When it comes to cooking, pasta is the adhesive that unifies the whole of the nation. However, those thinking that food is the same in every part of Italy are totally wrong. In fact, only a few dishes are considered ‘national’.
Each region has its own typical food and recipes, which have obviously been taken by other regions, too, and Italians generally know how to cook a dish from another region, even if there are so many! Italy offers a huge variety of dishes and ingredients to choose from. It is the birthplace of one of -– if not the – finest cuisines in the world, full of flavors and scents perfect to tickle the senses. If the beauty and importance of food is certainly a characteristic of the entire country, the way of cooking and some of the dishes created are strictly associated to a given area of Italy: we should really talk about regional cuisine, although gastronomic influences have been passing back and forth through the country for centuries. In order to experience the best of Italian cuisine, you should try dishes in the region where they were born, hence understanding and savoring the authentic and original taste they are best known for.
Even if each region has its own specialties, it is possible to find some common cooking trends allowing the division of Italy into three different gastronomic areas, coinciding with the geographical division of the country into North, Center and South.
In the North of Italy the gastronomic tradition revolves around hot soups, like minestrone and vegetables like radicchio and is based on dishes which are rich in fat. Cheese, truffles, polenta, risotti and game are the real protagonists of the kitchen, where they reign supreme. Potatoes are also used a lot and they are the main ingredients of a famous recipe: pizzoccheri.
The Center of Italy is renowned for being an area of heavy-bodied food: pecorini, scamorze, insaccati and sottolii. However, the center of Italy is also famous for truffles and mushrooms, which can be found in particular in the region of Umbria. If you go to the Center, you cannot miss some special pastas which are homemade: paste fresche, maccheroni and spaghetti alla chitarra, for instance, always seasoned with sauces containing meat and game.
The meat preferred in this area is pork, served as secondo piatto.
Southern food is typically Mediterranean. People cook fish a lot, whereas shellfish are used a lot with pasta and pizza. While in the North and Center pizza is extremely thin, in Naples it is pretty thick by Italian standard, but still thin compared to American’s. Many wood oven pizzerie are now coming to the US and all feature the Neapolitan version of pizza.
Mozzarella and other typical dairy products are considered the specialities of this area. Dishes always have a beautiful smell, thanks to spices and seasoning like basil, oregano and citrus fruits. While in the North soft cheeses like stracchino are popular, the South is proud of its Mozzarella di Bufala Campana (just look at the cheese scenes in the movie Benvenuti al Sud to understand!). Check this article for more info about Italian cheese.
Having set the differences and the general rules, it is important to underline that the North of Italy prefers to use butter as a main ingredient to cook food. Instead, Southern people have always a preference for extra virgin olive oil. From North to South you are only spoilt for choice. The nature and type of food obviously depends on the climate, territory and culture. Just see what you like the most!