Italy is Served

A fish purveyor stands over a table of fresh fish in an outdoor market in Catania, Sicily in Italy

Fresh food

The Fishmarket in the old town of Catania, Sicily.


talians love to talk about food. Ask them how to prepare ragù, a slow-cooked meat sauce, and you’ll be regaled with stories about fresh tomatoes from the family garden and opinions about the best way to make it. In fact, in an effort to end this great debate, the city of Bologna passed an ordinance in 1982 designating the ingredients and proportions necessary to create an authentic ragù Bolognese!

But did you know the Aztecs were first to cultivate tomatoes while Italians used them as table decor? 

From pasta to gnocchi, polenta to risotto, food is not only a symbol of the Italian way of life, but it also offers a vantage point to appreciate the history of Italian culture and society. A course titled “Italy: A Journey Through its Food, History and Culture,” an elective taught in English, explores these connections.

Filippo Naitana, associate professor of Italian studies, developed the new course. “Italy has an extraordinarily rich culture. I needed to identify an entry point that students would find appealing, rather than intimidating,” Naitana says, adding that food seemed like a perfect choice. “Looking through the lens of food, we also can explore artistic, economic and cultural history.”

Students learn about the extraordinary regional diversity of Italian food—from Piedmont, Tuscany, and Emilia-Romagna to Campania and Sicily—while examining topics such as the connection between diet and health, the impact of the Italian Unification on food culture, the role of cafes in the history of Italian politics, industrialization and gender roles, food regulations, food and the Italian-American experience. The impact of globalization on food production, distribution and consumption also is covered.

Whatever the topic, Naitana encourages students to share their own perspectives. “The unit on Italian-American culture is an especially rich opportunity to discuss their own families’ food culture, whether they trace their origins back to the Italian peninsula or not. We look at food culture both as a marker of Italian-American identity and as an engine for social mobility and entrepreneurship,” he says.

Naitana notes that Italians who migrated to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century brought with them recipes and traditions that formed the basis for the pan-Italian food culture we are familiar with today. Many of them supported themselves selling familiar products to other Italian immigrants.

“Countless successful businesses, Ronzoni for instance, began this way. In their new home, Italians both experimented with tradition—creating dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs—and stayed grounded in it. In fact, Naitana notes, the ubiquitous backyard gardens

in Italian-American communities connect them with a practice that dates back thousands of years. Romans prized having a garden (“hortus”) of their own to grow vegetables, fruit and grape vines: it provided them with delicious produce but also gave them a sense of place and permanency. “Hortus” means enclosure (often it literally surrounded the home). Homemade wine is also a part of that tradition.

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In Italy, food preparation is a labor of love. Nothing is rushed. Meals are meant to not only nourish the body, but also please the palate.

There is a strong link between food and value systems, Naitana explains. The Romans, for instance, firmly believed in the old maxim, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” The diet staples of ancient Rome—bread, wine, and olive oil—were products of the earth, and this illustrates the values associated with their culture: to cultivate the soil, to improve it, was considered a sign of civilization.

Even at the apex of the Roman Empire’s military conquests, the citizen-farmer remained the Roman ideal. By contrast, a diet based mostly on meat and animal products—such as that of the Germanic tribes—was considered barbaric. Meat was consumed sparsely and was always associated with ritual sacrifice. Because ancient Romans perceived little nutritional value in meat, it was a pleasure mainly reserved for banquets and for impressing honored guests, Naitana says.

The advent of Christianity brought important changes in the Italian diet, while further strengthening food symbolism. The church imposed the liturgical calendar on its faithful, dividing “fat” or feast days from “lean” ones, in which no meats or animal products could be consumed. Oil, bread and wine—staples of the Mediterranean diet since ancient times—were conferred sacred status in the Christian Mass and sacraments, and olive oil and bread also were substituted for prohibited foods during periods of fasting.

The consumption of food and wine traditionally was connected to social status. During the Renaissance, Naitana notes, banquets were a privileged opportunity for wealthy and influential families to display their power through extravagant meals incorporating art and performance. He said the rituals surrounding eating and interacting with others at the table also was significant and often understood as an art, and so it is no coincidence that table manners featured prominently in a best-seller of the Renaissance: Giovanni Della Casa’s iconic treatise on polite behavior, “Il Galateo.”

The food we now associate with Italy evolved over a long period of time, and its history is intertwined with trade, conquest and even demography. Naitana shared that the Romans already prepared a version of what today we call lasagna. But it was during the Middle Ages that the great variety of shapes and sizes of pasta developed, as well as the custom of boiling dough in water rather than baking it.

Al-Idrisi, a Moroccan-born geographer at the court of Norman King Roger II in Palermo, wrote in his “Tabula Rogeriana” that dried pasta was produced in the Sicilian town of Trabia and exported in large quantities across the Mediterranean. Oranges, lemons, pistachios and sugar cane were brought to Sicily from the Arab world. Corn was grown in North America for thousands of years before it came to Europe, and potatoes originated in South America. And yet where would Italian food culture be today without the triad of pasta, gnocchi and polenta?

Bread played a crucial role in Italian food culture since antiquity, and it also exemplifies regional diversity. In Ancient Rome, bread was the symbolic food of the citizen-soldier—and thus a marker of civilization—as well as a tool for political propaganda. When in “The Divine Comedy,” Dante wrote, “You shall come to know how salt is the taste of another’s bread,” he was referring to the bread of Florence, which traditionally is unsalted, and also to how difficult it was to live in exile, part of which meant eating salted bread. Long ago, a salt tax was imposed in Tuscany, and the bakers rebelled by not using it.

Nor is bread the only example of the Tuscans’ talent for creative adaptation: Tonno del Chianti (Tuna of Chianti), is an ancient recipe that features pork that is salted and marinated, then poached to mimic the taste of seafood.

Cacciucco, a popular fish soup, was invented by the fishermen of Livorno, who were looking for a way to use the smallest fish from their catch. Lampredotto is a typical Florentine sandwich, made from a cow’s stomach, boiled and served with a green sauce: it is a daily staple found at the Mercato Centrale in Florence, which features not only market stands selling fresh produce, but also booths where you can buy a sandwich and dine at one of its rustic tables.

“This is another example of how food in Italy really brings people together, especially from different economic strata. Everyone comes together to enjoy the same food. They share the table and enjoy a conversation,” Naitana says.

In Italy, food preparation is a labor of love. Nothing is rushed. Meals are meant to not only nourish the body, but also please the palate. A big part of its extraordinary quality comes from making everything from scratch, using fresh ingredients that are both regional and seasonal. Much attention to the wisdom of these practices has been brought by the so-called “Slow Food Movement,” which originated in the 1980s and has taken hold across the world.

The “Slow Food Manifesto,” published in 1989, exhorted Italians to “rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food.” In the case of founder Carlo Petrini and a number of the movement’s original members, opposition to fast food wasn’t mere theory: in fact, it was a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s franchise near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Jade Starace ’17, a sociology major and 2018 master of arts in teaching candidate, said the course allowed her to compare the Italy she’s traveled through with the Italy portrayed in the assigned reading.

“Learning about dishes from each region gave me the chance to think back to my experiences traveling in Italy with my family, as well as studying abroad. I was able to reminisce about the delicious dishes that I had tried,” she said, adding, “Professor Naitana even brought in Italian breads and mozzarella for us to taste!”