The history of food is not given as much attention in school as significant dates and rulers, but it is just as important—and intriguing! Food shapes everything from basic survival to culture to commerce, and some of the world’s favorite meals come with wonderfully weird history. When it comes to Italian food, there exist tales of ingenuity, crime, worker uprisings, and war. Enjoy these strange and surprising histories of five famous Italian foods.
Integral to the cuisine of northern Italy, risotto rice has also been a significant factor in the work and lives of Italian women. The women who worked in the rice fields, known as mondine, did grueling physical labor for hours on end, day in and day out, only to be paid with one scoop of rice per day. Fed up and determined, they united in protest to demand better working conditions and fair wages, and they did so during the fascist rule of WWII no less! Not only did they actually win concessions, these brazen women workers also aided the fight against the Nazis by hiding its opponents, and passing on messages and supplies. That’s one exciting rice field!
There are hundreds of pasta shapes, each with their own unique and sometimes weird history. Paccheri, a wide pasta shape with a large central cavity, is not just part of the history of Italy, but part of a broader European history as well.
Today, one of the first ingredients that comes to mind when thinking about Italian cuisine is garlic. Its powerful flavor and aroma was also well-known to Prussia (modern-day Austria), a nation-state that banned Italian garlic from crossing into its territory for threatening its own, more meekly-flavored domestic garlic. Enter paccheri pasta: the perfect vehicle for smuggling Italian garlic across the border. With so much room in the center of the noodle, it was ideal for sneaking in many cloves at once. Who knew criminal activity could be so yummy?
Gourmets are wont to call their favorite dishes “works of art,” but in the case of carpaccio, it’s actually true. The dish, consisting of round, paper thin slices of raw beef artfully arranged on a plate, was named after Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio.
One day in 1950, when an exhibit of the painter’s work was in town, a man named Giuseppe Cipriani created his own masterpiece for a woman called Countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo. The Countess, a regular at Cipriani’s bar, had been ordered by her doctor to switch to a diet of raw meat. Feeling sorry for her—and inspired by the challenge—the bar owner assembled this now famous dish, likening its color to the vivid red that Carpaccio used in his works. Fittingly, beef carpaccio is admired for its presentation as much as (if not more than) its taste.
The history of Italy would not have been the same without balsamic vinegar; it is literally referred to as “black gold” in Modena. Balsamic vinegar has held a place all its own since the Middle Ages, and it is considered to this day to be one of the nation’s greatest treasures. People invented so many different uses for it over the centuries that it was, at one point, almost more of a cure-all magical potion than a dressing. (To be clear, it does possess some health benefits, but we’ve since discovered that it cannot cure the bubonic plague.) Unlike many other Italian foods that have humble, peasant origins, balsamic vinegar of Modena was reserved for the nobility from the get-go. It is even thought to have been given as a gift to a Holy Roman Emperor in the 11th century! So the next time you open up a bottle and drizzle it over some parmigiano reggiano, be sure to stop and think about what an incredible life it has had.
The New York Times once called the tartufo the “death star of deliciousness,” but it was not the end product of some grand design. This beloved Italian dessert became an instant classic when a stroke of genius hit pastry chef Don Pippo in 1952 in a time of need. Providing the dessert for a wedding that played host to a descendent of King Victor Emmanual II, the first king of unified Italy, the chef ran into a problem: too many guests, not enough cups! Thinking on the fly, Don Pippo cleverly froze a chocolate shell around gelato, which acted as its own edible cup. Mother Necessity and quick, resourceful thinking gave way to a culinary invention that would come to represent the country the world over. Love Italian dessert? Find easy recipes here.