What Is Italian Food?

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Some crops on a small piece of land on the Latella farm in Calabria

Italian Food – What is It?

Ask the question, “What is Italian food” and you’re bound to illicit numerous responses.   A provincial Italian from southern Italy who hasn’t left his or her region would probably argue it’s regional food that is cooked at home with minimal yet high quality ingredients.   Ask the same question to a savvy New York restaurant and food type and you’re bound to hear a more complicated answer centered on using regional, US based, ingredients with an eye towards experimentation.  When you pose the question to folks outside of Italy and the major food cities in the United States you’ll most likely hear responses such as:  pasta with meatballs, pizza, chicken cutlets, lasagna, etc.  Are all these answers correct?

When I ask myself the same question, my head goes spinning and I ultimately give up on trying to provide an adequate answer.  For example, food types like pasta and pizza were unheard of in Italy until the early 20th century. Specifically, pizza, as we understand it, didn’t make its appearance in Italy until the late 1890’s (in Naples) and thereafter it took years to spread outside of Campania.  Pasta has the same history in Italy, served first as street food in and around Naples and then becoming gourmet food reserved for the elite, only to finally become a mass market food with the introduction of dried pasta and factory production.

Italians, for most of their history, looked outside of their small peninsula and, for example, gravitated towards French inspired foods in the 19th century and shunned regional cooking as the literal cucina povera not worthy of noble and elite tongues.  Move the calendar up a 100 years or so and Italian food is respected throughout the world and the basic, and most important factor of Italian cooking, is generally being accepted and understood; namely, Italian food is centered on regional dishes comprised of simple, yet high quality, ingredients.   In Calabria, Italian food is baby goat, expertly butchered, and pan simmered with tomatoes, parsley, onions, and a few potatoes or a piece of swordfish cooked with lemon zest, red onions, and vinegar.  In a fine New York City Italian restaurant, a typical dish may be a risotto made with chicken stock, exotic mushrooms, a bit of saffron, butter, Parmigiano Reggiano, and whipped cream (with an emphasis on gilding the lily).  In the home kitchen of a 2nd or 3rd generation Italian American, a typical dish may be lasagna made with many meats and various cheeses sourced from a large supermarket.

In turn,  Italian food varies greatly and this is especially true in Italy where regional cooking is truly unique.  For example, in Calabria, you’ll find recipes for fresh anchovies varying from village to village with great pride taken in which preparation is proper for the main ingredients (this idea is highlighted in the many food festivals <or sagre> found in the South where each village highlights their special way of making eggplant, potatoes, swordfish, etc.).  In the United States (and both in restaurant and home kitchens) we see a more standardized approach to preparing Italian food and most likely a result of lack of ingredients and knowledge.  There are exceptions, such as the home kitchens of immigrant Italians and the very best Italian restaurants with unlimited budgets for ingredients and brainy head chefs with deep knowledge of Italian cooking as prepared on the Continent.

For our purposes, as home cooks, Italian food should always be about the ingredients and the process of minimally manipulating the ingredients found in a given dish.  Preparing tomato sauce, for example should always be about good tomatoes (period).  We shouldn’t, if we can help it, add butter, carrots, chicken stock, red wine, or any other unnecessary ingredient to a tomato sauce recipe.  We shouldn’t because when we cook Italian food we ought to gently close our eyes and imagine how Nonna, back in the mid 20th century was preparing a simple pan tomato sauce. Namely, she most likely had some red onions, tomatoes, and olive oil from her small plot of land (either sharecropped from a wealthy land owner or owned outright if she was lucky).  She most likely had dried oregano and sea salt and cooked the tomatoes and onions quickly in a pan and tossed a small amount of dried pasta in the same pan cooking the sauce.  The process was simple and a byproduct of the region and environment around her.  We should aim to emulate Nonna’s cooking in our own home kitchens because the traditions surrounding regional Italian food should be honored and preserved because there’s something to be said when the people of a  particular spot on the planet do the same thing with their food for long periods of time (this idea centers not only on preservation and understanding food history, but on the beauty of Italian culture).

So, we won’t yell at you for adding whipped cream to your risotto or wanting to experiment with ingredients found in your region of the United States when preparing Italian food, but we ask you to always keep in mind a fundamental question:  What is, and ought to be, Italian food?  And, yes, we’ll always give you a hug for cooking, from scratch, food in your kitchen (you are to be applauded for that)!

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  • Dr. K

    This is a fascinating topic on which endless debate could be had.  And in fact, we have debated these issues at length very recently!  Opinions may vary greatly, as you mentioned.  The argument that true Italian tomato sauce should consist of tomatoes, red onion, dried oregano, and salt (but throw some garlic in there please!) is one side of that debate.  But what if you live somewhere where they don’t grow tomatoes or you can’t get good tomatoes?  Sure, it’s not hard to find good quality canned tomatoes, including those grown in Italy.  But would Nonna have done that in Italy?  Shipped tomatoes in from thousands of miles away?  Chances are, she wouldn’t have bothered making tomato sauce if that was the option available to her.  I can’t grow olives here in the Northeast.  I love good olive oil, but it all necessarily comes from somewhere else.  But what if I’ve got some home-rendered duck fat (which is not uncommonly referred to as “liquid gold” in culinary circles) from a locally raised pastured duck, raised naturally without subtherapeutic antibiotics or growth hormones?  Would it be so wrong if I sauteed the onions and garlic in that instead of using olive oil imported from another continent?  What would Nonna do?  (I don’t have a Nonna, so it’s a legitimate question!)  Bear in mind that much of the bastardized Italian-American dishes that represent “Italian food” to so many arose out of necessity, as poor Italian immigrants did the best in their new homes in America to try to recreate their cooking with whatever ingredients they could obtain or afford.  

    Furthermore, it is no surprise that good food and good cooking begin with good ingredients.  But the goal of any cooking should be to do whatever it takes to coax out the best possible flavors and textures of those ingredients so that they are used to their maximum potential.  For example, I could boil or steam sweet potatoes (and sometimes I do, depending on the purpose).  Throwing a whole sweet potato into a pot of boiling water might represent the minimum degree of ingredient manipulation.  However, if I really want to evoke the full flavor and essence of a sweet potato, I’m going to chop them, coat them in oil, season them with salt and pepper and maybe some spice (cumin, fennel, or pimenton for example), and roast them with dry heat, to cook them to tenderness in the middle while caramelizing the exterior for sweetness and crispiness.  This takes a longer time and represents a greater degree of manipulation, but it’s the best way to honor that sweet potato.  

    Similarly, going back to that tomato sauce, you can simply sweat the onion in the oil for about five minutes before adding the other ingredients.  But, if you have time and patience, what if you cook those onions in the oil gently for a longer period of time?  You begin to caramelize those onions, and you will be rewarded with a tomato sauce that is far sweeter than what you would have otherwise.  It’s more manipulation, but the reward may be worth the effort.  So while I agree with you that honoring and preserving culinary traditions is important, it is also important that cooking techniques not be unnecessarily curtailed simply to honor the past.  I’m not saying everyone should add whipped cream to their risotto or start adding microgastronomy, foams, and liquid nitrogen to their repertoire, or replace all their cookbooks with “Modernist Cuisine.”  But most cooks would argue that in an ideal world (for example, not rushing to throw something on the table in 15 minutes or less), cooking techniques should be employed to bring the best out of those ingredients that you so carefully procured.  Sometimes it might take a little extra manipulation.  You might find yourself getting fancy once in a while.  You might find yourself making that tomato sauce a little differently than Nonna would have.  But she’d probably approve.

    • scordo

      Hi Dr. K.,

      Thanks so much for the insightful comments, as always.

      The short answer to the tomato sauce question would be to not make tomato sauce.  Would I saute onions in duck fat instead of olive oil?  The simple answer is probably not.  My mouth and food tradition is already conditioned and committed so I’d probably reject making tomato sauce with duck fat as the base for cooking down the onions (not because it’s inherently wrong but because it’s not part of my food tradition, just like it’s not inherently wrong to put honey on a hot dog though you’d expect mustard or ketchup).  In fact, my mind rejected duck fat even before I could taste it in a tomato sauce recipe because of the deep connections I have my memory associated with olive oil, tomato sauce, onion, etc.  Maybe this is literally being closed minded, but it’s more likely a result of some serious biological conditioning.   

      On immigrants using whatever was available in their new country to make dishes like home, I understand the argument but ask any recent immigrant if they really want to replace an ingredient they’re used to with a substitute and they’ll all cringe and unapologetically say, “no!”  .  We replace ingredients in a given dish because we cook what we know even when all the parts of a dish aren’t available.       

      On the idea of minimal manipulation, this notion is really centered on the quality of ingredient(s).  Take the tomato, for example, of which we’re finding better and better representations here in the US, including the varieties found in home gardens.  However, I can objectively say the tomatoes grown in regions like Calabria, Sicilia, Campania are nothing like the varieties found in the United States (from a purely taste perspective).  A tomato from Calabria, for example, needs nothing but salt.  If you want to increase the pleasure factor then add olive oil and basil.  Would I slowly roast those same tomatoes to increase the sugar content and maximize flavor?  The short answer is no because it’s unnecessary and changes what a fresh tomato ought to be, namely a “fresh” tomato (I think you can extend this argument to the sweet potato).  

      Re: caramelized onions.   Again, I think this changes the idea of a paradigm tomato sauce (and maybe that’s the issue given that we believe there are certain dishes that ought to be prepared in a given manner given the stature of high quality ingredients).  If you caramelize onions, for example, and then add them to a tomato sauce recipe I’d argue you’re getting too much onion flavor into the recipe.  If we’re talking about making tomato sauce then let’s feature and respect the tomato, if the tomato isn’t going to be king in the dish (because of quality issues or maybe because the cook is trying to make an onion/tomato sauce) then I think it’s ok to feature more onion flavor in a tomato sauce recipe).  

      Our two cents, as always!  This is a fascinating topic with no real right or wrong answers just opinions informed from personal experience.  For us, the personal experience is the food in Calabria (this is our basis for our argument on what Italian food is); as our son in 40 years what Italian food is and he’ll have a very different answer (will his answer be wrong or not appropriate, I’m not sure but it will be different than the Italian food which originated in the peasant kitchens of Calabria throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  

      • Vittoria Piroli

        Hi Vincent, I just discovered your site and am thrilled! I too am Calabrese, born there and immigrated to Toronto, Canada with my parents in 1966. I grew up in the kitchen with my mom and have been making homemade pasta, sausage, and all the other wonderful dishes created by my mom since the age of 7. I am proud of all the things she passed down to me including making one of the best pasta sauces ever! I was not given a written recipe to go by, it was simply the art of watching how it was done and today if someone asked me for a recipe, I cannot write down the correct amounts because I do it by eye and taste.
        I love your response to the Dr., couldn’t have been said better. Thank you so much for your site.

        • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

          Thank you, Vittoria, for the nice words and visiting the site! if you can share our site with your friends we’d love that and please join us on Facebook (see the button on our homepage).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003143235782 Ita Liana

    Another great article Vince…I can never decide where to respond here or on your facebook page!? You have a great knowledge and humble philosophy which I love and share! Btw, in an attempt to capture and preserve the essence of Italian cooking, and that great and simple “pan tomato sauce” our nonna’s prepared so well!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4zdryxqVbs&feature=plcp&context=C4abc4eeVDvjVQa1PpcFPIW_U4-eHwrlaEoE8b9XEUhvkUBAEqa5A%3D
    Buon Appetito!

    • scordo

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Beatriz Tavares

    Hi! I found out your site at Gnocchi-ai-Funghi-recipe-exchange-club and I commented your article there…not a very smart thing to do but I really don’t understand much about facebook and its protocoles…I’m only in facebook because my friends insisted so much I couldn’t stand it anymore. I also don’t have any site or blog…just a e-mail…But I’m improving…projects like yours or like Memorie di Angelina makes it worthy…Thank you!

    • scordo

      Hi Beatriz,

      We’re honored you left a reply here and glad you like Scordo.com If there’s a recipe or article you’d like to see please let us know.

      Vince

    • scordo

      Beatriz, thank you for the kind words.  Frank at Memorie di Angelina has a wonderful site and great recipes!

  • Iamnotachooch

     

    Great question.  It won’t definitively answer anything but here’s my two cents:

    What if we
    were to say that Italian food is simply the food of the people of Italy?  And would it narrow it too much to further
    say it is the traditional regional foods and approaches practiced in Italy?  To me it seems that Italian food is the
    product of a particular sensibility, and that this sensibility is most reliably
    found in Italy.

     

    From this point of view Italian-American food is not Italian
    food, nor is the food of some experimentally oriented “Italian” restaurant in NYC.   This is not to say these two are necessarily
    less delicious or desirable than Italian food, but simply to better distinguish
    them from it.  And the real source of this distinction is that they are different
    sensibilities from the Italian.

     

    This does not deny their clear relationships to Italian
    food.   Italian-American I would call a descendent of [some]
    Italian food, or we could say it evolved from it.  And the lily-gilding places are…shall we say
    inspired by it?  But neither of these are
    it.  You might find some Italian things
    on the menu, but the overall sensibility is not Italian. Not to mention all the places that are so dumbed down as to bear NO relationship to Italian, except in name only.

     

    In fact, I think it is a supreme irony that in the US (where I live), a
    country with almost endless “Italian” restaurants, it can be surprisingly
    difficult to find an actual Italian restaurant.   And no,
    this is not because I have lived in restaurant-deprived areas.  Quite the contrary.

     

    Fascinating question, and in the end probably impossible to
    answer definitively in any objective sense. 
    But fun to think about.

    • scordo

      Excellent comment and very insightful views.  I think you are correct, specifically, on the fact that we have many “Italian” restaurants in the US but very few actual Italian restaurants (in fact, we think it’s very hard to eat Italian “out” and never do so – even leaving within minutes of the restaurant capital of the US – NYC).  

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  • Beatriz Tavares

    As a Portuguese woman I shouldn’t be very worried about what is Italian Food. But que question of what is a national food, how to describe it and how to distinguish it from other national foods has always interested me…Food and nacionality seem to be instrinsicaly related but sometimes I suspect that is an artificial relation.Even in a small country as Portugal, known to be the elder country of Europe, I observe so many culinary identities…Italy compared to Portugal is a very young country and a larger one…Italian language and italian nation are not easy issues…The reunification of Italy is recent history…
    My father is portuguese from Lisbon, my mother is brazilian from Minas Gerais, her mother was italian from Rocca Gloriosa, her father was portuguese from Minho. Emigrants. In Portugal, the food of Minho (North) is totally different from the food of the south. In Brasil, the food from Minas Gerais is totally different from the food of Bahia, for instance, In Italy the food from Rocca Gloriosa is eventually totally diferent from the food of Milan…In spite of the regional diferences, the interesting thing about food is its universal language…And it is important to understand what’s common in every food
    Most of our grandmothers and their grandmothers couldn’t write, the roads where very bad, transportation was difficult, telephone was a luxury, comercial transactions were local…Each region had it’s own food. Recipe books were rare…Each recipe was transmitted from mother to daughter orally…That helped to preserve the authenticity and the uniqueness of a local food…Specially the authenticity and uniquess of the family food…Home cooked food is always unique from home to home…But work, literacy levels, cook books,and the development of comunications and internet had consequences in this process…Paradoxically, sites like yours will help preserve our grandmother’s food culture 

    • scordo

      Thank you, Beatriz!

    • David S

      Italy is a young country politically not culturally, and it’s reunification matters little to recipes handed down within families etc . . actually it is a very old culture as is the country itself. Those ancient ways are tied more together by family than nationality, which is a relatively a more recent construct. The concept of nationalism is recent phenomena and has not much influence on the cuisine . . which is still a patchwork of different territories -and so evident in Italy is the fact that the geographic location is what determines mostly all of what people eat, and reliance on traditions that arose in conjunction with that location is culture; nationalism is too far removed from this equation and irrelevant. I think My Sordo is addressing far too common a mindset of people in the USA who like overly simplified, curt, short labels for things . Italian Food . . .what a misnomer . . perhaps in the style of Italy -what part of Italy is more like it.

      • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

        Agreed with your basic premise and I certainly acknowledge the microregionality of the Italian culture (including regional food traditions). However, Italy is changing from a food and cultural perspective (like much of the Western world Italy is starting to “eat” the same and, in many ways, behave as a “whole” To many people the aforementioned in a negative thing, especially if it means loosing how Italians, for example, eat differently from province to province.

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  • Joann Fanzo VanHorn

    My grandparents were from Italy.  The only things I remember my Grammy making were macaroni and meatballs and salad for dinner. Some non-sweet cake and hard dough “pretzels” –dadelles.  I do remember an Easter basket made out of dough, kind of bland dough, with eggs that became hard-boiled when she baked it.   That’s it!  

    • scordo

      Hi Joann,

      Thanks for the comment. When did your grandparents come to the US? Of course, not all Italian families cook in the same way. My grandmother, for example, had a much smaller cooking repertoire then my mother (both Italian immigrants). And, as a further example, I’m cooking more Italian dishes (spanning both southern and northern Italian cuisine) then both my grandmother and mother.

      Do you cook lots?

      Vince

    • Vittoria Piroli

      I feel sorry for you that you didn’t enjoy the foods that I truly enjoyed growing up Italian. You missed out a lot.

  • Frank @Memorie di Angelins

    Great post, Vincent. You know I’m all for Nonna’s cooking!

    And I never eat out Italian. Why pay a bundle for food I could make at home, only better?

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Hi Frank

      Thank you! If there’s anyone I know who would agree it would be you!

      I remember, as a small child, when folks asked my dad to name some of his favorite Italian restaurants he would turn to my mother and say, “why would I need to go out, when the food is so much better at home”

      Vince

      • Vittoria Piroli

        I never order italian when eating out because it is always a dissappointment.

        • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

          Indeed, same on our end.

    • WILLOBIE

      I feel the same way. Italian American restaurants cater to American tastes by serving huge portions, so it is impossible to dine on courses. If you have a pasta dish, the meat dish will also have a ‘side’ of indifferent pasta. Exceptions? President Obama’s favorite Chicago restaurant, Spaggia, is a notable example. Italian regional is the key.

  • aztec69

    Italian is a language, not a food. I’m in the process of writing what was supposed to be a review of an Calabrian restaurant I ate at in north San Diego last week. It now looks more like a book with reviews of restaurants I’ve eaten at on five continents over the last sixty-five years. So much pasta. So much love.

  • ra

    In Italy you can find different ways of prepare food every 60 kilometers. It is really different from south to the centre to the north, In other words there are tousands of italian recipes not only generically Italian food. Unfortunately i see that the most known remains only the cliche about us italins and very often recipes from south Italy.

  • Chandan Cm

    How do you judge Pizza? (does it have authentic taste or not)