History

Italian cuisine has been changing over the centuries. Although the country known as Italy today had not officially formed until 1870, the cuisine can claim roots going back as far as 4th century BC. Through various influences throughout the centuries, including neighboring regions, conquerors, high-profile chefs, political upheavals as well as the discovery of the New World, a concrete cuisine has formed to what is known today as one of the premiere cuisines in the world.

The first known Italian food writer was from Sicily, a Greek man, who lived in Syracuse in the 4th century BCE. His writing was a poem that spoke of using "top quality and seasonal" ingredients of the fresh nature. He mentioned that the flavors of the dishes should not be masked by spices, herbs, or other seasonings with an importance put upon this style of preparation for fish. This style of cuisine seemed to be forgotten during the 1st century AD when De Re Coquinaria was published with 470 recipes included many with heavy usage of spices, herbs which would hide much of the natural flavor of the dish. The Romans employed the best Greek bakers to produce their breads, imported pecorini from Sicily as the Sicilians were known for being the best cheese makers. The Romans were also known for rearing of goats for butchering, and gardening of artichokes and leeks.

A cuisine developed in Sicily that some consider the first real Italian cuisine. Muslims invaded Sicily during the 9th century. The Arabs introduced spinach, almonds and rice and the spaghetti made its possible first appearance during the 12th century AD when the Norman invader king made a survey of Sicily and noted that he saw people making long strings made from flour and water called atriya, which eventually became trii which is another term used for spaghetti in southern Italy. Normans also introduced casseroling, salt cod (baccalà) and stockfish which remain extremely popular today. Food preservation techniques were a necessity: preservation was either chemical or physical. Meats and fish would be smoked, dried or kept on ice. Brine and salt were used to preserve items like pickles, herring and to cure pork meat. Root vegetables were also preserved in brine after they had been parboiled. Other items used to preserve foods included oil, vinegar or immersing animal proteins in their own congealed, rendered fat. For preserving fruits, liquor, honey and sugar were used. The northern regions to show a mix of Gallic, Germanic and Roman culture while the southern portion continued to reflect the influences of Arab culture as they controlled much of the Mediterranean trade routes, as such much of the Mediterranean cuisine had been spread by the Arab trade.

The oldest Italian book on cuisine is Liber de coquina written in Naples during the 13th century. It was for normal day cooking book. During the 15th century Maestro Martino was chef to the Patriarch of Aquileia at the Vatican. His manuscript Libro de arte coquinaria describes a more refined and elegant cuisine. His book contains a recipe for Maccaroni Siciliani which was made by wrapping dough around a thin iron rod and dried in the sun. The macaroni was to be cooked in capon stock flavored with saffron, illustrating the Arab influence. Of particularly note is Martino`s shedding the use of excessive spices in favor of fresh herbs. The Roman recipes mentioned in the text includes recipes for cabbage dishes. His Florentine dishes included eggs with a Bolognese torta, Senese torta and for Genoese recipes such as macaroni, squash, mushrooms, and spinach pie with onions. Martino`s manuscript was included in a book printed during 1475 in Venice written by Bartolomeo Platina entitled De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health"). Platina puts Martino`s "Libro" in regional context, writing about ingredients coming from the regions, including perch from Lake Maggiore, sardines from Lake Garda, grayling from Adda, hens from Padua, olives from Bologna and Piceno, turbot from Ravenna, rudd from Lake Trasimeno, carrots from Viterbo, bass from Tiber, roviglioni and shad from Lake Albano, snails from Rieti, figs from Tuscolo, grapes from Narni, oil from Cassino, oranges from Naples and moray from Campania. Grains from Lombardy and Campania are also mentioned as is honey from Sicily and Taranto. The wines he mentions are from the Ligurian coast, Grecco from Tuscany and San Severino and Trebbiano from Tuscany and Piceno.

The excellent courts of Florence, Rome, Venice, Mantua and Ferrara were part of the creation of fine cooking in Italy. The court of Estes in Ferrara was a central figure to the creation of this cuisine. Christoforo Messisbugo, steward to Ippolito d`Este, published Banchetti Composizioni di Vivande in 1549. In this work Messisbugo gives recipes for items such as pies and tarts. The work does emphasize the use of Eastern spices and sugar, whose use was otherwise diminishing. In 1570 Opera was written by Bartolomeo Scappi personal chef to Pope Pius V. It was a huge piece of work, that gave the most comprehensive detail of Italian cooking up to the period. The work contained over 1,000 recipes, with information on banquets including displays and menus as well as illustrations of kitchen and table utensils. Recipes are also included how to clean and use lesser cuts of meats including tongue, head, and shoulder. The third book contains recipes for fish , or Lent cookery. Preparations for fish are simple including poaching, broiling, grilled, or fried after being marinated. Particular attention is given to seasons in which fish should be caught and in which location. The final volume includes pies, tarts, fritters and includes a recipe for a Neapolitan pizza. This version of the Neapolitan pizza is not the savory version known today, it was instead a sweet version as tomatoes had not yet been introduced to Italy. There were recipes for corn and turkey however, which were items from the New World.

During the first decade of the 17th century chef Giangiacomo Castelvetro published Brieve Racconto di Tutte le Radici di Tutte l`Herbe et di Tutti i Frutti (A Brief Account of all Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit) which was translated into English by Gillian Riley.The book included a listing of Italian vegetables and fruits as well as their preparation. The main preparation was to boil vegetables in salted water and serving them warm or cold with olive oil, salt, fresh ground pepper, lemon juice or orange juice. Another preparation includes roasting vegetables wrapped in damp paper over charcoal or embers with a drizzle of olive oil, again a technique still used. The book was separated into seasons with mentions of hop shoots in the spring and truffles in the winter, detailing the truffle search with the use of pigs.

In 1662 Bartolomeo Stefani chef to Gonzagas published L`Arte di Ben Cucinare. He was the last chef to publish a book of Italian cuisine, but the first to offer a full section on vitto ordinario ("ordinary food"). The book contained a section on a banquet given by Gonzagas for Queen Christina of Sweden with details for preparation prior to the banquet, preparation of the food and table settings including each guest having a setting of a knife, fork, spoon, glass, a plate instead of bowls often used up to this point and a napkin. Other books were published at this time to illustrate how waiter should manage themselves while serving their guests. The book instructed waiters to not scratch their heads or other parts of themselves, not to spit, cough or sneeze while serving diners. The book also instructed diners to not use their fingers while eating as well as not wipe their sweat with their napkin.

Until 18th century Italy today was still governed by France, Spain and Austria. The books written started to show nationalism and were also no longer addressed to professional chefs but to bourgeois housewives. Originating in booklet form, periodicals such as La cuoca cremonese (The cook of Cremona) written in 1794 gives a sequence of ingredients according to season along with chapters on meat, fish and vegetables. As the century progressed these books increased in size, popularity and frequency. The 18th century peasant diet consisted of heavy foods, necessary in an age where food was required to produce energy for the daily toil. Medical texts of the time warned peasants from eating refined foods as it was poor for their digestion and their bodies required a heavy meal to satisfy their hunger. It was also thought that peasants had coarse stomachs which were unable to digest refined foods and it was believed by some that peasants ate poorly because they were accustomed to eating poorly, resulting from the fact that many peasants had to resort to eating rotten foods and moldy breads in order to survive. In 1779 was published a book Il Cuoco Maceratese (The Cook of Macerata). In this book was pointed out the importance of local vegetables plus pasta and gnocchi. Instead of pureed soups in the French style, they included Mediterranean vegetables along with pasta or rice. In the same time was published a vegetarian book: "Pitagoric food consists of fresh herbs, roots, flowers, fruits, seeds and all that is produced in the earth for our nourishment". It was also this book that the tomato took its first central role with thirteen recipes. Zuppa alli Pomidoro first appears; it is a dish similar to today`s Tuscan Pappa al Pomodoro. In Corrado`s 1798 edition he introduced a "Treatise on the Potato" after the approval of France through Antoine-Augustin Parmentier`s successful promotion.

In the 19th century chef Giovanni Vialardi, chef to the first king of Italy, in his book A Treatise of Modern Cookery and Patisserie Vialardi wrote on recipes "suitable for a modest household." Many of his recipes included regional dishes from Turin including twelve recipes for potatoes Genoese Cappon Magro, still a regional dish today. Gian Battista and Giovanni Ratto published La Cucina Genovese in 1871 and addressed the regional cuisine of Liguria. This book contained the first recipe for pesto. La Cucina Teorico-Pratica written by Ippolito Cavalcanti mentions the first recipe for pasta with tomatoes. La scienza in cucina e l`arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), by Pellegrino Artusi, first published in 1891, is widely regarded as the canon of classic modern Italian cuisine, and its use is still widespread throughout Italy. Its recipes come mainly from Romagna and Tuscany, the regions where he was born and raised and where he subsequently lived.