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The Infinite Variety Of Italy's Regional Cuisines

Updated on March 20, 2011

Italy is divided into dozens of regions, each with its own dialect, culture and cuisine!

To speak of Italian cuisine is as pointless as it is to speak of a European one. Italy, like the continent which it holds up on its booted tippytoe, is an amazingly diverse country which was until recently segmented up into countless former fiefdoms, reigns, city states and and other mini-nations who were often at odds and sometimes even at war with one another. These individual sovereignties developed their own dialects, although separate languages would be a closer description. There is virtually no common ground between the dialect spoken by a Sicilian and that of a Friulian. They stand no more chance of understanding each other than a Scandinavian and a Spaniard. The vast majority of Italians do, however, speak a common language which is essentially a polished form of the Tuscan dialect that by some miraculous feat of magic by Dante Alighieri became the common tongue of the boot (if you'll pardon the expression).

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Not even Dante's soaring prose could possibly patch up the differences in each region's cuisine, however. The climatic and environmental differences of each area compounded by centuries and millennia of tradition, have created a situation where a Sicilian would consider Venetian fare as "schifio" (scum), a Monzan would call Sardinian food "fuffa" (trash) and the completely culinarily-xenophobic Neapolitans would compare the cuisine of any other region to "vummecature e 'atte" (cat vomit).

To just touch upon the various regional cuisines of Italy would require an encyclopaedia, but they can generally be divided up as follows:

North: Relying on butter over olive oil, and regaling in risottos, polenta (cooked cornmeal) and stuffed pastas (tortellini, ravioli, etc.) the north's industrial wealth is reflected in their choice of ingredients: the finest meats; sumptuously rich cheeses; and the replacement of the modest tomato with savoury broths exalted by vintage white wines. The north is the only region of Italy which favors freshwater over saltwater fish, and also serves far more game than any other. Never believe that "the Mediterranean Diet" applies in the north, as it is a cuisine much closer to the thick, heavy Swiss than to the southern coast's.

Central: This primarily mountainous area demonstrates the greatest climatic and environmental variations in the country. It is not unusual to be skiing in the morning and then drive an hour or two to go lie on a sunny beach. Given this ecological blessing, the cuisine is diverse, and literally omniphagic. With the finest products from the chilly mountainsides, balmy valleys and Mediterranean seashores to choose from, there is virtually nothing that the Central Italians don't love to eat. Grilling and roasting with herb encrustations or marinades are the preferred preparations for meats; beans, other legumes, chestnuts, whole grains and saffron are used extensively; and fresh saltwater fish and seafood is enjoyed everywhere as no part of the region is more than about 50 miles from the sea.

Southern: For most of the last millennium, Italy was separated by a vertical north-south line that started north of Ancona and ended just south of Rome. Everything south of that was a completely different country, with its own rulers, culture, customs and language. Under foreign domination for centuries, the population lived on bread, pasta, greens and whatever scraps of meat their overlords would discard. To this day most of those traditions live on and many southerners rarely eat beef, pork or chicken. In some inland areas lamb and kid (young goat) are popular but the animal protein of choice is anything that comes from the sea. Tomato, eggplant, zucchini and broccoli rule the vegetable roost, and of course mozzarella is a classic.

Islands: It is essentially mistaken to lump Sicily in with Sardinia, as their cuisines are very different. Even within the islands themselves there are enormous variations. Sicily's eastern coast was the ancient Magna Grecia, thus is very Greek in its approach, while Palermo was under French rule for so many centuries that it has taken on a cuisine that can best be described as Marseillaise. Further west, Trapani's food heritage can only be described as Tunisian with fish and couscous predominating. The Arab invasions have left behind a tradition of superlative ultra-sweet honey and almond desserts. Sardinia is an island which surprisingly does not rely on fish to a large degree, but concentrates on the mountainous countryside to provide lamb, pork and goat, along with strong, sharp cheeses and honeyed desserts.

All of these cuisines have their special strange characteristics and extreme foods. Bovine urinary tracts or rooster combs are served grilled or stewed in Tuscany; donkey jerky is popular in Puglia; bull's testicles and penis are a delicacy in Campania and Calabria; and in Sicily honored guests are served the hard, dried and cured roe pouch of a tuna, usually grated on pasta, but also served sliced with lemon; but the worst is Casu Marzu: a Sardinian cheese overflowing with live insect larvae almost half an inch long. It is illegal in Italy as the live worms can bore through your intestines, but is still easily found on the island. Throughout Italy you will find a reliance of bitter liqueurs as after-dinner drinks to "help the digestion." Cynar is one of the most popular and tastes like burnt artichokes soaked in bile. The only way it has ever helped my digestion was to make me puke.

Each region will stubbornly maintain that their cuisine is the ultimate, however the best way to conclusively determine their status is to go and try them all. Your waistline will suffer, but I can guarantee that the rest of you will be ecstatic!

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