14 fun facts about Italian food (and drinks!)

Posted on Feb 5, 2024 in Foodies & Shopaholics

Last year, 2023, I collected several “Foodies’ pills” that I shared on my social media. This article collects them all and tells you something some Italian  fun facts about food:

  1. Italian cuisine, differently from the French one that was created in the kitchens of the most famous chefs, was born in the homes of the middle class in the XIX century. This domestic gastronomy had its own  “bible”, the cooking manual by Pellegrino Artusi, published in 1891. This book was translated in many languages (recently in Japanese too) and unified all regional traditions and the cooking language. Emigrants used to bring this book with them in their new lives and 15 million Italians who ended up in the US were making the Italian food an element of identity, abroad and in Italy too!
  2. the most famous Italian praline is dedicated to lovers and its name is “Bacio” (the kiss) by Perugina. Luisa Spagnoli (later becoming a stylist!) had a smart idea: crumbles of hazelnuts resulting from other recipes could be used to make a special paste and wrap a full hazelnut, all covered with chocolate. The shape recalled a fist and this was the first name, “cazzotto” in Italian. The name was then changed into “the kiss” which was surely better from a marketing point of view. The packaging recalls the painting by Hayes “The Kiss” and a little card inside has a quote about love or friendship. The incredible success brought the “Baci Perugina” to the Fifth Avenue in NYC in 1939. Did you ever try one? This is perfect souvenir to bring home from your holiday in Italy!
  3. The main differences between parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are their aging processes and how their ingredients are regulated. For a cheese to be classified as Parmigiano-Reggiano, it must come from particular regions of Italy and contain only certain approved ingredients. Parmigiano-Reggiano is also aged at least one year and up to three years. Parmesan, on the other hand, is not regulated, and may be aged as little as 10 months. But you surely know that already…. What you might ignore is that Parmigiano Reggiano is mentioned already in novel by Boccaccio in the XIV century, but we cannot know exactly how it tasted. There were less rules and the consortium was only  founded in 1938, standardising the process and the taste. The “parmesan” was exported to the US by  Italian cheese makers at the beginning of the XX century, mostly to Wisconsin, and they probably brought abroad the oldest version of the cheese, the one that Boccaccio used to eat in the Middle Ages! So, “our” parmigiano is honestly better than parmesan, but the latter might be more “authentic” and traditional than the great Italian cheese!
  4. Despite the existence of a town in Sicily called Pachino near Siracusa, the famous cherry tomato is not Italian, but was born in Israel! And it’s also very young, birth certificate dates 1989 in Hazera Genetics, a company that applied the technology of the “Marker-Assisted Selection” to tomatoes and obtained  a new and resistant type of vegetable through hybridisations and selections. These tomatoes can last up to 3 weeks after harvesting and this made their success! They are not GMO products, simply we obtain in lab what could have happened in nature through centuries. BTW best time to eat tomatoes in Italy is spring-summer, even if they are now available all year round. Do not order caprese in winter, ok?
  5. Time for gelato! Artisanal gelato is the best, but the most ancient Italian certified gelatos are industrial products that you can still find in our shops today: Cornetto Algida was born is 1959, his older brother – Cremino” – was already out there in 1946! And the iconic Coppa del Nonno – a very typical Italian dessert – was invented in 1955. If you love coffee, look for this gelato when you visit!
  6. If you wish to experience a country through its food, in summer drinks should be part of the tasting! Try local traditional sodas invented in Italy long time ago: Cedrata and Chinotto! Cedrata comes from the cedar fruit, only the skin in fact, and was invented  in the Fifties on Lake Garda, in Salò, where the company Tassoni still is located. It is very refreshing! Chinotto is bitter, it comes from a citrus fruit with the same name, it looks like a cola but it’s more natural. Two companies compete for the inventions of this soft drink, San Pellegrino and Neri, still the two major producers. Have you ever tried chinotto?
  7. Do you know first “pizzerias” (meaning a restaurant that only serves pizza with seating facilities) were born in the United States? For instance Lombardi’s in NYC, more precisely in Little Italy since 1905. In Italy proper pizzeria didn’t exist at that time, pizza was  essentially “street food”. Some trattoria might have served it, but as one speciality in their larger menu. Moreover, pizza was for long a very local food of the area of Naples , still in the ’60 it was not common at all to go out and eat pizza if you lived in Milan or Venice.
  8. Mediterranean diet is always a good idea, now (since 2010) it’s also protected by UNESCO! But Mediterranean diet is an American invention! It was theorized by the US nutritionist Ancel Keys in the Fifties as a good element of a healthy and long life. Said by someone who lived until his 101 birthday! (and spending 40 years in Italy, in Pioppi, a fishermen village near Salerno)
  9. Italy is also the place for chocolate lovers, from the Alps to Sicily! As everyone knows, we are the homeland of Nutella, a brilliant idea of putting the Piedmont specialty of “gianduia” chocolate in a jar, ready to spread it on …everything! Ferrero deserves a Nobel price for this! But if you are fond of chocolate do not miss Modica chocolate bars: it  is the result of just cocoa and sugar mixed in a cold-working process. It has no added fats (only the cocoa butter that is naturally present in cocoa beans). The cold-working process (ingredients are never heated above 45 C) keeps sugar crystals whole in the chocolate bar, giving a special “texture” to this granular chocolate. Modica is a lovely baroque Sicilian town and it boasts also a “museum of chocolate”.
  10. Do you know what’s a “norcino”? It was an expert in processing pork meat, going from farm to farm between November (St Andrew’s day on Nov 30th) and January (St Anthony on the 17th) and leaving behind hanging salami, ham and all the cured meat specialities. The name comes from the town of Norcia where St Benedict was from. In the area there were traditionally pig farms, but also a Benedictine surgical school of St. Eutizio where the “art” of butchery was inherited and perfected from XIII to XVIII century.We could call this business an oligarchy,  as the same families were involved for centuries passing on procedures and recipes. You can’t probably bring back home any of these products, but do not forget to try our cured meat, maybe in Rome you can taste the DOP Amatriciano ham, a local competitor of the more famous Parma ham.
  11. The famous “panettone” is not a traditional recipe from the bygone days… it is in fact an industrial product invented in 1919 by Motta and only later many pastry chefs decided to challenge themselves and their competitors inventing all sort of variants to this original Christmas cake!
  12. Marsala wine was invented by an English businessman, John Woodhouse,  in 1773. He sent Sicilian wine back to UK and to preserve it during the shipment, he added alcool. Sicilian wine was cheaper than the Spanish  and Portuguese base of the  already famous Madera  and Porto. Moreover, during Napoleonic era, it was easier to ship from Italy than from Iberian peninsula and this is how the Marsala wine had a moment of tremendous success. Italians started to produce it (Florio family) and consume it much later.
  13. Traditional balsamic vinegar is a niche product made only in two Italian provinces, Modena and Reggio Emilia. It ages at least 12 years and follows a very complex protocol of production, making it an expensive ingredient (minimum 500 euros per litre) of special recipes in Michelin star restaurants. In the past it was only  made for self use in a small circle of families inheriting the tradition and it was a deluxe gift for special olfaction in small bottles. Just to say the balsamic vinegar you find in some Italian trattorias and in supermarket is  simply something else, exploiting the fame of the “traditional labelled vinegar”. But what is surely affordable to anybody during a trip in Italy its the visit and tasting in one  “acetaia”, for instance Del Duca. I went once, thanks to my friend and colleague Elisabetta and it was a charming discovery!
  14. Have you ever seen this commercial? This catchy phrase “No Martini? No party!” became an idiom since the year 2000 and it refers to an important Italian brand conveying the idea of enjoying life. The Martini brand was born in 1863 with the invention of Martini Rosso vermouth,  an aromatised fortified wine, flavoured with various botanicals. Eight generations later, Casa Martini is still there in Piedmont and opens its doors  to illustrate this successful Italian story and taste their products. Sparkling wines for George Clooney, or cocktails like the Vesper Martini chosen by James Bond in Casino Royale, Martini wines are bases for famous mix all around the world and synonymous of a refined night life.