The profoundly civilizing influences of
Italian kitchens and table manners touch almost everyone. Even a brief
examination of Italian cuisine offers convincing evidence that Italy's
mission of civilizing the world may have had its deepest impact on
All of this seemed to have been predicted in 100 C.E., when Pliny the
Elder claimed Italy "mother of all nations with a mission to civilize
mankind" and 1,200 years later, Dante, too, spoke of a politically united
Italy that would have a "special place as the sacred garden of
Christendom." The universalism of Imperial Rome was one thing, but the
sense of unity and mission collapsed with the Western Empire in the late
When the Romans conquered the Greeks in 197 C.E., they enlarged their
empire and profoundly enriched their culture in the form of arts and
architecture, literature and philosophy. Greek became more than ever
before the language of the literate and the language of international
trade. Therefore, educated Romans, unlike the Greeks and unlike most early
peoples, had to learn to use a second language.
Early Romans had learned to evaporate seawater to provide salt for their
sheep and this skill became a profitable export to the Greeks in the South
and the Etruscans in the North. In fact, the valuable salt exports
increased with the expansion of the Roman Empire, but the language of
trade was Greek.
Despite the many tales of exotic, gargantuan Roman feasts, all classes of
early Romans valued frugality and simplicity and nowhere were these values
more evident than in their food customs. Wheat, the staple food, was
served at jentaculum (the early light meal) in the form of wheat pancakes,
biscuits or breads, then served again at cena (the main meal) in the form
of a boiled gruel or porridge. Milk, honey olives, and dates would
accompany the main dish at either meal. Sometimes the wealthy would add gustato or
promulsio - hors d'oeuvres of salads, radishes, mushrooms,
eggs, oysters, or sardines - to the basic typical meal, and desserts of
honeyed cakes and fruits would complete the special meal.
While puls or pulmentum was the staple porridge-like dish for all, early
Romans also enjoyed cottage cheese, the use of iron kettles to boil their
mutton, types of dumplings called gnocchi, even omelets and cheesecakes.
Some of the earliest Roman kitchens made knowing use of bakery molds, cutting knives and round chopping knives, cooking spoons and measuring spoons, mortar and pestle. Small portable brick
ovens were used for
keeping foods hot in
the dining area. An
arrangement of one pot inside another and set in hot water
was used to keep other foods warm
but not cooking.
There can be little
doubt that this latter
technique was the
forerunner of the
and the western double boiler.
Dishes chilled with snow, vessels treated with pitch to keep foods cool,
inspectors to check the freshness of meats in butcher shops, commercial
bakers, and even commercially prepared seasonings were all familiar. Garum
or liquamen was one such seasoning prepared from fish and salt; defrutum
was a syrup made from wine and honey or grapes and honey; agrodolce (said
to have been developed by Apicius) was a sweet-sour sauce prepared in many
ways. Honey and vinegar were widely used but so was silphium or
laserpitium, a prized flavoring prepared from asafetida (a sour-tasting
spice with a strong aroma used in Indian cookery).
By 200 C.E. all these foods, seasonings, and techniques were commonplace
for the Romans. Gradually the commercial bakeries became so widespread and
dependable that all but the very poor relied on them for fresh daily baked
goods. Those who could not afford to buy breads relied on the old gruels
and porridges. Small stones pressed into larger concave stones probably
represent the earliest forms of grinding, to be followed by mortar and
pestle, but it was about 200 C.E. that a small hand mill called a mola
versatilis or quern became a prized item in Roman kitchens.
Apples were plentiful and popular but it took later conquests to bring the
taste (and the plants) for cherry trees home from Asia. Apricots and
peaches were brought from Armenia and Persia, melons from both Persia and
areas of North Africa, and dates from Africa. Rome's returning Asiatic
armies also brought back sophisticated ideas of seasoning and tales of
By the 800s C.E., Islamic conquests began to influence European foods. The
Saracens are reputed to have introduced spinach (the special ingredient in
so many Florentine dishes) to Italy from its native Persia. Many unusual
desserts were also introduced at this time, most notably gelati, the whole
range of ice creams and sherbets that the Muslims had learned from the
Persians and East Indians. There is evidence that the earliest record of
frozen desserts and ice- or snow-chilled foods accrue to the Chinese.
Although the Arabs knew about sugar cultivation, they found it difficult
to introduce it successfully.
The Romans also introduced culinary ideas to other lands. From earliest
times, the Greeks thought of the Romans as a wine-producing nation and
learned from them wine fermentation and processing techniques as well as
the drinking of wine diluted with water and often sweetened with honey.
Most of the world had been content to dine on spit-roasted meats, but the
Romans seem to have introduced the notion of boiling and stewing in
kettles. Various boiled greens (many considered weeds today) were commonly
used in many lands, but the Romans brought with them the conviction that
cabbage was worth cultivating since it contained medicinal properties.
(Yet cabbage prepared in many ways - even fermented like Germany's
sauerkraut and Korea's kimchi - predates Roman times as it was known and
used in early China.) In fact, Europe took the Romans word that oysters
were delicious and even set about cultivating them in many lands.
Similarly, edible snails were introduced to European palates by the Romans
and remain a French favorite today.
The Roman belief in the efficacy of almonds as an aid to sobriety may have
been the forerunner of salted almonds as a cocktail snack in many parts of
the world, especially Spain. Central Europe's penchant for sausages in
endless variety may have derived from the many types of spiced sausages,
stuffed meats and fish that were common at the time of Apicius, a
gastronome of the 1st century C.E., who wrote the first non-Asian
At the time of the Crusades (around 1000 C.E.) some new culinary touches
were introduced to Italy and some old ones revived. Indian salt was the
name given to sugar, used at first as a condiment and later as a base for
desserts and confections. Believed to have originated near Jerusalem and
named for the Saracens, buckwheat (called sarracin in French, sarraceno in
Spanish, and saraceno in Italian) was brought back by the Crusaders. Use
of many spices was revived and the use of the tangy lemon was reintroduced
to replace the green grapes and other fruits that had been used both to
flavor and to tenderize meats. The present-day carciofi alla Giudia
(literally "artichokes in the Jewish way") may have dated from the
Crusades or from even earlier times when the Jews were brought back to
Rome as slaves. In any case, the Italian enjoyment of carciofo remains.
Encouraged by the meal styles they had enjoyed abroad, the Crusaders are
also responsible for the return of the meal pattern including appetizer,
main course, and dessert. The prevailing custom in the Middle East of
serving foods on large heaped platters also found a place on many Italian
The question of the origin of pasta seems to have no ready answer. Once
again some of the earliest references to types of noodles come from
Chinese sources (wheat is the North China staple and noodles are the most
popular form of preparation). Some believe that it was the Venetian
explorer Marco Polo who brought dried noodles to Italy Others believe that
Italians were eating forms of pasta before Marco Polo but its importance
and use were limited. What cannot be argued is that the varieties of pasta
today are nowhere greater than in Italy.
The next most significant period in Italy's culinary history occurred in
the late 1400s and 1500s when the country's great cities were the merchant
centers of the world and her gastronomic achievements had no competitors.
The gluttony accredited to ancient Roman leaders had long given way to a
general inclination for simplicity and frugality, so much so that in many
areas, traditional favorites would have been lost to succeeding
generations were it not for the monasteries that preserved the great
recipes and encouraged their monks to interpret them with taste. Sugar,
coffee, and ice cream were introduced to the rest of Europe via Venice,
together with many of the culinary details that had long been commonplace
in Italian kitchens (stewing, frying, elaborate breads and baked goods and
At the same time, growing world explorations were bringing back to Europe
New World products such as corn, red and green peppers, varieties of
beans, turkeys, and potatoes (of limited popularity in Italy). Most
significantly, the pomo d'oro (golden apple) - the name given to the
early tomato which was of a yellow variety - was lifted to gastronomic
heights in Southern Italy's ubiquitous tomato sauces. But there is also
some evidence that original Italian tomatoes were started from seeds
brought back from a missionary trip to China by Monk Serenio in the Middle
While it may seem from the foregoing that food and food customs in Italy
are the same throughout the country, this is not true. Nor are the
Italians themselves homogeneous. Unfortunately, however, the predominating
western view of Italy, Italian food, and Italians has been a blur of dark
hair, emotional personalities, and pasta, tomato sauce, garlic, and wine.
In fact, the peoples of Italy developed from early migrations of tribes
throughout Europe and even Asia and North Africa. Italians, like other
people, have red hair (from the northern region), may have gentle
personalities, and enjoy a far greater variety of food than just pasta!
And while geography played some part in isolating areas from each other,
much more important was the part played by the battles between the popes
and the emperors, each courting towns and eventually favoring development
of northern and central Italy as almost independent states.
The fragmentation of the states left Italy vulnerable to powerful outside
influences: French, Spanish and, later, Austrian. Most especially,
Southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia fell under Spanish control and
exploitation for 250 years (from 1559 to the early 1800s), which resulted
in great part in the poverty, pestilence, disease, and famine relieved
only by the great charities and hospitals run by religious orders.
The Spanish oppression of Southern Italy had many other effects as well.
The debt-crushed peasants rebelled by forming secret societies and
strongly emphasizing the power of the family unit, both of which exist to
this day As recently as 1958, Edwin Banfield's study of Southern Italy
confirmed the prevalent attitudes of "family first and family against
everything else," and Luigi Barzini takes care to explain this same
phenomenon by stating that mafioso (with a small "m") means "... a subtle
art of promoting one's own interests without killing anyone," while
Mafioso (with a capital "M") includes everything else.
Probably from the influence of the Saracens and their Muslim ideals of
womanhood, as well as the later influence of the Spanish, Southern
Italians are possessively proud of their women, and consider honor a
matter of life and death. Also in keeping with Mediterranean influence,
the people of the South take a leisurely view of time in general and
punctuality in particular, enjoy afternoon siestas, and spell happiness
with the conviviality of boisterous friends and an open bottle of wine.
In 1713, Italy came under Austrian influence but was not isolated from the
effects of the French Revolution. These events bound the Northern Italians
in a risorgimento of culture, stressing the commonality of all of Italy's
great cultural heritage and hoping for political unity. Even the
proclamation of King Victor Emanuel of Piedmont as King of Italy in 1861
could neither allay the South's economic distress nor cement the cleavage
between North and South.
Northern Italy remained strongly influenced culturally economically, and
politically by Europe, and later construction of railway tunnels in the
mountains increased this influence. The peoples themselves became diffused
with Germans, French, Austrians, and Slays, gave their women considerable
freedom, were too busy to consider siestas (nor did the climate warrant
the rest periods), and cultivated conservative but elegant taste in
everything from manners and clothing to food and wine.