Six Italian Food Facts That Go Beyond Pizza and Pasta

BY: Shannon Grilli |Apr 19, 2016

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Ask the average American about Italian food, and they’ll likely reference the two p’s: pizza and pasta. But if you think Italian food is nothing but an endless array of starchy dishes slathered with red sauce and cheese, think again.

This boot-shaped country is actually divided into 20 regions, each with a distinct style of cuisine influenced by factors ranging from climate to inspiration from neighboring nations. Dishes in the northern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, for example, share many similarities with Hungarian and Croatian styles of cooking, while the southern region of Campania is famous for the pasta dishes that we find most often in the States.

Read on to learn six Italian food facts that might redefine how you think about Italian food:

Putting butter on bread isn’t necessarily bad.

Many diners believe that if an Italian restaurant is truly authentic, it will only serve bread with olive oil for dipping. But if you find butter on the table, don’t rush to any conclusions. While southern Italians favor olive oil, butter and lard are actually more common in Italy’s northern regions, where French and Swiss culinary traditions have a large impact on the cuisine.

Apple strudel can be just as Italian as tiramisu.

Many of Italy’s northern regions are also heavily influenced by their shared border with Austria. Sausages, sauerkraut, and spatzle, for example, are popular throughout various regions of the north, as is speck (a German ham). Even veal milanese—a famous Italian dish from the region of Lombardy—bears a striking resemblance to wiener schnitzel.

According to Academia Barilla, a respected cooking academy in Parma and one of the foremost authorities on regional Italian cuisine, apple strudel and other Austrian–inspired desserts are commonly eaten throughout the regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Veneto.

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Pasta isn’t always king.

True, you can more or less find pasta being eaten throughout the country, but it’s most popular in central regions such as Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, and Campania. However, in the north, you may be more likely to find rice or polenta as the starch of choice. Couscous, meanwhile, is popular to the south, especially in Sicily, which was once under Arab rule.

Sicily is a melting pot for Mediterranean cuisines.

The types of dishes popular on this island are especially unique thanks to its tumultuous history. Maria Monastero, the manager and executive chef at Monastero’s Ristorante, a famous Sicilian restaurant in Chicago, had this to say, “Greek, Spanish, French, Arabic...Sicily’s history is one of mass invasion by neighboring countries, therefore we are free to use a wide range of ingredients and styles of preparation. Apricots, saffron, raisins, nutmeg, clove, pine nuts, cinnamon, fava beans, couscous, and citrus are all flavors Sicilians use as a product of their historical invasions.”

Arancini, by far, is a classic Sicilian favorite,” Maria says, referencing a dish of fried rice balls with Arabic origins. “We slow cook arborio rice, mold it in our hands as a half circle, fill it with ground beef, peas, and parmigiana cheese, close the circle with more rice, cover it in breadcrumbs and deep-fry it. The flavor is amazing and makes for the perfect antipasti or lunch.”

Other authentic Sicilian dishes at Monastero’s feature such combinations as pasta paired with meat ragu, currants, and almonds.

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Want to eat like a real Italian? Try the fish.

Outside of the occasional bowl of frutti di mare or plate of fried calamari, many Americans probably don’t immediately think of fish when they think of Italian food. But a love of seafood may be the one thing all Italians have in common, which makes sense considering 15 of the country’s 20 regions have some sort of coastline.

Tony Priolo, the chef at Piccolo Sogno, a Chicago restaurant specializing in regional Italian cuisine, singled out a dish he serves that epitomizes the style of cooking in Liguria, a tiny coastal region not far from the French border.

Sea-salt-crusted branzino that is wood-fired whole and deboned after it is cooked. We serve this with braised fennel and a blood orange and citrus caper reduction.”

Tomato sauce is a new(ish) trend.

Tomatoes made their first appearance in Italy in the early 1600s, but it would be another few centuries before they were eaten with any sort of regularity. David Gentilcore, the author of the book Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy told the Boston Globe that the first Italian tomato sauces likely didn’t appear until the 1870s or 80s, and even then they were more popular with Italian-American immigrants than native Italians.

“Italian immigrants arriving in New York City or Boston were the first generation to eat these dishes as daily things. Making a rich meat sauce with maybe the addition of tomato paste, that Sunday gravy style, is something that happens only in the 20th century,” he said.

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The reason? For many years, people believed tomatoes were poisonous because they belonged to the nightshade family. That fear quickly dissipated, though, once demand for tomatoes outside Italy made it one of the country’s largest exports. Today, san marzano tomatoes (grown in the Campania region) are widely regarded by chefs as some of the finest tomatoes in the world. 

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