Italy is located at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. After years of relative underdevelopment, the country has become one of the most industrialized countries in the world, despite its dysfunctional political structure. Various areas differ in terms of economic activities, social structures, and culture, although some habits, especially those connected with Catholicism, are widespread and widely followed. Because of its long history, the diverse and prolonged influences of neighboring populations, and local differences, Italian cuisine presents a stunning variety of products, foods, and dishes. Italians are usually quite knowledgeable about foods and dishes that have nationwide diffusion and distribution, but they are also very proud of their local products and traditions. In recent years, local food-ways, and above all artisanal products, have been rediscovered. However, large sections of the population are abandoning the traditional Mediterranean diet, mainly based on carbohydrates and vegetables, and adopting a diet rich in protein, fat, and sugar; as a consequence Italy is experiencing a growth in obesity and heart disease.
Grains, such as wheat, rice, and corn, constitute the main staple in Italian cuisine. Wheat, both the hard and soft varieties, provides the bulk of dietary calories in the form of flour, bread, pasta, pizza, and such. Breads, both salted and unsalted, vary in size from single-portion breads to big loaves. They are used during meals, and single-portion breads Page 208 | Top of Article(panini), filled with all kinds of food, are eaten as a snack or a light meal. Leavened dough is also used to make pizza, which can be baked in the oven and simply seasoned with a dash of olive oil, salt, and some herbs or enriched by all kinds of toppings. Pizza can be either eaten at a restaurant, in which case it is round and served on a dish, or bought from shops, where it is cut according to the client's request and sold by the weight.
The main Italian staple made with wheat flour is certainly pasta. Fresh pasta used to be made at home, but it is now available in shops. The most common types are fettuccine or tagliatelle, shaped with a knife into long ribbons. Local specialties include tajarin (long, flat egg noodles) in Piedmont, garganelli (ridged quill shapes) in Romagna, orec-chiette (ear shapes) in Puglia, spaghetti alla chitarra in Abruzzo, and bigoli (thick hollow strands) in Veneto. There are also many types of fresh pasta ripiena, or filled pasta, such as ravioli, agnolotti, tor-telli, and tortellini; lasagne and cannelloni, rolled squares filled with meat, mozzarella, or vegetables, are also common. Although most pasta secca, or dried pasta, is industrially produced, artisanal varieties are also very popular, despite being more expensive. Different shapes of pastas tend to be used with different sauces and condiments according to local tradition or nationwide habits.
Italian rice grains tend to be more rounded and release more starch than varieties from other countries and thus are particularly apt for local recipes. In the north, a traditional way of cooking rice is risotto: The grains are first sautéed in butter and onion until translucent, then hot meat broth is added slowly. The most famous is probably risotto alla milanese, cooked with saffron and broth. In recent years, fish-based risotto has also become very popular. In the south, there are fried balls of rice stuffed with various ingredients, like supplì in Rome and arancini in Sicily. Rice is also widely used in thick soups.
Maize was introduced into Italy in the 16th century. Although corn on the cob is appreciated and corn kernels have found their way into salads, maize is mainly consumed in the form of polenta, Page 209 | Top of Articlesimilar to American grits, seasoned with various sauces. Other grains used to make pastas or cooked in soups are buckwheat, barley, and faro, a whole grain similar to spelt.
Pulses, both fresh and dried, are important in the dietary pattern of Italian populations, the most common being beans, lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, and peas. Pulses are also used in vegetable soups, or minestre; other ingredients may include pasta, vegetables, and herbs. When pasta is absent, soups are called zuppa. Chestnuts, although a fruit, were used like a legume in the past; that is to say, they were boiled in soups or ground into flour.
Introduced in the 16th century, potatoes can be mashed into a puree, fried, sautéed, boiled, roasted, and baked. The most renowned potato-based dish is gnocchi, little dumplings made by adding flour and sometimes eggs, which are boiled and then seasoned with melted butter and cheese, light tomato sauces, or pesto. Other root vegetables, like beets or radishes, are not common, with the exception of carrots.
Together with legumes and potatoes, vegetables play an important role in Italian dietary patterns. Besides fresh salads, there are onions, garlic, celery, scallions, leeks, eggplant, sweet peppers, chili peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, asparagus, artichokes, fennel, chard, spinach, broccoli, broccoli rabe, and all kind of cabbages. Vegetables are consumed fresh, or pickled and conserved in olive oil, vinegar, or salt. Mushrooms and their more expensive relatives, truffles, are appreciated all over Italy. Herbs like oregano, basil, rosemary, mint, bay leaves, and parsley are commonly used to season dishes. Thyme, myrtle, dill, tarragon, and juniper berries are less frequent. Spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and saffron are also widely used.
Fruits play a very important role in the Italian diet, eaten all day long as a snack and consumed regularly at the end of every meal. The most common fruits are oranges, tangerines, pears, and apples in winter; strawberries and cherries in spring; peaches, plums, apricots, figs, melons, and watermelons in summer; and persimmons, grapes, and chestnuts in the fall. Tropical fruit is now widely available, especially bananas, pineapples, grapefruit, and coconuts. Almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, and pistachios are widely consumed; peanuts are massively imported.
Olive trees grow well in the coastal areas of the south, in Tuscany, along the coast of Liguria, and near Lake Garda. Olives are commonly pickled and cured. Varieties of olives differ in size, taste, and growing periods, making the oils deriving from them different. The mixture of olive varieties and the terroir (depending on the character of the soil, the weather, exposure to the sun and wind, cultivation methods) determine the character of the final product. Olive oil is a traditionally important cooking fat, together with butter in the north and pork fat all over the country.
Wine, produced in great quantities, often employing local varieties, is a basic component in everyday meals. Wine is still bought in bulk for everyday consumption, but the general appreciation for high-quality wines is growing. Some wine is traditionally fermented into vinegar, a very common condiment; balsamic vinegar, originally produced in Emilia Ro-magna, is now increasingly popular. Italian spirits are made either by distilling the by-products deriving from the winemaking process or by macerating herbs and fruit in different types of alcohol. The most famous distilled spirit is the grape-based grappa, mostly produced in the north. Beer, some of it produced locally, is also widely consumed.
Consumption of meat has dramatically increased in the past decades. Ways to cook meat include frying, roasting, grilling, boiling, braising, stewing, and sautéing. The most common meats are beef, veal, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and less frequently rabbit, duck, goose, squab, mutton, goat, venison, game, and horse. Pork meat is cured and preserved as sausages, salami, and prosciutto (both raw and roasted). Offal is still popular, although the youngest generations are increasingly less willing to consume it.
Fish is widely available, both fresh and frozen. Among freshwater fish, Italians prefer trout, perch, carp, and eels, while the most appreciated saltwater fish are sea bass, gilthead bream, sole, turbot, skate, John Dory, and red mullet. Also very popular are salted codfish and stockfish, which are dried and reconstituted. A special category is the so-called blue Page 210 | Top of Articlefish, which includes anchovies, sardines, mackerel, tuna fish, and swordfish.
Fish—usually sold and served whole, and not filleted—can be grilled, roasted, boiled, stewed, sautéed, fried, steamed, or cooked in aluminum foil. Crustaceans, shellfish, and all kinds of mollusks are appreciated, especially mussels, clams, shrimp, crab, squid, and octopus. Eggs constitute a very important element of the everyday diet, cooked in various ways.
Milk is not as popular as in the United States and is mostly drunk for breakfast. Sour cream and buttermilk are quite rare, while yogurt is increasingly popular. Plain cream is sometimes used in pastry or specific recipes. Hundreds of cheeses are available in Italy, with different flavors, textures, and aromas depending on the area of production, the grass, the habits of the shepherds, traditions, and technical know-how. Industrial cheese is also widely sold. Italians consume cheese by itself or in sandwiches, use it in many recipes, or grate it on top of pasta and soups. The most popular cow-milk cheeses include parmigiano reggiano, grana padano, Asiago, taleggio, Gorgonzola, fontina, provolone, mozzarella, and scamorza; popular sheep-milk cheeses are scamorza, pecorino Romano, pecorino Toscano, and caciotta.
Italians enjoy both mass-produced brands of ice cream, available in groceries, supermarkets, and bars, and artisanal gelato, sold in shops (gelaterie) that are often open year-round. A simple frozen dessert is granita, grated ice flavored with fruit, coffee, or syrups poured on top, while sorbet (sorbetto) is made with syrups or pureed fruit.
Pastry shops and bakeries offer a wide choice of pies, cakes, and small pastries, which vary according to the different areas. Many pastries are made of fried dough with different fillings, like zeppole in Naples, filled with custard cream. Doughnut-shaped fried pastries are called frittelle. Also, the dough for the renowned Sicilian cannoli, filled with a ricotta cheese–based cream, is fried. Baked desserts and pies are also very common, both homemade and commercial. There are many kinds of biscotto (the word means “twice-cooked”) and crostata, a thin layer of pasta frolla—quite similar to shortbread—spread over the bottom of a pan, topped with homemade jam or fruit preserves, and baked. Many desserts use a sort of sponge cake, or pandispagna, as a base, like the famous Sicilian cassata, filled with a cream made of ricotta cheese, sugar, candied fruits, and pieces of chocolate, covered with a thick frosting of white sugar and decorated with candied fruits.
Several drinks made by infusion or decoction of leaves, grains, or roots in boiling water are commonly used in Italy, the most common being coffee. Other infusions include tea, chamomile tea, linden, mint, and verbena. Chocolate in all forms is also very popular.
Women are usually in charge of food at home, helped by appliances like electric or gas stoves, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and smaller appliances like pressure cookers, frying machines, pasta makers, toasters, mixers, and food processors. Only after World War II, with the massive immigration Page 211 | Top of Articletoward the industrial north, the growing urbanization, the abandonment of the countryside, and the economic boom, did it become normal for women to work full-time outside the house. Although jobs that left time for cooking and housekeeping were still preferred, over the past decades it has become socially acceptable for women to dedicate themselves to their careers. However, men from older generations still expect the women to do the shopping, the cooking, and the cleaning. Among younger couples chores tend to be shared, especially when it comes to grocery shopping and the kitchen. It has become acceptable for young men to learn how to make at least some simple dishes.
Various dishes and culinary traditions that require intensive and lengthy preparations are slowly disappearing. To respond to these changes, food industries are investing in creating and mass-producing ready-made alternatives that still maintain some connection with the dishes of the past, banking on nostalgia. Curing and pickling vegetables in one's kitchen, or making jams and preserves at home, has become rare, more a hobby than a necessity.
In the past, women were in charge of transmitting their knowledge and experience in all culinary matters to the new generations. There was no desire for new recipes; the main task was to make the best of the limited resources available. Recipes and techniques were transmitted orally and by practical example. A woman with scarce culinary abilities was pitied and frowned on. From the 1960s, most working women had no time to teach their children how to cook, while young women did not want to perpetuate the social order that had forced their mothers into the kitchen. As a result, many young people, especially in urban environments, did not learn how to cook. Then came the 1990s, with the renewed interest in food and wine, finally considered as a major component of the Italian culture and society. People are interested again in learning about food and cooking but this time from cookbooks, magazines, televisions shows, and associations such as Slow Food, which was founded in Italy in reaction to the proliferation of fast food.
The triad of meals, breakfast—midday meal—evening meal (colazione, pranzo, cena), is the norm all over Italy. Breakfast is often insubstantial, and often adults have only a small cup of coffee or coffee with frothed milk (cappuccino) on their way to work. Children usually have a slightly more structured meal, centered around a bowl of milk, often enriched with coffee, or less commonly tea, accompanied by plain or flavored cookies (biscotti), croissants, cake, slightly sweetened double-baked slices of bread (fette biscottate), or simple bread. Due to the scanty quantity of food consumed at breakfast, it is not uncommon to have a midmorning break. Brunch is a new concept in Italy. During the weekend, if people wake up late, they prefer to limit themselves to a coffee and wait till lunchtime for a more abundant meal.
The midday meal usually takes place between 12 and 3 p.m., depending on the area and the season. The traditional midday meal is structured around two main courses, called primo (first dish, often a pasta dish or a soup) and secondo (second dish, meat or fish, often served together with one or more side dishes, usually vegetables). Everyday meals usually end with some seasonal fruits, more rarely with a dessert, with the exception of ice creams or frozen desserts in summer. In the hot season, people often fix very light meals, with a preference for salads or cold dishes. Today, most people have either a primo or a secondo at midday and have both courses in the evening. A complete meal with primo and secondo, often followed by substantial desserts, also marks weekends and special occasions. Many Italians still consume their lunch at home, making it the biggest meal of the day, but children and people working 9 to 5 eat in canteens or in various kinds of eateries. It is fairly common for workers to bring their own lunches from home, consisting of a cooked dish or of a simple sandwich.
The evening meal, which in the past tended to be lighter, is now acquiring more importance, since it is often the only time of the day when the whole family can sit together. Many opt for either a primo or a secondo or prepare a single dish that includes more Page 212 | Top of Articlethan one element. Some cheese and cold cuts in the fridge can be used to fix a fast, light meal, together with a fresh tossed salad, tomatoes, or other vegetables. With a seated meal, most adults may drink beer or wine.
Although Italians enjoy cooking and eating their meals at home, and inviting friends and family for meals is a very common custom, eating out at ristoranti, trattorie, and osterie constitutes an important element in Italian social life. The meaning of these words has changed over time. Now, a ristorante is usually an establishment that offers nice decor, good service, and an upscale menu, while trat-torie and osterie tend to provide simpler food and service, at more affordable prices. Restaurants are rarely patronized by persons eating by themselves, with the notable exceptions of tourists, businessmen from out of town, or single men and women who prefer not to cook. Eating a complete meal by oneself is nevertheless considered quite unsatisfying and psychologically depressing. Restaurants thus become places to celebrate birthdays, to have dates, to mark holidays and special occasions, or just to socialize and meet friends.
With the renewed interest in traditional dishes and local ingredients, osterie and trattorie are undergoing a definite renaissance. Also, many ris-toranti now offer traditional, regional, and local dishes in a more upscale environment. In this case there is greater attention to ingredients, produce, and wine, with a tangible increase in prices. Other establishments bet on new cooking styles, either by importing foreign models (as was the case for nou-velle cuisine in the 1980s and, more recently, for American steakhouses or Japanese-style sushi bars) Page 213 | Top of Articleor by adopting a creative approach toward Italian cuisine.
Beginning in the 1950s, the younger generations found a relaxed and laidback place to gather in the new “American-style” bars, an evolution of coffee-houses, with a more modern decor and a less refined service, but still serving coffee rather than alcoholic drinks and offering a choice of food, pastry, and ice creams. However, many cities still boast elegant coffeehouses, usually more expensive than bars, offering great ambiance and a wider choice of sweet and savory small bites. These are places where clients sit down and take their time chatting with friends, reading, or having dates. They ensure calm and privacy, while bars tend to cater to people on the go, who often consume their drinks and their snacks standing. Nevertheless, bars often have tables and outdoor seating for the summer. The life of Italian bars revolves around coffee and other breakfast drinks, and not so much around liquor and alcohol, although the latter are regularly—and legally—sold in these places. Adults who prefer to have breakfast on the go make a quick stop in their favorite bar and have an espresso, often by itself, but sometimes also accompanied by some croissant or pastry. Most bars sell candies over the counter and offer ice cream and a choice of savory bites. In this case the bar is known as a snack bar and, more recently, as a bar gastronomia. The latter often offers cooked dishes at lunch, especially if it is located in an urban center near offices or other workplaces. The average bar displays panini (single-portion breads in different shapes, cut in two and filled with various ingredients), tramezzini (triangular, made of pancarré, a sort of upscale Wonder bread), toasts, slices of pizza, pieces of focaccia with salumi (cured meats), and sometimes salads and fruit salads.
Beside bars, there are plenty of other ways to get food on the go. The tradition of street and market food, although dying, is still present. Nevertheless, people are increasingly skeptical about hygienic conditions and have lost the taste for some of the most traditional street foods. Every area has its own traditions. Street foods are the legacy of a past when hunger and poverty were common for many city dwellers who did not even have a kitchen at home. That is why many traditional street specialties are made with innards or employ the simplest ingredients, like bread, legumes, or fruit.
While home deliveries are still rare, some shops sell ready-made food to take out. They are called tavola calda when they offer cooked dishes, and they often have small tables for clients who want to eat on the premises. No service is provided: Customers buy their dishes, often served in aluminum containers, at the counter and bring them to their tables. They are often required to clean up when they are finished. A rosticceria specializes in fried or roasted foods that would take too long or be annoying to prepare at home.
Many rosticcerie also use their oven to make pizza, either in large metal pans or directly on the bottom of the oven. This kind of pizza, called pizza al taglio, is cut according to the customer's request and sold by the weight. Some shops specialize in pizza al taglio, adding very few fried items to their offer. There are also places that sell pizza à la carte, where customers can sit at their table, order their meal and their drinks from a menu, and be helped by waiters. These places are called pizzeria, a name also used for shops selling pizza al taglio. Until a few years ago pizza was served at the table only in the evening. Many establishments now offer it also for lunch. Besides, many trattorie have diversified their menus by adding pizza.
In the new millennium, wine has become the object of a renewed interest from both connoisseurs Page 214 | Top of Articleand amateurs. Some specialized shops, called enoteca, cater to the needs of a growing public, curious to taste new wines and to know more about a world that until a few years ago was a realm reserved to a few aficionados. These are the direct development of the wine shops that in the past used to sell bulk wine, pouring it into bottles provided by the clients. Many enoteche have an annexed wine bar, which operates under a different business license and is also allowed to serve food to be consumed on the premises. Wine bars constitute an increasingly popular alternative to other types of restaurants, especially for high-end customers who are willing and able to spend nicely on a good bottle of wine and are knowledgeable enough to do so. Partly to meet the burgeoning demand from their clients, partly to make them even more passionate about their products, some enoteche, but above all wine bars, organize tasting meetings and classes.
Beer is also enjoying a growing success, especially among young people. New establishments have developed around this trend, called pubs, using the English word, or birrerie in Italian. The decor is usually quite different from that in other restaurants. Wooden tables and benches are prevalent. No tablecloth is provided but only paper towels. The service is basic. Dishes of foreign origin are served, such as sauerkraut with boiled wurst (sausages), hot dogs, hamburgers with French fries, potato salads, and chili con carne. Some pubs also serve salads, pasta, and sandwiches, to satisfy all tastes.
Fast foods appeared in Italy in the late 1980s, among heated public debates. However, foreign chains have often adapted themselves to the local tastes, adding pasta salads and vegetable salads to their menus and even offering beer and wine. Some Italian entrepreneurs found the concept appealing and created chains that operate like foreign fast-food places but serve only Italian dishes and pizza. These kinds of shops are now quite common in and around train and bus stations, airports, and service areas along the highways.
Since 1990, new forms of high-end tourism focusing on food and wine as expressions of local culture and traditions have developed. An agriturismo is an enterprise run by a farmer who offers food and lodging to tourists on his property, using the products from the farm and at times organizing recreational or cultural activities.
A relatively new phenomenon is the growth of ethnic restaurants. Chinese restaurants are definitely the most visible and numerous. Besides the Chinese, not many other ethnic restaurants are available: a few “African” establishments (mostly from Ethiopia and Somalia), some Moroccan or more vaguely “Arab” places, as well as some Japanese and Mexican, and very rarely Brazilian. Curiously, French restaurants are a rarity, confirming Italians' attachment to their food traditions, especially against the eternal rivals in culinary matters, the French.
Italians tend to find plenty of excuses to make a special occasion of a meal, both cooking at home and going out. Close friends and family feel free to drop by unannounced or on very short notice. As a matter of fact, this is an element that characterizes close social relationships, whereas invitations ahead of time denote that the guests are in an outer circle of friends and family. Also, coffee time after lunch is a favorite time to pay a visit and have a good chat over a steaming cup of espresso.
Sunday dinners often maintain their character as a special meal. The main courses, primi and secondi, usually become more elaborate, and cooks make an effort to prepare more side dishes. Some hosts offer more than one primo and more than one secondo to prove their cooking abilities and to show appreciation for their guests.
Many ceremonies are connected with the Catholic religion, which is still prevalent by far. Even many nonreligious people do not renounce these celebrations. Christening (battesimo) is the first occasion to mark most children's lives. In the days preceding the rite, families send out bomboniere, little souvenirs parceled up with smooth confectionery sugar-coated almonds called confetti. After the christening ceremony, families invite relatives and friends to join them to celebrate the occasion with a meal, often in a restaurant. Also, the first communion and confirmation are marked by family Page 215 | Top of Articlecelebrations, generally big lunches after the ceremony, held at home or at the restaurant. A festive lunch is also organized when a young person takes religious vows as a priest, a monk, or a nun.
Weddings are also celebrated with long, abundant, and sometimes extravagant meals. The menu starts with one or two appetizers, continuing with a couple of primi, if not three, and two or three secondi accompanied by several contorni (side dishes). All the dishes are served one after the other, so that guests do not need choose between the two or three primi, or between the two or three secondi, but can have a portion of each. After the main courses, desserts are served. At the end, the wedding cake is brought; the couple is supposed to cut the first slice, while the guests toast to their future happiness with sparkling wine. The cake is brought back to the kitchen, sliced, and served to the guests. The meal, which ends with liquors and coffee, can last a few hours.
Other occasions that are celebrated with food at home or meals at restaurants are birthdays, saint's days (according to the Catholic tradition, every day is dedicated to a specific saint, and the people who carry his or her name are supposed to solemnize that day), and academic and professional achievements.
Catholicism being the traditional religion in Italy, liturgical and religious festivities also marked social times, with holidays that were often connected to specific foods and meals. One of most important holidays is Christmas. At the vigil, in some areas families gather for a “lean supper,” that is, with no meat courses. However, the dishes can be numerous, abundant, and delicious, usually pretty much the same year in and year out, changing according to the area. Christmas Day dinner, customarily served in the early afternoon, is dominated by meat. Meat stocks and broth are very common primi, usually with pasta ripiena with meat-based fillings. All kinds of Christmas desserts are served. While in some families it is still customary to make some desserts at home, the food industries produce most of the holiday delicacies, some of which can also be bought from bakeries and pastry shops. Many Christmas desserts are actually derived from bread: pandoro from Verona (pan d'oro means “bread of gold”), panettone from Milan (pan di tono, “important bread”), pan speziale from Bologna (“spiced bread”), panforte from Siena (“strong bread”), pan pepato from Ferrara (“peppered bread”), pan no-ciato from Umbria (“bread with nuts”), pan giallo from Rome (“yellow bread”), and parrozzo from Abruzzo (pan rozzo, “rough bread”). As the names reveal, in time different ingredients were added to the bread to make it more festive, such as spices, nuts, raisins, candied and dried fruits, chocolate, and honey. The Christmas dessert in Naples is tiny balls of fried dough, dipped in honey syrup, arranged in a wreath, and decorated with colored spangles, called struffoli. Nougat candy, or torrone, is widespread all over Italy; it can be soft or hard, with hazelnuts or almonds, covered in chocolate or with some liquor.
New Year's Eve is celebrated all over Italy with parties and late suppers. The menu varies, but it is quite common to eat zampone (minced pork meat with spices, stuffed into the skin of a pig's foot) or cotechino (minced pork meat, lard, and skin made into a big sausage) with lentils, which represents money and abundance. Tradition requires that bottles of sparkling wine be opened at midnight on the dot. Many families also have a New Year's Day dinner, whose menus also vary but always feature rich and abundant dishes.
On January 6, the Catholic Church celebrates the Three Kings in a holiday called Epifania. This name Page 216 | Top of Articlewas corrupted to Befana, which is also the name of an old ugly lady riding a broom. Coming down the chimney, she brings sweets, candies, and little presents to the good children and just coal to the bad ones. Children would hang socks and stockings from the hearth (over the stove in modern kitchens), while leaving some food in the kitchen to thank her and to let her get some rest.
For Carnival, the Italian equivalent of Mardi Gras, long strips of crunchy fried dough powdered with sugar (called frappe, cenci, or chiacchiere) and little fried balls covered in melted honey (castagnole) are particularly popular.
For Easter, the egg is the most evident symbol of fertility and renewal, connected to the resurrection of Christ. Boiled eggs to be eaten on Easter Day, often painted in bright colors, were brought to church to be blessed at the midnight mass. Boiled eggs are also used to decorate sweet and savory cakes. Eggs are the main ingredients in many pies. Chocolate eggs are mass-produced, containing little presents for children. All over Italy, the Easter lamb—considered a symbol of Christ sacrificing himself—is served roasted or grilled. In many areas, there is still a tradition of an Easter breakfast, featuring boiled eggs, salami, savory and sweet pies, and chocolate, together with wine. Among the desserts, colomba (a leavened cake shaped like a dove and covered with a sugar and almond glaze) is common all over Italy. Many desserts are still homemade, like pastiera in Naples (a cake filled with boiled wheat grains, ricotta, and candied fruits and flavored with orange flower water) and cassata in Sicily (the sweet ricotta cheese cake), where making little lambs out of almond paste (marzapane) is still a living tradition.
Diet and Health
Since the late 1950s, there have been radical changes in the amount and the composition of the foods that Italians consume. For centuries, populations around the Mediterranean Sea, including Italians, had to strive against food scarcity, tilling soils that were often less than generous and making do with what they could grow around them. As a consequence, the diet was based mostly on carbohydrates, pulses, and vegetables, with little fat and animal protein.
Then, starting from the end of World War II, even the less-well-off became able to afford a more diverse and abundant diet. Nutrition patterns changed under the influence of new packaging and conservation techniques, industrial mass production, and more sophisticated systems of distribution. A widespread economic development that led to the actual boom in the 1960s allowed many to lead better lives and enjoy a more regular intake of food, even though it often severed the ties to their traditional ways of life, including culinary habits. The daily energy intake passed from slightly below 2,000 calories in the 1950s to almost 3,500 nowadays. Italians are consuming more meat and sugar, and coronary diseases are reaping more victims than ever before, because of fattier and higher-calorie diets. Obesity, especially in children, has become a main concern for the Ministry of Health, which has launched public campaigns aiming to educate the parents and the children themselves to eat better.
At the same time, the whole world seems to have discovered that the way the Mediterranean people had eaten for centuries in their effort to fight hunger actually constitutes a very healthy diet. The international public became aware of the advantages of the so-called Mediterranean diet in the late 1980s, when scientist Ancel Keys and a group of researchers published the results of the survey they had conducted in seven countries. Then, in 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued dietary guidelines for Americans that become the basis for the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid, clearly shaped by Keys's findings in southern Italy back in the 1950s. However, because of the way the media describe it, it is unclear whether the Mediterranean diet is considered as a cultural and historical construction, as a selection of specific foods, or, more scientifically, as a nutrient profile.
Despite the changes in their dietary patterns, and the regional differences, Italians still tend to eat more carbohydrates, legumes, and vegetables than Americans do. The distribution within these categories Page 217 | Top of Articlehas changed, too: From the 1950s, the growing availability of bread and pasta marked a decrease in the consumption of other cereals considered less desirable, such as barley or rye. Rice and maize maintained a certain acceptance in northern regions. The southern regions traditionally consume larger quantities of carbohydrates and vegetables than the northern ones. With regard to the consumption of different kinds of meat, beef increased until the 1970s, reaching a constant level that suddenly decreased at the end of the 1990s, due to the mad cow scare and other health-related anxieties. In contrast, consumption of chicken, pork, and rabbit is growing, on account of the lower prices of these meats and the fact that Italians now consider them as nutritious as beef.
Dietary rules change during each individual's lifetime. A very special moment for many women is pregnancy. Gaining weight in the months preceding the birth of a baby is not only considered acceptable but even recommended. Most women opt for breast-feeding, considered better for the child, since it creates a closer connection with the mother and provides the child with all necessary nutrients and a better protection against infections and diseases. For this reason, breast-feeding in public is socially accepted.
Up to five months of age, babies are fed exclusively milk or formula. From 5 to 12 months, babies are weaned, and new flavors and foods are introduced into their diet. Between 1 and 3 years of age, the babies are supposed adapt their diet to the adults' habits. The goal is to let babies get used to the taste of real food, since there is no concept of baby food per se. At this point, babies are usually more than happy to start eating what their parents and other adults eat, especially at social occasions when many people are gathered around the table. There are no children's menus in restaurants: Children are supposed to eat small portions of the same dishes the adults are having. Children are often curious to taste adult food, and in many families it is accepted to serve them even tiny drops of coffee in their milk and also wine, often diluted in lots of water.
There is no concept of food for the old. Senior citizens are supposed to eat the way they always did, unless they have specific ailments or suffer from loss of teeth. They continue to drink wine with their meals, to have their coffee in the morning, to season their dishes with salt, and to consume fried food and sweets. Since the calorie intake does not decrease, while retirement implies a less active style of life, it is quite common for older people to gain weight and to suffer from problems connected with high levels of cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Most physicians in Italy are not particularly interested in matters of nutrition, unless they affect some specific ailments. With the exception of pediatricians, who are definitely more involved in the subject, also because of pressure from mothers, many of them do not even take that subject during their professional training. For this reason, the advice some medical doctors give is quite vague, often based more on common sense than on study and research. Most of the knowledge people get about their food and their nutritional needs comes from less reliable sources: the media. Most television channels, newspapers, and magazine have a section on health, which often deals with food-related issues.
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