For centuries, different populations have left their mark on Italian territory and contributed to the creation of the cultural melting pot that Italy is today. Of course, this encompasses Italian cuisine.
The Arabs in Sicily
From the landing at Mazara del Vallo in AD 827 to the fall of Noto in 1091, Sicily was under the dominion of the Arabs. While almost a thousand years have passed since then, the signs of this occupation are still clearly visible. They are seen in the red domes of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo and in numerous other architectural wonders. But above all, the Arabic influence is evident in the customs and traditions of Sicily, including its cuisine - born from the fusion of two different cultures. From oranges, asparagus and honey to pistachios and almonds, the Arabs imported a whole series of products which revolutionised cooking on the southern island, especially when it comes to regional pastries and sweets.
One example of this is petrafennula (honey and almond brittle).The origins of this Sicilian sweet are immediately recognisable in its ingredients, introduced by the Arabs who inhabited the island. They include apples, honey, almonds, citrus and cinnamon. Its extremely hard texture inspired the expression “fàrisi petrafènnula”, meaning to be steadfast and inflexible.
On the savoury side of things, pasta “mare e monti” (Sicilian surf and turf) is another icon with roots in the Arabic rule. This is a dish where the sea meets the mountains, born out of the ingenuity of an Arabic cook who was forced to create a meal from the few ingredients available during a military campaign in Syracuse.
The Austro-Hungarians in Friuli-Venezia Giulia
A land of borders, Friuli-Venezia Giulia was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is synonymous with the blending of cultures. This is also reflected at the table. Many regional dishes combine Istrian ingredients with those from beyond the Alps: often Italianised names replace their original Slavic or German ones. Popular regional ingredients such as potatoes, cabbage and plums are also widely used in bordering Austria and Slovenia.
Strucolo de pomi (apple strudel) is a Triestine dish which has adopted an Italian name deriving from the Slavic word strukllj, a take on the German word strudel.
Another typical sweet is gnocchi di susine (plum gnocchi).This type of gnocchi has Bohemian origins and was introduced under the dominion of the Austro-Hungarians. Plums were one of the most widespread products, especially along the Slovenian border, where Slivovitz (plum brandy) is still produced today.
The French in Campania
In 1768, the house of Bourbon united with that of Habsburg with the marriage of Ferdinand I and Maria Carolina of Austria. From that point in time, Neapolitan dishes became influenced by one of the most prominent cuisines in Europe: the French cuisine. The queen entrusted the management of the kitchens to the best cooks hailing from France, known as the “monsieurs”. The monzù (Neapolitan adaptation of monsieur) trend was widespread among the aristocracy and gave way to a fusion of French and local cuisines. Examples of this are the salame napoletano and fresh provola cheese.
Gattò (savoury potato cake) is the perfect example of French influence on Neapolitan cuisine. Deriving from the French word gateau, meaning cake, this dish has its roots in the traditional French cuisine which arrived in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between the 16th and 17th centuries.
Crocchè (croquettes) are another traditional French treat which today, join pizza as one of Naples’ most popular street foods. That said, it may surprise you to learn that this traditional dish has noble origins and was devoured at the tables of courts throughout the 18th century.
The Greeks in Calabria
There are myriad examples of the traces left on Calabrian soil by the ancient Greeks, who landed in masses on the region’s coast from the 8th century BC. These new arrivals established a network of colonies which soon became rich and powerful, so much so that the area was dubbed Magna Graecia, meaning “Great Greece”. Between 740 and 690 BC, the cities of Rhegion (Reggio Calabria), Sybaris (Sibari), Croton (Crotone) and Locri Epizephyrii (Locri) were founded. Today, the rich culture of Magna Graecia can still be felt, seen and tasted throughout Calabria. Located at the “toe” of Italy, near Reggio, the area of Bovesìa is one of the two remaining Griko-speaking areas in southern Italy. Their language, a variant of Greek, is the subject of numerous studies and various initiatives which aim to protect historical linguistic minorities.
One dish which celebrates Calabria’s Greek influence is lestopitta (fast pita). Traditionally prepared by the housewives when they didn’t have bread, this dish has ancient origins and seems to have been brought to Italian shores by the Greeks.
Another iconic ancient Greek dish is cuddruri. In Calabria, this specialty has evolved into an Easter specialty over the centuries. This sweet may also be referred to as ‘nguta, cuzzupa or sguta.