Italy is one of the oldest countries in the world, and thanks to the geographical boundaries of the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps it has remained largely unchanged throughout history. Even during the Roman Empire, Italy was set apart. Legions that had been abroad always knew when they had returned to the mother country. Italian food history, however, reaches far beyond the country’s borders.
For starters, look at pasta. There is much historical debate on its origins, but many historians point to Marco Polo’s voyages to the Far East, from which he returned with all manner of foreign spices and foods, as the venue from which pasta came. The Chinese had cooked with noodles for centuries, and Marco Polo’s men encountered the same on their travels.
The tomato, now considered a staple in Italian cuisine, was long thought to be poisonous, partly because it is related to the deadly nightshade plant. Other Europeans found it to be palatable long before the first Italian cook simmered some down to make tomato sauce.
The Greeks, neighbors and frequent military rivals of the Italians, had a great amount of influence on Italian cuisine, especially in the area of spices and the preparation of seafood. Calamari, or squid, now a common dish on every Italian restaurant menu, was originally something Greeks were known for consuming.
The Roman Empire’s excursions into North Africa were another fertile breeding ground for culinary expansion. The number of herbs, spices and vegetables that entered the Italian menu from Egypt and the other African territories is uncountable.
Even today, Italian food history continues to evolve. Much of the changes now, though, take place beyond the shores of Italy. In America, for example, chefs like Mario Batali have fused classic Italian dishes with American cuisine to come up with dishes that combine the best of both worlds. In cities and towns all over the country, chefs are taking traditional ingredients and combining them in new ways. In what could perhaps be called a “full-circle” journey for pasta, some Italian-Asian fusion restaurants are even beginning to evolve.
But perhaps the best way to get a full idea of Italian food history is to get out and eat some. Better yet, eat a lot! Eating Italian food is always better than Italian food history.