I love cooking—and eating—Italian food! Many people ask me why it tastes so good and what makes it so different from most other types of cuisines.
When asked this question, I don’t even know where to start. There is a certain way about Italian cooking that just sets it apart. First, the sauces are so simple yet flavorful, you can’t help but want more. Second, Italian dishes are usually much lighter than those of most other nations.
Why is that? Let’s do a deep dive into the history, traditions, and peculiarities of Italian cooking to try to answer the question of why Italian-a food is-a so good-a.
#1. Italian cuisine is as ancient as the world.
Modern-day Italy is built on the ruins of ancient Rome, and its cuisine, albeit modernized with the introduction of the tomato after the discovery of the New World, is very much grounded in romans’ cooking techniques and traditions.
Though much of ancient life is still shrouded in mystery (and, unless humanity invents a way to travel through time, it is most likely to stay that way forever), one thing’s certain: the people of Rome sure knew how to eat and drink.
“The shells of the lobsters or crabs,” reads a recipe for Lobster or Crabmeat Croquette from Apicius, a Roman cookbook thought to have been compiled in the 1st century AD, “are broken, the meat extracted from the head and pounded in the mortar with pepper and the best kind of broth. This pulp is shaped into cakes which are fried, and served up nicely.”
“Cook scallops,” another recipe for A Dish of Scallops goes, “remove the hard and objectionable parts, mince the meat very fine, mix this with cooked spelt and eggs, season with pepper, shape into croquettes and wrap in caul, fry, underlay a rich fish sauce and serve as a delicious entrée.”
Clearly, Roman cooks—and cookbook authors—knew their way around seafood. And red meats. And broths. And wine. And digestives. You get the picture. All these techniques and traditions have found ways to embed themselves in the fabric of Italian cookery through millennia of culinary experimentation.
Throughout history, cultural influences from and trade with the people of Greece, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East have also marked the cuisines of some parts of Italy, especially those in the south, such as Sardinia, Sicily, and Calabria.
#2. Italian food is inherently humble yet ingeniously simple.
Some of the most cherished Italian dishes come from la cucina povera, the good food for hard times that Italy’s peasant families would cook and eat for supper from the few and scarce ingredients they had at their disposal.
After its cultural, economic, and political peak during the Renaissance in the middle ages, Italy suffered from a long streak of disorderliness and poverty from the 18th century and beyond.
In fact, the state of Italy as we know it today took shape only in the month of April in the year 1860, when the various kingdoms, city-states, and political units on the Italian Peninsula consolidated, officially becoming a single country.
That streak left many hard-working Italians empty-handed, having to eat only the food that they could herd and grow themselves. But it didn’t hurt their culinary imagination and ability to take a handful of grains, alliums, olive oil, and tomatoes and turn them into some of the most delicious dishes that one could possibly taste on this earth.
Italian cheeses, for example, were a way for monks and shepherds to preserve milk for months and years on end by curdling it in shallow tanks to separate the solids from the liquids, and aging the former in caves and cellars using various recipes and techniques.
The recipe for taleggio, for example, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese made in the Alpine valley of Val Taleggio in northern Italy, dates back to the 13th century.
Guanciale, pancetta—and Italian salumi as a whole—were ways to preserve the lesser cuts of freshly slaughtered hogs through curing so that they could be stored and savored in the cold days of winter long before refrigeration even became a thing.
Fatty and salty, guanciale was often used as a substitute for olive oil, especially in the parts of Italy where olive trees were hard to grow, and buying cooking oils for your home kitchen was a luxury available only for the wealthy.
While kings, queens, and the aristocracy gorged on meats, working-class Italians practically invented pizza and pasta as we know them today.
Neapolitan-style pizza (and its fat cousin, the deep-fried pizza fritta), made as a way to make the most of leftover doughs and ingredients in bakeries, taverns, and brick ovens out in the fields shared by farmer families, was the poor man’s street food of 19th-century Italy.
Pasta alla Carbonara, a favorite among American soldiers, the recipe for which got lost in translation across the Atlantic, was allegedly served as a filling lunch to the coal workers of 20th-century Rome to get them stocked up on calories for the remainder of their shift.
Pappa al Pomodoro is an uncomplicated and gratifying recipe for turning a stale loaf of bread, a clove or two of garlic, a pinch of salt, and a jar of last summer’s tomatoes into a filling dinner to feed even the hungriest of crowds.
#3. Each recipe lets its amazing, locally sourced ingredients stand out.
While the French drown most of their food in elaborate sauces and the Germans dip almost everything in ketchup (currywurst), mayo (potato salad), or mustard (bratwurst), Italians stick to the simple.
Italian cuisine is one of plain recipes and unadulterated dishes. Consider the recipe for Spaghetti Aglio e Olio:
- Boil a handful of spaghetti in generously salted water until al dente;
- Sauté a few cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped, in extra virgin olive oil;
- Sauce the spaghetti in the pan with the help of a ladle of salty and starchy pasta water;
- Simmer, stirring often, for 20-30 seconds so that most of the water evaporates and the sauce thickens, and serve.
How many cuisines do you know that can take noodles, water, salt, garlic, and cooking oil, and turn them into a dish that’s so simple—yet so sophisticated—that the only way to explain it is to give it the label of “mouthwateringly good?”
There’s more to this, of course, than meets the eye.
Italian pasta is cut in bronze dies and made from durum-wheat semolina flour. The former gives it a rough and porous exterior for the sauce to cling to, and the latter a vibrant golden color, wheaty aroma, and delightfully earthy taste.
Sulmona red garlic (Aglio Rosso di Sulmona), the garlic that grows in Italy’s Abruzzo region, is touted by chefs and food writers as the most fragrant and flavorsome garlic in the world, so no wonder it ended up as the star ingredient of this fine Italian recipe.
San Marzano tomatoes, a non-negotiable ingredient of Neapolitan-style pizza, are grown in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil in the shadow of the active volcano of Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps this is why they’re said to be the gold standard by which all other tomato varieties should be judged.
The same applies to artichokes, capers, olives, and other Italian pantry staples.
#4. It’s as much about the food as it is about the sweet life (la dolce vita).
My wife and I still recall highlights of our honeymoon, which we spent in Verona, a medieval town with a present-day population of 257,353 that’s built on the banks of the Adige River in Italy’s Veneto region.
The more we strolled through the hot summer streets of Verona, a city known for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the less enamored we became with the overcrowded touristy paths, and the more we’d wander off into the windy alleys and hidden spots where the locals hung out.
The true treasure of this city, as it turned out, was not its rich history—nor Roman architecture. It was the calm, unburdened way of life of the people that had chosen to live in it.
At noon, store clerks would take long breaks, taking walks to their homes to meet up with the rest of their family members for lunch.
Under the cool shade of big umbrellas, retirees would enjoy a simple plate of pasta pomodoro along with a glass or two of local red wine as they’d discuss the events of the day covered in the newspaper.
In contrast to the rest of the world, veronians had somehow found a way not to let the race without an end that we call 21st-century life invade their minds and dictate their sense of presentness and well-being.
Truth be told, we don’t remember much of the landscape, not the buildings, nor the sights anymore. We delegated that task to photos neatly positioned on shelves or stored in virtual folders a long, long time ago.
It was the mindset that stuck. Italians call it la dolce vita, meaning the sweet life. Some days, it’s even about il dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing much in particular.
If we took one thing from Verona with us from our honeymoon, it was to turn mealtime into a cue for slowing down and living life. That’s the magic of Italian food—and culture as a whole—you see. It can be fiery and spicy, don’t get me wrong, yet always savored with the attention it deserves.