“What have the Romans ever done for us?” (Monty Pythons, Life of Brian, 1979)
When one conjures up an image of an Italian restaurant it abides to a quite well-known stereotype around the world – pasta, pizza, and gelato. This is not to say this image is incorrect, but rather that it represents a very narrow part of the extensively diverse gastronomic scene present in Italy. The history of Italian cuisine is one that expands across time and space, shaped by over three thousand years of cross-cultural currents of people and cultures, including the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans and many more. Even today Italy’s cuisine changes and reinvents itself from region to region. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the peninsula split into autonomous regions that went on to define themselves not only through their dialect, but through their food as well. And even after the Italian unification in 1861, the regions kept their unique identities through culinary specialities. This geographic variety is not only the result of historical cultural influence, but also the result of the different climates this unique peninsula possesses. From the chilly Alps to the sizzling shores of Sicily, it is no surprise that the soil of this peninsula can grow a range of ingredients like very few other countries in the world. As a consequence, Italian cuisine favours simple ingredients, grown or preserved locally, and cooked simply to best appreciate their natural flavours. Nevertheless, there is an overarching culture of eating good food with the ones you care about that bind the Italian people to a common way of life – l’arte di mangiare bene. And this art of eating well has spread across the world.
The love for Italian food abroad began with the mass emigration of Italians to the United States of America during the late 19th and early 20th century, when Italy was suffering first from poverty and the later by effects of the First World War. A lot of the economic immigrants came from the South of Italy, including Neapolitan immigrants that brought pizza with them, one of the first Italian gastronomic traditions to gain popularity outside of Italy. Another classic piece of Italian ‘street food’ that gained popularity at this time was the panino, or Italian sub. However, basic Italian ingredients only became available outside of Italy during the late 80s when the Mediterranean Food revolution took the world by storm and products from olive oil to pasta, and even canned tomatoes began to be exported to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Yet, this wasn’t the first time the Brits had had a taste of the peninsula’s cuisine, as the same Roman roots that influenced the Italian cuisine came to Britain in 43 AD when Claudius and his troops landed on the South Coast of Britain. The Celtic Britons enjoyed wine, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and dishes that the Romans imported, but the same cuisine that sprouted in Italy as a result of this influence never came to fruition in this Nordic island with a much different history, climate and culture. This was true until the 80s, as Italian restaurants began to open in the UK, and became popular by selling the romantic image of La Dolce Vita. Many of these restaurants were independently owned by Italian immigrants, and thus imported the basic Italian ingredients they couldn’t find, but as these ingredients began to appear supermarkets picked up on the trend and started to import and sell the products themselves. Today, it is safe to say that Italian cuisine, although maybe a narrow portion of it has assimilated itself into British culture and around the world as it is no longer seen as exotic but in its true simplicity. That is because the beauty of Italian food is not only in the technique, but more than anything in the ingredients, in the primary resources that grow and taste special because of where they come from – without those, it wouldn’t be the unique and unmatched cuisine it is. In order to see, taste, and learn about these incomparable ingredients come along to the 5th edition of Welcome Italia and get to experience the authentic and traditional providers of the world famous dishes we have all come to love!