Historical Origins and Regional
 Patterns of Italian Cooking

Dr John Augelli shares his insight on the history of Italian Cooking in these notes from one of his cruise ship lectures.


cruise ship lectures - Historical Origins and Regional Patterns of Italian Cooking  

Because so much of the Italian immigration to the United States came from the Naples area and the Italian South, American perceptions of Italian food tend to be restricted to pizza, spaghetti, ravioli, lasagne, eggplant parmigiana, minestrone, and other dishes typical of Naples and southern Italy.

Restaurants featuring North Italian and other non‑Neapolitan cuisine may be found in many U.S. cities, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Like everything else in Italy, however, Italian cooking is as varied as the country's regions which extend from the snow-covered Alps to the sub‑tropical shores of Sicily. There are not only significant differences in food preparation between North and South in and from one region to another, but also within the same region. Despite a considerable amount of research and literature, I suspect that the definitive work on Italian regional cooking still remains to be written.

As usual, part of the explanation for this regional variety stems from differences in physical geography and part from historical experience and exposure, including the play of external influences.

Traditionally, people eat whatever is best produced in their immediate habitat, and Italy with its variety of climatic and ecological conditions is a good illustration of this truism. For example, the olive, a major source of vegetable oil, does well in the southern two‑thirds of Italy, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. But it does not do well on the Po Plain or the Alpine regions. It is not surprising, therefore, that use of olive oil for cooking and even the use of olives as a vegetable tend to coincide with Central and Southern Italy. In contrast, corn which can be raised virtually everywhere on the peninsula, does best in the areas of continental climate of the Po Basin. The same is true for rice. Again, not surprisingly, corn meal and rice are much more part of the diet in the North than in the South in Italy. Similarly, fish is used everywhere in Italy, but it is especially significant in the islands and coastal margins such as those of Naples and Genoa.

Historical Considerations

Contemporary Italian cooking was also influenced by the country's long (2000 year plus) history. Its origins go back to the ancient Romans who, in turn, learned some of their culinary skills from Greece and Asia minor. Many of the foods and methods of food preparation in Italy can be traced back to Roman times. For example the staple of the early Romans, including the conquering legions, was pulmentum, a kind of mush made from crushed grains – usually millet, wheat and chick‑pea flour. Pulmentum was the forerunner of today's polenta, a corn meal mush widely eaten in northern Italy. The ancient Romans had at least 13 varieties of cheese, and they made a cheesecake with a soft cheese similar to today's ricotta, Pecorino Romano. The Romans also ate a variety of vegetables such as the fava bean which is still in use, cabbage, chickpeas, lentils and others. Fruit such as peaches, apricots, melons were imported from the Middle East. Romans also developed a taste for spices brought back to the city by the conquering legions from Asia. Other Roman forerunners of today's Italian cooking include ham and related pork products, gnocchi, torta and the sweet‑and‑sour agrodolce.

With the barbaric invasions beginning about the 3rd century A.D., much of the Roman sophistication in cooking was lost. During the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages that followed, at least some of the recipes from the ancient Roman kitchen were retained (like other aspects of learning) by the monasteries, like Monte Cassino.

After the Romans, the next significant additions to Italian cuisine came with the Moslem occupation of Southern Europe, including Sicily, Sardinia and parts of southern Italy in the 9th Century. This occupation, while far shorter than it was in Spain and elsewhere introduced a variety of new desserts. It was from the Moslems that the southern Italians learned to make ice cream and sherbets. (These were the forerunners of today's famous Italian ices.) The Moslems also introduced sweets based on honey, almond paste, marzipan and cane sugar. Other additions came back from the Middle East with the returning Crusaders. Among these were the renewed use of the lemon, buckwheat and more spices.

By the late Middle Ages the Italians had learned to grind wheat and other grains fine enough to produce true bread plus a variety of other food products based on flour. Among these were vermicelli, tortelli, and various torta and pasta forerunners of today. (All this happened before Marco Polo came back from Cathay and the claim that he introduced noodles to Italy is a myth.)
The Renaissance (Risorgimento) or rediscovery of Classical civilization occurred in the culinary as well as other arts in Italy. Books on agriculture and cooking began to appear, and the Italian interest in food preparation received new inspiration. Inevitably it was Tuscany and especially the city of Florence that assumed the leadership in the gastronomic arts; and it was also from Florence that this was passed on first to France and then to the rest of Western Europe. The tradition credits Catherine de'Medici with introducing Italian cooking to France when she married the French dauphin Henry who later became Henry II. Catherine took with her to the French court skilled Italian cooks who brought with them (among other) foods such as peas (petit pois), artichokes and broccoli. The Italian influence was the beginning of France's haute cuisine, hence Barzini's claim that "we (the Italians) taught the French how to cook."

Before the discovery of the Americas, trade with the Levant by Italian city states such as Pisa, Genoa and especially Venice kept Italy involved with spices and introduced coffee, the forerunner of today's famous espresso.

Rounding out the play of history on Italian cooking was the discovery of the New World and the introduction of new foods such as the tomato which the Italians dubbed the pomo d'oro or golden apple; pimento or red pepper, corn, the potato, and the turkey. By the end of the 16th century both the list of Italian food sources and cooking techniques had crystallized to their present forms.

Italy's Contributions to International Cuisine

Simply as a reminder, Italy's contributions to international cuisine are legion. Among the vegetables are broccoli and zucchini. The pastas range from spaghetti to slender linguine with clam sauce, green spinach noodles, broad lasagne layered with two kinds of cheese and meat and tomato sauce. Other international favorites are veal scallopine cooked in butter and sprinkled with lemon juice, veal parmigiana, a breaded cutlet topped with Parmesan cheese, fettuccine Alfredo, chicken Tetrazzini and so on. Among the best known Italian desserts are zabaglione, a wine‑flavored custard, spumoni and tortoni ice cream.

Regional Italian Cooking

Every region (and I suspect every province and commune) in Italy has its own food specialties. Among the better known of these regional specialties are the Piedmont's bagna cauda, a garlicky sauce; Milan's risotto alla Milanese (saffron flavored rice); Venice's fegato all Veneziana (wafer‑thin slices of liver and onions); Genoa's pesto (a sauce of basil, pine nuts and oil); Bologna's tortellini (little mounds of dough stuffed with meat or cheese); Tuscany's fagioli all'ucellento (fresh beans with sage and tomato); Florence's bistecca alla Fiorentina (steak, usually from Chianina cattle); Rome's abacchio al forno (roast lamb flavored with rosemary. Na ples, sfogliatelle (shell‑shaped pastries). In Calabria there is the tiella (a casserole of vegetables and macaroni); in Sicily there is maccheroni con le sarde (macaroni with a sardine sauce); and Sardinians are fond of burrida (a fish soup). And these are only a few of the regional food specialties.

The differences in regional cooking is so marked that Italians label a restaurant "international" if it serves the cooking of more than one Italian region.

As usual, however, the major regional differences are between the North and the South, and there are various yardsticks for measuring these differences. One of them is the cooking fat that is used. In the prosperous industrialized north with its wetter climate and better pasture that permits a sound dairy economy, food is generally cooked in butter. In the poorer, drier south the principal fat is olive oil. Pork fat is also widely used especially in places like Rome, Bologna and parts of the South.

A second yardstick for measuring North‑South differences is the makeup and shape of the pasta. In the prosperous north pasta is usually made with eggs and is flat shaped, including fetuccine, tagliatelle, and flat egg noodles. In the poorer south, pasta is generally made without eggs, it is tubular and thicker in form and includes spaghetti and macaroni. Other southern pastas are canelloni, lasagne and rigatoni. The southern pastas are served with more highly seasoned tomato based sauces; those of the north are generally dressed only with butter and grated Parmesan cheese. Everywhere in Italy, pasta is served al dente and as a separate course – not a side dish. The flagship city of southern cooking is Naples; that of the north is Bologna; Rome also has basis for prominence.

Italian Meals

The rhythm of Italian meals tend to differ from ours. For example, breakfast is not a big deal. Some have nothing more than black coffee with sugar. More typically breakfast consists of a roll with warm milk or coffee. The major meal is eaten at noontime. Depending on the economic circumstances of the family, the noon meal begins with an antipasto that may include marinated mushrooms and artichokes, black olives, pimento prosciutto, salami, radishes and even anchovies. This is followed by a dish of soup or pasta or rice. For well‑heeled families the main course is fish or meat such as codfish, or veal or pork accompanied by a vegetable. Dinner concludes with fruit, cheese, a sweet and coffee. The dinner, of course, is washed down by wine. (No wonder these citizens have to sleep a siesta.)

The evening meal is light, consisting of a soup, perhaps a vegetable, or cold cuts, cheese and fruit. Supper is often eaten late.

A word constantly heard around an Italian dinner table is “Mangia, Mangia”, and there goes another plate of pasta down the hatch.


Ever wished you had made notes on that great lecture you enjoyed on board your last cruise?

Well, the good news is that we've done the job for you!

Prow's Edge Cruise Magazine presents a new series in which we offer you those notes on the cruise ship lectures you enjoyed so much.

( As you read these lectures, please note that they were intended for oral presentation on a cruise.)



• The Secret Life of Whales


• Falkland Islands in Time, Place and War

• The Cayman Islands: Money and Banking in the Sun

• Footprint of The Vikings

• Italy: The Undying Challenge of Regionalism

• Historical Origins and Regional Patterns of Italian Cooking

• The San Blas Cuna of the Panama

 Sabin Robbins

Sabin Robbins

Author-naturalist, Sabin Robbins, grew up in the wilds of...Cincinnati, Ohio!

His pets included a raccoon, crow, and seagulls.

After Yale and graduate studies at Oxford, his love of animals drew him to a career at the National Geographic and National Zoo in Washington, DC where he led safaris around the world, doing field research in East Africa, the Galapagos, the Amazon and the whale nurseries of the Pacific. He has tracked tigers by elephant-back, watched gorillas make love, charmed a cobra, tickled the tongue of whales, and swam with sharks and piranhas.

As a popular lecturer on cruise ships, Robbins has been on more than a 100 cruises from Australia to Zanzibar and 60 countries in between.

 John Augelli

John Augelli and his cruise ship lectures

After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University, John Augelli embarked on a career of teaching, research, consulting and travel that spans more than 50 years.

He has authored three books, five monographs, 41 major articles, and more than 50 other scholarly publications, most of which deal with cultural geography and Latin America. “Middle America”, coauthored with Robert West, is still considered the definitive cultural historical geography of the area (Mexico, Central America and the West Indies).

John Augelli is also the recipient of numerous honors and recognitions.

After retiring from university teaching in 1991, Dr. Augelli spent the next 20 years as lecturer and area resource person on cruises sponsored by the American Geographical Society through Raymond and Whitcomb, for INTRAV and for Seabourn, Renaissance, Royal Viking, Silversea, Sun Line, Cunard, Crystal and Holland America and other cruise lines. He lectured on his last cruise at age 88 in January of 2009. He now resides in Florida.

John Augelli can be reached at [email protected]