used in pasta dishes, pizza, soups and antipasti (appetizers). Extra virgin olive oil (golden-green, richly flavoured oil) is used for cooking marinades, hot dishes and salad dressings. Legumes (beans, peas and lentils) are most popular food throughout Italy. In the Tuscany region, beans are favourite, as Tuscans are fondly known as the ‘’bean eaters’’. Commonly eaten beans are chickpeas, green beans and cannellini beans. Cheese is a traditional favourite among all the Italians. Some of the most popular types of cheese are Parmesan, mozzarella, gorgonzola, ricotta and Romano. It is used in making pizza, sprinkled over pasta dishes, tossed in salads or even eaten with fruit as a dessert.
Instead of using spices, Italians use fresh or dried herbs like flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary and oregano. Salt, vinegar, freshly cracked pepper, garlic, capers, olives, anchovies and sun-dried tomatoes are used as seasonings. Wine and lemon juices are also common flavour enhancers. Among common beverages, wine is customary with meals and coffee, especially espresso is the most popular non-alcoholic beverage. As I said in the beginning that Italy is known for its regional dishes, here’s the list of some popular dishes of various regions:
This region is famous for maccheroni alla chitarra (homemade pasta cut on a machine with thin steel blades) and scrippelle (thin strips of pasta dipped in soup). Best wines are Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Sangiovese and Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo. These wines are popular among locals as well as national/international wine lovers. Famous desserts, usually made with almonds and honey include torrone, confetti, cicerchiata, mostaccioli and bocconotto.
A typical food of this region is made simply by using a few local products. The most common food is durum wheat homemade pasta, kneaded with ancient tools like the rasola (a blade) and the cavarola (chopping board). It is famous for its hot pepper (pepperoncino), the symbol of cuisine in Basilicata, locally known as diavolicchio (little devil). There are two popular dishes that are made with bread, panella (big bread loaves made with flour and boiled potatoes) and pancotto (a soup with toasted bread and eggs).
Famous for wines, extra-virgin olive oil, liquorice, honey and jams and special types of homemade pasta (strangugghj, fileja, maccaruni) that are still made using traditional methods.
Thanks to its sunny weather, this region’s landscape is perfect for the production of fresh and juicy tomatoes. Tomatoes are used in many local dishes and also in the world famous pizza and calzone. Naples, the capital city of Campania, is the homeland of Italian spaghetti. Famous desserts are crispy sfogliatelle with ricotta cheese and babas soaked in (rum) liqueur. In liquors, limoncello of Sorrento and Campanian wines are best.
5. Friuli Venezia Giulia
The cuisine consists of simple recipes and ingredients like meat, dairy products, sausages and legumes. A well-known product is Prosciutto of San Daniele,that is also exported worldwide. Famous dessert is called gubana, a shell of pastry stuffed with dried fruit.
Say Ligurian food,and the famous pesto comes to mind. Pesto is a sauce made with pine nuts, parmesan, pecorino, basil and garlic. The place has vineyards and olive groves that produce excellent extra-virgin olive oils and quality wines. Among the fish dishes, fish soups like ciuppin and buridda with stockfish, stuffed and fried sardines. The traditional desserts are pandolce genovese, amaretti and cubeli (tiny butter cookies).
7. The Marches
This region is unique as it blends the flavours and tastes from the whole region. Most delicious fish dish is brodetto, a fish soup containing more than 14 fish species, that is often enhanced with tomatoes (Pesaro and Ancona) or saffron (Ascoli). Signature dish is called as fritto misto all’ ascolana that is a mixture of stuffed cream, olives, artichokes, zucchini and lamb chops-all fried. Most famous desserts are ciambellotto con i funghetti all’anice (a ring-shaped cake with aniseed), cicerchiata (deep fried dough with honey) and fried ravioli stuffed with chestnuts, cream and ricotta cheese.
This agricultural land’s cuisine is completely based on locally-grown products and sheep farming. A typical Molise dish will consist of maccheroni alla chitarra, pallotte (round balls) of eggs and cheese, pasta and beans, polenta,lamb and roast turcinelli (lamb offal).
The area’s best products are the extra-virgin olive oil,durum wheat pasta and Isernia truffle. The most delicious desserts are cauciuni (pastry filled with chickpeas), ostie farcite (wafers filled with walnuts and almonds), peccellate (pastry filled with grape syrup or jams) and cippillati (baked ravioli filled with sour black cherries).
This region is known for its pastries that are mainly prepared with ricotta cheese and almond paste. Juicy red oranges and the sweet grapes of Canicatti, Pachino tomatoes and Pantelleria capers,extra-virgin olive oil,prickly pears and the olives of Nocellara del Belice are some of the excellent products that distinguish Sicilian food. Famous for cheeses like Ragusano and pecorino; tasty sausages, like Sant’Angelo salami and the different types of crispy breads like the loaves of Dittaino, Sicily will leave your taste buds asking for more.
Basic ingredients of this region include bread, spelt, legumes and vegetables. Cacciucco soup is a famous fish dish here and among meat dishes, the bistecca fiorentina (grilled T-bone steak) is most popular. Typical desserts are castagnaccio (chestnut cake), buccellato (anise cake) and cantucci.
Irrespective of the regions, there are two more staples of the Italian food.
11. Pesto Genovese – the Sauce
This world famous green sauce is prepared with ingredients like basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan, salt and extra virgin olive oil. Its creamy layer and unique flavour is perfect with pasta and potato gnocchi.
12. Gelato: Italian ice cream
The gelato that is loved by the world today has its origins in the 16th Century when it was invented in Medicean Florence by mixing milk, cream and eggs. It is famous because of its traditional flavours and healthy ingredients. It is chemical-free and always prepared with appropriate proportion of proteins, fats and sugars.
Earlier in India, Italian cuisine just meant pasta with lots of red sauce and white sauce or a regular slice of pizza with cheese. But thanks to many Italian restaurants in India, one has many options to choose from, so here’s the list of best Italian restaurants in India and some of their popular dishes:
Artusi Ristorante E Bar
Prawn and Avocado Salad, Caprese Salad and Battuta di Pollo.
Classic dishes like Caprese Salad, Minestrone and Spaghetti Aglio Olio E Peperoncino.
Diva The Italian
Famous Indian chef Ritu Dalmia’s Diva is one of the oldest Italian eateries in Delhi. Popular dishes are Beetroot Carpaccio with Sesame Crusted Goat Cheese, Spagheeti with seafood and Spinach Ravioli with Roasted Pumpkin.
Peri Peri Chicken, Nutella Marble Cake and Chocolate Truffle Cake.
Maritime By San Lorenzo
Carpaccio di Salmone and Focaccia Tartufata are popular dishes.
Thin crust pizzas (made in the traditional wood-fired oven technique), Spaghetti Alio Olio, Chicken Lasagne and Porcini Soup with Truffle Oil, Chocolate Mousse and Tiramisu (desserts).
Carpaccio, Asparagus salad, Caprese Salad, Tagliatelle tossed with Wild Mushrooms and Tortelloni of Ricotta and Spinach in a Tomato Sauce.
Vegetarian Lasagna, Gnocchi with Sage Butter and Tortellini with Spinach and Ricotta.
Famous for salads, pastas, soups, pizzas and paninos; beverages like Lavazza-brewed hot and cold coffees;Giardino Pizza, Spaghetti Aglio and Gnocchi E Pesto.
Try starters like the European Branzino Fillet with Mediterranean Salsa and Breaded Eggplant Parmigiana. Spicy Pork Salami, Via Milano pizza and Chicken Tortelloni with Mushrooms are other popular dishes.