Italian cuisine has evolved through centuries of social and political changes, with roots as far back as the 4th century BCE. Noteworthy changes occurred with the discovery of the New World with the introduction of things such as potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and maize, now central to the cuisine but not introduced in quantity until the 18th century.
Italian cuisine has a fantastic variety of different ingredients that are commonly used, ranging from fruits, vegetables, sauces, meats etc. In the North of Italy, fish (such as cod or baccala) potatoes, rice, maize, corn, sausages, pork and various kinds of cheeses are the most typical ingredients (tomato is virtually absent in most Northern Italian cuisines; Ligurian ingredients are quite different, and include several types of fish and seafood dishes, basil, found in pesto sauce) nuts and olive oil are very common). In central Italy (including Emilia-Romagna) common ingredients include ham (Parma ham), sausage (Zampone), bresaola, different sorts of salamis, truffles, spaghetti and pasta, lasagne, beef steak, cheese (parmesan cheese, grana, parmigiano reggiano), tomatoes (Bolognese sauce or ragu) and tortellini are important elements. In conclusion, in Southern Italy, tomatoes (pizza or tomato sauce), basil, olive oil, peppers, olives, garlic, onions, artichokes, mozzarella cheese, spaghetti and pasta, fish, shrimps, oranges, ricotta cheese, aubergines, courgettes, sardines, tuna, lobsters, capers and rosemary are vital to the local cuisine.
There are many regional variations of cooking throughout Italy, but in general grain foods such as pasta, bread, rice, and polenta are mixed in a variety of interesting ways with vegetables, beans, fish, poultry, nuts, cheeses and meat.
Since ancient times, grains such as wheat have been a staple food throughout Italy. Indeed, wheat is one of the most revered foods in Italian cookery. It's used to make a variety of interesting breads including ciabatta, focaccia and crusty whole grain bread. Pasta, which is made from wheat and comes in dozens of different shapes, has also been a highly-prized food for centuries. Other popular grain foods include rice such as arborio (which is a short-grain variety of rice popularly used in risottos) and cornmeal which is used to make polenta.
Vegetables and fruits
There's an old saying that good cooking begins in the market, and never is this more true than with authentic Italian cuisine which relies heavily on fresh produce. The most commonly used vegetables include tomatoes, garlic, onions, bell peppers (capsicum), eggplants (aubergine), cabbage, zucchini (courgettes), artichokes, fennel, mushrooms, celery, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and lettuce. These vegetables are traditionally chopped and added to bakes, pasta dishes, risottos and pizza or turned into salads, soups, antipasti (appetizers) and side dishes. Fruits, both fresh and dried, are eaten as snacks and desserts. Popular types of fruit include grapes, berries, citrus fruit such as oranges and lemons, figs, pears, cherries, apples and plums.
Olives and Olive oil
Southern Italy shares a similar Mediterranean climate to Greece, Provence and Spain. This warm, sunny climate makes it ideal for olive growing. Whole olives are used in cooking, but the most revered part of the olive is the nectar it produces. The first cold pressing of the best olives produces extra virgin olive oil. This golden-green, richly flavoured oil is used in hot dishes, marinades, salad dressings or drizzled on fresh crusty bread.
Fish, shellfish, poultry and eggs
The coastline of Italy is dotted with fishing villages, and fish and shellfish are a traditional staple in most parts of the country. Popular varieties of fish include tuna, anchovies, sardines, swordfish, cod, salmon, shrimp, crab, squid, clams and mussels. This fish and shellfish is traditionally added to stews, pasta dishes, bakes, risottos and pizzas, or simply served grilled, baked or lightly fried in olive oil with side dishes. Poultry, especially chicken, is also eaten regularly. Eggs, which are a common ingredient in many Italian dishes such as frittata, are traditionally eaten regularly, but in modest amounts.
Meat has never featured prominently in Cucina Povera—the cuisine of poorer southern Italy. Instead it has typically been eaten on festive occasions or used in small amounts as a flavour and texture enhancer. In the northern parts of Italy meat has traditionally been eaten more frequently, but still in moderation.
Legumes and nuts
Legumes (beans, peas and lentils) are a highly popular food throughout Italy. In the Tuscany region, for example, beans are so highly regarded that Tuscans are fondly known as the "bean eaters." Commonly eaten beans include chickpeas and cannellini beans. Green peas and green beans are also regularly used in Italian cookery, as are lentils, which are added to soups and stews. Nuts such as pine nuts, walnuts and almonds are used in cooking or eaten as snacks. One of Italy's most famous sauces, pesto—which originates from the seaport of Genoa —is a mixture of pine nuts, garlic, fresh basil, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. (There are also other variations of pesto such as Sun-dried tomato and walnut pesto.)
Cheese is traditionally eaten regularly, but in moderation, throughout Italy. Some of the most popular types of cheese include Parmesan (the most highly regarded type being Parmigiano Reggiano), mozzarella (classically made from the milk of a water buffalo, but available in a cow's milk variety), Romano, gorgonzola and ricotta. Cheese is used in bakes or to top pizza, sprinkled over pasta dishes, mixed through risottos, tossed in salads or eaten with fruit as a dessert.
Herbs and seasonings
Letting the flavour of fresh ingredients shine through is a fundamental part of Italian cookery, so elaborate spices don't feature prominently. Instead fresh or dried herbs such as basil, flat-leaf parsley, rosemary and oregano are used simply to highlight the flavours of the food. Other important seasonings include salt, freshly cracked pepper, vinegar (such as balsamic vinegar) and foods that impart a rich flavour such as anchovies, garlic, capers, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Lemon juice and wine are also common flavour enhancers, and fruity extra-virgin olive oil adds flavour and texture when a little is stirred through dishes likes stews, soups or pasta sauces at the end of cooking.
Beverages and desserts
Wine has been the most popular alcoholic beverage since ancient times. It's customary in Italy to consume wine with meals, and in moderation. Strong coffee is the most popular non-alcoholic beverage. Traditionally, elaborate desserts have been reserved for special occasions. Fresh and dried fruit, or a little cheese, are the typical dessert.