What is Italian cuisine? Frankly, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “Italian Cuisine”. Which, considering that I claim to provide “real Italian food”, should give me pause. Allow me to explain.
What do you think of when someone mentions “Italian cuisine”? Pasta? Pizza? Risotto? Polenta? All of the above? Any one of those would be a legitimate response; but is it fair to say that they, or any other category of “Italian food”, represent the cuisine of all of Italy? Personally, I don’t think so.
Perhaps more so than any other type of cuisine, Italian culinary traditions are extremely regional. Dishes and ingredients typical of the south are very different than those typical of the north. This is partly because of obvious reasons like geography and partly because of less obvious reasons, like the influence of other cultures that settled throughout the Italian peninsula over the centuries.
And the differences are not only between north, central, and south. There are incredible differences even within the regions themselves, with certain dishes or use of ingredients differing literally from town to town. For example, ‘nduja, a spreadable sausage from Calabria, which is currently quite trendy on North American menus, is something that my Calabrese parents never made, purchased or ate. In fact, they likely never even heard of it. That’s because it has its origins in the southern parts of Calabria and my parents are from the more central-northern area of Cosenza. Two areas that are, geographically, quite close to each other, but nevertheless often have very different culinary traditions and styles.
So, is there such a thing as “Italian cuisine”? Well, as one of the most loved and well-known types of cuisine in the world, it would be difficult to say no; but I think an accurate response to that question has more to do with what you consider a cuisine to be characterized by. If it is characterized by a homogeneous and consistent culinary traditions, then Italy likely does not qualify; but I think it is more than that. I think Italian cuisine is defined more by its focus on fresh ingredients, prepared simply; and about the important role that food plays in its cultural traditions, as well as its culinary traditions. These are the characteristics that truly define Italian cuisine.