I personally have a hard time trusting people who don’t adore Italian cuisine. Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of those heretics around.
After all, what’s there not to love about an age-old tradition that favors simple and time-tested combinations, homemade cooking, and the freshest ingredients?
That’s the delicious topic we’ll be exploring today: classic Italian dishes, a hint of Italian food history, and the coolest Italian food facts that I learned when I studied in Milan back in 2014.
We’ve divided our Italian food facts into themed sections — yes, of course there’s one entirely devoted to pizza. Buon appetito!
Italian food facts that shape an entire cuisine
Let’s start off with the basics (which does not include spaghetti and meatballs. Sorry!)
1. Greatest cuisine in the world?
I once watched Slow Food (more on that on #8) founder Carlo Petrini answer the question “is Italian food the best on Earth?” with something like “each nation kind of thinks their own cuisine is the best in the planet. But few give so much importance to food as Italians”.
I’m not sure the majority of Italians would be as sensible as Petrini, however. Italians seem convinced that their culinary tradition is objectively superior to everyone else’s. Grub is their point of pride.
And while I happen to be crazy about almost everything they cook, I feel their cockiness in this department is half funny, half annoying at times.
2. The humble origins of Italian cuisine
Many of the delicious dishes Italians eat and are famous for owe their creation to poor peasants who couldn’t afford to waste anything.
Today, a handful of books tell this story and take you on a trip through Cucina Povera’s straightforward and substantial meals.
3. Locally sourced and seasonal
This is hands down the secret to the awesomeness of Italian food and the thing Italians take most pride in. With fresh pasta, freshly grated cheese, fragrant herbs, and craft olive oil from around the corner you can make a simple yet fantastic meal.
That’s not to mention the custom of cooking specific recipes in different times of the year according to produce availability. Mushrooms, for instance, are typically a fall food, whereas eggplants are the ultimate summer vegetable. This changes from one region to the next, though.
4. Meals have several courses.
A full Italian meal is normally divided into an antipasto (a salad or appetizer), a primo (pasta, rice, or soup), a secondo (meat-based dish) and its contorni (side dishes), followed by cheese and dessert.
At home, courses are often skipped, but mixing together a primo and a secondo is always a no-no.
5. Italy’s a major source of wine.
Having given us prestigious Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo, beloved Chianti, and world-renowned Prosecco, Italy is the biggest wine producer on Earth, ahead of Spain and France.
One of the funniest stories about Italian wine hails from Treviso (near Venice). Each fall, the so-called Fountain of the Tits (Fontana delle Tette) would pour white wine through one nipple and red wine from the other for three days.
Citizens could drink it for free — all that in the middle of the 16th century. The good old days of the Republic of Venice!
6. Italians are (mostly) healthy and fit.
Blame it on the Mediterranean diet and its focus on grains, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, wine, and seafood.
But apart from Asian and poorer nations, Italy’s is among the least obese populations on the planet, behind Switzerland and Denmark.
It also boasts a very low heart disease death rate, though in this case several countries beat it.
7. The Slow Food movement
The most Italian NGO ever just had to fight for the right of eating as pleasure and aim at protecting culinary traditions and biodiversity around the globe.
Slow Food’s birth rite took place in 1986, when its founders attempted to prevent McDonald’s from opening a store near the Spanish Steps. Now its actions reach 160+ countries.
Italian food traditions & rules
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes when I first heard about a couple of these Italian food facts. But locals know better, I guess?
8. Drink water before coffee.
In this case, water should serve as a palate cleanser so you can taste Italian coffee in all its glory. But chocolate comes after it because Italians are not enemies of fun.
9. Breakfast is sweet.
Coming from Brazil, a country with opposite habits, I was not amused in the beginning.
By the end of my semester in Italy, however, I was addicted to the combo cappuccino+pear and chocolate croissant from the nearest cafe. I still miss that, by the way.
Italians indulge in a sweet breakfast at home too. Cookies and toast topped with either jam or Nutella are their eggs-and-bacon.
10. To salt or not to salt?
Some folks argue salting your pasta water before it boils only delays the process, while others swear it can’t make that much of a difference. Since I’m always afraid of forgetting to add salt at all, I usually start off with that.
One thing is for sure, though: there’s no need to add oil to your pasta water if you’re cooking with dried (i.e. not fresh) pasta; it prevents your sauce from sticking to the pasta!
11. Different sauces go with different shapes of pasta.
Here are a few classic combinations:
- Carbonara: spaghetti or rigatoni
- Pesto: linguine or trofie
- Vongole (clams): spaghetti or linguine
- Ragù alla bolognese: lasagne or tagliatelle
- Arrabbiata: penne
- Puttanesca: fusilli
12. Mixing fish and cheese raises eyebrows.
I still sort of hate this, but I feel like I get it in a way. Seafood is delicate, while cheese is typically sharp. Originally, this may have been due to the fact that cheese wasn’t huge along the coast, where fish is king.
It remains true, though, that asking for your waiter to sprinkle parmesan over your shrimp risotto or spaghetti with clams might prompt them to pretend that all of a sudden they can’t speak English.
13. No cappuccino after meals
This and #12 should’ve gone under an “Ugh, tourists! 🙄” section. Italians will never have a cappuccino following lunch or dinner — it’s too heavy and breakfast-like.
An espresso, which is supposed to be digestive, is what you’d have to order to try to pass yourself off as a local.
14. Giovedì gnocchi, venerdì pesce, sabato trippa!
This is another legacy from Cucina Povera. The Roman saying literally means “gnocchi on Thursdays, fish on Fridays, and tripe on Saturdays”.
The schedule is not followed anymore, yet it showcases the impact scarcity and religion (fish on Fridays) had on the everyday lives of Romans.
Culture clash: Italian food facts and the rest of the world
Lost in translation is how I’d describe much of the “authentic” Italian food you find outside of Italy. Italians wouldn’t be so kind, though.
15. No country for old Mickey D’s
To be fair, McDonald’s is probably the most successful fast-food chain in Italy. Still, as with other brands we hate to love, it caters predominantly to foreigners. The lack of domestic demand had Domino’s, for example, set foot in the country for the first time as late as 2015.
Starbucks’ case is even more emblematic: after opening its flagship store in downtown Milan in 2018 — with great fanfare —, it now has a mere 10 stores throughout the city and one on the outskirts of Florence.
99% of Italians wouldn’t be caught dead inside any of those chains. With so many amazing local options of finger food all over the place, they don’t have to anyway.
16. What the heck is fettuccine Alfredo?
Though hugely popular in “Italian” restaurants across the globe, especially in the U.S., fettuccine Alfredo is virtually unknown in Italy.
Apparently, the dish was indeed invented in Italy, by Roman chef Alfredo Di Lelio, who used to mix in creamy butter instead of heavy cream. Yet other than in tourist traps, you won’t find it at a truly authentic Italian restaurant.
17. The garlic controversy
Garlic bread is yet another recipe non-Italians associate with Italian cuisine more easily than locals themselves. In fact, despite being among the most “Italian-tasting” spice, garlic is not that popular in Italy.
It was historically labeled a poor man’s seasoning, which helps explain why Americans immediately link garlic to Italian food: Italians who settled in the country in the early 20th century were broke as a joke.
18. Peperone is not what you think it is.
The closest you can get to a pepperoni pizza in Italy is salame piccante (or spicy salami). As wild as this may sound, peperone actually means bell pepper (while pepperoni is not a word in Italian).
Peperoncino on the other hand translates as “chili pepper”, which I believe might have something to do with the origin of the word pepperoni.
Fun facts about Italian pizza
I promise you that eating pizza in Italy will turn you into a pizza snob, for better or for worse.
19. How did it take shape?
Nobody knows, really. Pizza is possibly 1000 years old, and since it was made and eaten by the poor, it remained anonymous for centuries. Modern pizza is mentioned for the first time in Naples somewhere around the 18th century.
Even the story of the creation of pizza Margherita, which allegedly was a tribute to Queen Margherita of Savoy through the colors of the Italian flag — basil for green, mozzarella for white, and tomato sauce for red —, is likely just an urban legend.
20. Geography matters, of course.
Italians are obsessed with food certification, and pizza is no exception. Neapolitan pizza is the O.G. in this case, but each region has its own baking style.
Roman pizza, for example, is thinner and crunchier. The city is also famous for its pizza al taglio, which you pay by weight. Turin gave us pan-baked pizza, while Genoa bakes a focaccia-style one.
21. Meat on pizza?
Meh, not really. Apart from cold cuts like salami, prosciutto, and bresaola (made from beef), which are common pizza toppings, steak, chicken, and seafood are absolutely unthinkable.
When it comes to pizza, Italians are more willing to experiment with exotic cheeses and seasonings than meat. But exceptions do exist: award-winning i Tigli in Verona will go as far as adding seared tuna to pizzas.
22. Pizza a portafoglio or “Wallet-style pizza”
Italians are notorious slow eaters, but they’re masters at the art of street food too. Pizza a portafoglio or a libretto is proof of that.
With a thinner crust and slightly smaller than a regular pizza, this 1-euro treat is folded in four and will be quite simply the best on-the-go snack you’ll have upon visiting Naples.
Bizarre Italian food facts
As it turns out, traditional food is not always unanimous. In reality, Italy has its fair share of weird dishes like every other country.
23. Squid ink for everyone!
With its subtle flavor and iodine-like perfume, squid ink is a refined seasoning for pastas and risottos. It’s not exclusive to Italian cuisine: it goes into a bunch of Croatian and Spanish recipes as well.
24. Horse meat is a thing.
Eating horse meat is taboo in the majority of places, possibly because horses were domesticated thousands of years ago.
Yet, in Italy (which has the highest horse slaughter rate in Europe), it’s a cheaper alternative to beef and is available in a number of forms.
25. Casu martzu a.k.a. rotten cheese!
Sardinia is Italy’s Florida: home to the weirdest things nationwide. That includes — warning: not for the faint of heart! — a “special” sheep milk cheese that is literally rotted by cheese fly maggots.
Worse even: they’re still there when people eat it!
Since there’s no way of ensuring the safety standards of such a delicacy, casu martzu has been banned throughout the European Union. But it’s prepared in Sardinian homes to this day and likely sold illegally if you know where to look. I wouldn’t, though!
26. Bloody Sanguinaccio
A chocolate pudding with a tart aftertaste?
Sounds delicious until you find out there’s also pig’s blood in it. Like casu martzu, sanguinaccio has been outlawed for health concerns but has retained its popularity behind closed doors.
Random Italian food facts
27. Pasta wasn’t shipped from China.
Sorry, but Marco Polo had nothing to do with it, actually. Pasta was known in the southern Mediterranean from Antiquity and was originally baked raw with the sauce.
Italians were responsible for first boiling it in the Middle Ages, and so modern Italian pasta was born.
28. Apericena is the Milanese happy hour.
In Milan, happy hours are a decadent affair. If everywhere else in Italy you usually get comped a plate of peanuts and maybe chips with your drink, here you’ll feast on full-on buffets between 6 and 8 pm.
You shouldn’t expect Michelin-starred food, but it’s definitely worth the price.
29. Calabria likes it hot!
As well-seasoned as Italian food is, it’s normally not very spicy. Calabria, aka the tip of the boot, is the exception to the rule. From sausages to sauces, everything is hotter there.
Squeezed between Campania (where Naples is located) and Sicily, Calabria is often overlooked by tourists, which is clearly not fair.
30. Tiramisù means “Lift me up”.
That’s the literal meaning of tiramisù, both in the physical and figurative sense in English. The name’s fitting, considering obscene amounts of eggs, sugar, coffee, and cocoa go into a tiramisu.
Ironically, though, the most famous Italian dessert (behind gelato, which is more of a snack anyway) is not that old: it was probably created around the 1960s.
In case you’re struggling with the huge list of dishes that you have to try in your next Italian vacay, wait till you discover the 26 Italian landmarks that you absolutely can’t miss when you tour the country.
Take your time to digest the Italian food facts we’ve covered here, then you’ll be ready to start planning the trip of your life and daydreaming about croissants for breakfast, pasta for lunch, pizza for dinner, and gelato in between them!