5@5 - Events that changed the course of Italian food
December 14th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Unless you grew up with an Italian family - or one well-versed in culinary cultures for that matter - Italian food probably meant spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and the occasional chicken parmesan thrown in here, there and every other Tuesday.

But the cuisine of the boot-shaped country is more - oh so much more, in fact. From the to artichokes of Venice (fondi di carciofo) to the Piemonte region's penchant for truffles, Italy on a plate is as much of a melting pot as the United States is.

And its culinary heritage has been shaped by a series of fortunate events that chef Marco Frattaroli of Bastas Trattoria in Portland, Oregon, has kindly summed up.

Top Five Events That Changed the Course of Italian Cuisine: Marco Frattaroli

1. A common language
"The use of a vulgar language and regional dialect by 13th century poets, like Dante, helped to create the common written language that we know as Italian. Prior to this, there were many regional dialects, but these writers helped to develop a common written language - aside from Latin - that was accessible for all Italians. This written language helped unify distinct areas, created a commonality and set the stage for cuisine now defined as Italian."

2. Appreciation of regional diversity
"To fully understand and appreciate Italian cuisine is to appreciate its regionality. It is the central component of Italian cuisine, and is what unites the country’s culinary landscape. Much like the United States, the different regions of Italy are characterized by various dishes, techniques and preparations.

As an example, Northern Italy is traditionally known for its cured meats and aged cheeses, and uses butter to cook with. In contrast, in Southern Italy the cuisine tends to use more vegetables, red sauces and olive oil. These differences, in a broader sense, are both climatic and cultural, and are a good example of Italian passion for food and its regionality."

3. Discovering The Americas
"The discovery of new plant species in the Americas in the 1500s significantly changed the development of Italian cuisine. The introduction of vegetables like tomato, corn and white beans, gave Italians new ingredients to work with, and now they’re so embedded and ubiquitous in Italian dishes that many people forget they weren’t always staples in the country."

4. Unification of Italy
"The unification of Italy in the 19th century brought regions and states in the Italian peninsula together as one country. This act transformed the nation as a whole, creating a singular identity that united many groups and maintained regional diversity and appreciation. In its most basic form, this unification created the definition of 'Italian Cuisine,' that we understand today."

5. The World Wide Web
"The dissemination of information via the internet has in many ways revitalized traditional recipes and regional techniques. Until recently, outdated practices, family traditions, and region specific preparations were predominantly shared by word of mouth. These days, anyone with a computer is able to dig up age-old culinary techniques and traditional recipes, then continue to broadcast them to others.

For example, I recently ran across a blog that revived an age-old recipe from peasants that worked for feudal landlords. After harvest, they were allowed to collect the discarded burnt chaff and make pasta out of it. Historic recipes like this intrigue people, and access to them has revived interest in Italian food."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Bite • Cuisines • Italian • Think

soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. blargh

    Development of a "common" Italian language is not an event, and the author does not illustrate, in any way, how the common language changed Italian food. Also, the other "events" are just as useless.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  2. dem boyz

    olive garten be da stuffz for dat!

    December 16, 2011 at 8:02 am |
  3. XchefJay

    Does anyone else think we are in an "opinion bubble" that will at some point burst? The world might be a better place if not inflicted with the mis-info, dis-info, vitriol and ego that generally shows up in the guise of courteous discussion.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  4. Napolitan not Italian

    This is crap. #1, calling the local languages "vulgar" and "dialects" is what Napolitans and Sicilians have battled for 150 years since the risorgimento. #2 seems to go completely against #1, as said by ILICA president Vincenzo Marra, in order to completely understand a culture, you must know their language. If you dismiss the Languages of Naples and Sicily (and they are languages NOT dialects) you dismiss their culture. The fact that olive oil is not the first thing listed to describe Napolitan cuisine dismisses thousands of years of our culinary history. What about fish? We sustained ourselves for centuries on the fruits of the Mediterranean. #3 basically explains that the tomato, discovered in America, is a large part of Napolitan (aka Southern) cooking. It's not, its a large part of Napolitan-American cooking, and used much more sparingly in Naples and Sicily. And don't get me started on #4. One day there will again be a free and self-determined Naples, but first lets have the North pay us back what they robbed from us 150 years ago, and what caused 17 million to flee. Hopefully #5 will bring a renaissance of Napolitan thinking and eventually independence.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • dem boyz

      u gotz nuthin on soul foodz -whoperz!

      December 16, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  5. 4initalia

    I lived in Italy and cooked on a toyish stove while listening to Pavarotti – whose home town I lived in. The secret of Italian cooking is fresh ingredients – there are no preservatives in the food, so you cook everything at the peak of flavor. For a funny story about mouth-watering Italian food, see "Reality Bites" on 4initalia.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Lorenzo

      Uh, "fresh ingredients" is the "secret" to MOST of the world's cuisines. It's mostly the USA that bases (or at least did until recent decades) its cooking on industrially produced ingredients.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  6. Richard 1955

    I would posit that what makes food Italian is not the ingredients, but the manner of using them, combining them, cooking them, etc. One could "cook Italian" with a whole host of ingredients, almost irrespective of origin. The whole world has always had snails, wine, cheese, meats, garlic, onions, innumerable spices, etc. Take tomatoes away from existence and Italian cooking would still thrive in another way.

    December 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  7. Jean Louis Genard

    Is it true that the french were eating with their feet before they were introduced to Italian cuisine, from a Florentine born Queen?

    December 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  8. Sy2502

    As an Italian born and raised there, I don't understand what the common language and the unification of Italy have to do with the food. Most dishes in the Italian tradition come from much earlier than the time of the unification (late 1800s). There are Italian recipes that can be traced as far back as the Etruscans of the 4th century BCE.

    PS: spaghetti meatballs is an American invention. I dare you walk in any restaurant in Italy and ask for it.

    December 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Schmedley

      I think you missed the point of the spaghetti and meatballs comment

      December 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Paul

      I lived in Lerici (La Spezia) from 1967 – 19771 and never saw a meatball. The only meat I saw with spegetti was Spegetti Bolanese and it was a meat sauce.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  9. mehmeh

    Grace..suck it

    December 15, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  10. Don

    Why all the talk about noodles? I'm in Italy every two years and have rarely seen a noodle while I'm there.

    December 15, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  11. Chef Boyardee

    I changed All of Italian food......Now here is a can opener so go eat your Spaghetti'OOOO's.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Campbell's

      Actually Spaghetti-Os are OUR trademark, thank you very much!

      December 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  12. Lynn Ann

    Italian food would not be the cuisine it is today without the United States.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • True Italiann

      Riiiiiiiiiiight. Because that's where tomatoes originated.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • Kaiviertel

      Ummm, yea... First off, you might not want to share that tidbit of ignorance if you're ever in Italy (or little Italy for that matter) and 2, you might attempt a meal at a restaurant other than the Olive Garden before making such a turd of a comment. I would say, you should visit Italy so that you are informed of the cuisine, but frankly, I am sick and tired of battling the American stereotypes from people like you. Stay home and enjoy your ignorance, but please keep it to yourself! Thanks!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Sam

      Oh, who cares? Just go to Italy and enjoy! The food and wine are fabulous, the country is incredibly beautiful and the people are lovely.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Jorge

      Lynn Ann, Lynn Ann, repeat after me, "All I know is that I know nothing..."

      December 15, 2011 at 11:26 am |
      • Lynn Ann's Ghost@jorge

        All I know is that you know nothing...

        December 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
      • SGT. Shultz

        I Know nothing,NOTHING........

        December 15, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Yea sure

      Spain broght tomatoes to Italy, that's one major part of italian cooking (not the only one), the austrians did their part.

      December 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • GraceA

      Lynn Ann, the statement you make about Italian food is completely presumptuous, wrong, and not based on any knowledge of the cuisine at all. The americanizing of what was called Italian food here should really have been called "Italian American" food, which doesn't even come near to embracing the variety and richness of true Italian cuisine. Have you ever mentioned a certain ethnic restaurant to someone who is of the same ethnicity and heard them reply, "Yeah, that restaurant is OK, but it's not authentic?" Well, that's what America has done to Italian food and many other ethnic cuisines. It's part of the ugly American thing. Thank goodness that the Web and the growing interest in true global cuisine is changing such ignorance!

      December 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  13. Paul

    The discovery of the New World and the foods brought from Asia should be #1 and #2 on this list. What about the TOMATO for example? It was brought from South America by the Spanish and was not a part of Italian cooking until the 17th century

    December 15, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • xplrr13

      Did you even read the article? The tomato is definitely mentioned.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:48 am |
    • Ramen Fan

      Item #3 Paul.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  14. Johnny from Brooklyn

    I grew up in a very Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn - which translates to southern Italian food - mostly Sicilian and some from Naples. Last year I took a trip to Italy and I was knocked out by the food in Rome, Florence and Venice. From the simplest snack bar to very expensive restaurants all of the meals were wonderful. The depth and character of the fresh ingredients and the way food was cooked is like nothing like any restaurant I have eaten in here in the U.S. Here it seems that Italian food is defined by the spices - lots of basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, etc.. There the flavor is defined by local grown, fresh ingredients that is minimally processed and always cooked to perfection. (not so much spice) I also could not help but notice how few truly obese Italians I saw compared to here. (they do have their share of some overweight folks)

    December 15, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  15. paul

    What were the Italians eating before Marco Polo brought back the Chinese Noodle?

    December 15, 2011 at 1:19 am |
    • Dover

      Italian food is more than just noodles noob!

      December 15, 2011 at 3:06 am |
      • Edwin

        True, but pasta is fairly iconic as an Italian staple, so the question is valid.

        December 15, 2011 at 3:28 am |
    • Edwin

      ...but what Marco Polo brought back was really more of a dumpling made of rice flour. It may have contributed to forms like ravioli, but the precursors to other pasta (long dried noodles and lasagna-type noodles) were in Italy at least a hundred years before Marco Polo's travels began.

      December 15, 2011 at 3:39 am |
      • Martino

        I know, and really, who cares where the "noodle" originally came from, Italians have perfected pasta. Nothing is 100% original. No one can take credit away from Italy for having one of the world's top cuisines and always willl.

        December 15, 2011 at 6:01 am |
    • phred

      The evidence is pretty strong that Marco Polo never went to China.

      December 15, 2011 at 3:42 am |
      • Eddie

        Fox News, right?

        December 15, 2011 at 5:57 am |
      • Chris R

        Actually, the historical evidence doesn't really show strongly that he went there. It's far more likely that he collected a series of stories told to him by others. It was a pretty common way of doing things back then.

        December 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Eddie

      Pasta from China. Tomatoes from South America. And that's just Southern Italian. This article is weak.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:57 am |
  16. JQA

    The article didn't mention the most recent development in Italian food, which has grown exponentially since an Italian health study showed the drastic effects of wheat gluten on health costs. Now every child is tested for gluten sensitivity at around 10 years of age. If it is found that the child has sensitivity to wheat, they are given a yearly stipend for life so that they can afford to purchase gluten free products, which are more expensive than foods containing gluten. They are also given extra vacation time every year. This has kick started the development of gluten free foods in Italy, and it has spread throughout the rest of Europe. The health benefits of a wheat free diet are well known in Europe; can the US be far behind?

    December 14, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • Jonathan

      So, where do I sign up??????

      December 15, 2011 at 2:15 am |
    • Spoilsport

      Why do there always have to be people like you who say, "what this article DOESN'T tell you is"...? You know what? You're right. Do you know why? Because this article wasn't ABOUT that. This article also doesn't tell you about Barak Obama or the Mafia, and I suppose I should thank you for not trying to tie either of those topics to what this article IS about. Save your agenda for an article about diets and healthy living and then you can agree rather than complain.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:12 am |
      • Jonline

        OMG that's a fantastic comment. Cheers!

        Oh and if I can point out the Italian government is broke. A gluten allergy would fall under Darwinsim in my mind.

        December 15, 2011 at 5:59 am |
      • Eddie

        Money is certainly evidence of intelligence.

        December 15, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • Dave

      Not so. They were sent to Ireland and England so they can eat crap.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:39 am |
    • Sydney

      So – however did anyone survive eating wheat for centuries and centuries? You know this "gluten is evil" craziness just originated in the last five years or so, right?

      There is a tiny, tiny number of people with celiac disease who truly need to avoid gluten. That is what the tests for children are for – an actual disease – not an imagined "sensitivity".

      For the rest of us without celiac disease, bring on the gluten! Relax and enjoy your pasta and bread as people have been doing for thousands of years.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:54 am |
      • Lulu

        Yea for Sidney. I'm as sick and tired of the food police as I am of the politically correct. Sure, there are those unfortunate people with allergies or illnesses which prevent them from ingesting certain foods or drink, but why ruin the joy of food for those of us without the problem? Kill joys and/or control freaks.

        December 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  17. Mario

    How can this not mention Pasta from Asia?? or Chillies from South America? or Coffee from Ethiopia?? or olives from the North Africa?? it only lightly addresses that Italian food is a mix of outside influences – which is odd considering there is such a movement in Italian restaurants for 'authentic' Italian...

    December 14, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • Right On

      This is precisely what I thought.

      December 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • JamesM

      It does mention the importance of new world ingredients.

      Pasta wasn't brought to Italy from Asia, which is why the article doesn't mention that.

      December 14, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
      • Amanda

        Who told you that pasta (pasta making) was not brought from Asia?

        December 15, 2011 at 1:22 am |
      • Eddie

        Marco Polo brought pasta from Italy to China, right?

        December 15, 2011 at 6:05 am |
      • Chris R

        There is no evidence that pasta came from China. In fact, it's unlikely that it did when you consider that simple dumplings only require flour and a binder before being boiled. It's a simple matter to stretch or roll that dumpling out into new forms. In fact there are writings going back to the 1st century BCE describing flat sheets of dough being deep fried. Again, it's a short step to boil them instead of deep frying them. It's possible that Polo brought back some variety of stuffed pasta or gnocci but macaroni as such was already well known in italy by 1295.

        December 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Eddie

      Tomatoes, Mario. Americans once thought they were poison.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:03 am |
      • Duh

        Because Nightshades generally ARE poison, idiot.

        December 15, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  18. AntiPalinAlaskan

    I'm a little surprised that the article didn't mention the introduction of noodles after Marco Polo discovered them in Asia. Or was that theory of the development of pasta debunked at some point?

    December 14, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • Frank

      It was never debunked because it was never more than a popular myth in the first place. Mediterranean peoples have been eating pasta for thousands of years.

      December 14, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
      • brandon

        I don't know if it is true or not. However I do know that the oldest ever finding of people eating pasta was in fact in china. It was within the last few years that an archiological site in china turned up a preserved bowl of noodles that was older than what has ever been previously found. It was something like 4000 years old

        December 15, 2011 at 12:33 am |
      • brandon

        here is a link: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/10/1012_051012_noodles.html

        December 15, 2011 at 12:35 am |
      • Ramen Fan

        4,000 y.o noodles? Add some boiling water and a spice packet and you have Ramen!

        December 15, 2011 at 6:55 am |
      • Ramen Fan

        4,000 year old noodles? Add some boiling water and a sp!ce p@cket and you have Ramen!

        December 15, 2011 at 7:26 am |
      • Chris R

        Brandon, it's more than possible that what we think of as pasta was discovered independently in many places. On the other hand, it may have come from china as there was trade with China going back to the ancient Roman Republic. However, the idea that the italians got pasat from Marco Polo's trip to China is mostly bogus.

        December 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm |


    December 14, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
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