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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Eat Like an Italian

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

Salty fermented fish sauces really made Roman meals special. A piping hot bowl of cinnamon spiced pasta satisfied the medieval appetite. Peacock cooked in lemon and orange juice would be fit for a prince. Historical foods are sometimes familiar, sometimes strange, and always diverse. Perhaps you will find something in this post that you can add to your holiday table.

Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, 1580, detail, Museum of Fine Arts Lyon, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, detail, 1580, Museum of Fine Arts Lyon, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Italy’s culinary history is as varied as its landscape and artistic traditions. Thousands of recipes have been recorded through the centuries by famous cooks from Apicius (14-37 CE) to Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911). Preparing meals was and is undertaken with great seriousness.

Trade routes and invasions influenced Italian cooking traditions from North Africa, Greece, the Near East, and Northern Europe. The Etruscans, the pre-Roman inhabitants of central Italy, ate very well. Surprisingly, they ate a lot of vegetables and lentils, fava beans, chickpeas, and other legumes. Farro, barley, wheat, spelt, and millet were ground finely into a flour and eaten either as a type of porridge or baked on hot stones as a flatbread. Pork and chicken were eaten, but for festive occasions, celebrations, or funerals. Other livestock such as sheep and cattle were more valuable alive for wool and milk.

Distribution of Bread, Pompeii, c. 79 CE, Naples National Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Distribution of Bread, Pompeii, c. 79 CE, Naples National Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.


Romans continued many of the Etruscan traditions, but amplified their consumption of meat. Three foods were essential to Romans: olive oil, wine, and bread. They were fond of the idea that humankind could take these humble original ingredients of olive, grape, and grain and transform them into something completely different. The vast empire meant exotic spices and foods could be imported through a complex supply chain to a city of one million, twenty-five miles from the sea, with no natural port.

Grain was the most vital import and about 200,000 tons were needed each year from North Africa and Egypt for the population. Local shops milled the grain and baked it into bread. Bread accompanied each meal and was an essential food source. Romans learned how to make leavened bread from the Near East and it became such a staple that public bread ovens were available to Romans about second century BCE.

Romans consumed about two liters of olive oil a month. Shipping heavy terracotta vases was dangerous and needed to be timed to harvest. Wine came from Spain, Italy, Southern France, and the Aegean. Romans needed a lot of wine imported and gradually over time sourced it more locally. About fourteen liters of wine was consumed per capita in a month. They liked to mix it with spices, a fish sauce called garum, or water.

Garum was essential to recipes and was used in a variety of ways as a condiment or mix in with foods. One garum recipe calls for small fish, like sardines to be heavily salted and layered with dill, strong herbs, and more fish, salt, and herbs in a large vessel. They left the vessel out in the sun for one week and stirred it daily for about one month. Fish intestines were also used or larger fish pieces. The ingredients become a fermented liquid, which was quite smelly.

Pigs were a delicacy from the forest as were game like deer, bear, or anything that could be chased and killed. With all the sacrifices to the gods, many animals were needed. It is estimated about one million sheep were annually needed in Rome for wool, meat, milk, and the gods.

Large quantities of beautiful glassware, painted terracotta storage vessels, drinking cups, and wine mixing bowls survive. They even chilled some wines to enhance their flavor. The elite had fancy silver serving tableware and reclined on couches during elaborate banquets. Eating local wasn’t a sign of wealth for the rich. Imported luxury goods from far away would impress guests. However, most people ate with their hands except for spoons for liquids. The hand to mouth style of eating survived for centuries and was considered a tactile feel which enhanced the enjoyment of the food.

It may come as a surprise that salad was a popular Roman dish. The juxtaposition of sweet (honey) and sour (vinegar) was a common feature in many Roman recipes. We may identify food as either salty, spicy, sweet, etc., but Romans through the Renaissance didn’t think of food in those terms. It would have been nearly unthinkable, for example, to steam broccoli and eat it ungarnished. They would consider it insipid. Layers of contrasting flavors would make the broccoli virtually unrecognizable.

Tableware from the Tivoli Hoard, mid 1st century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Silver.
Tableware from the Tivoli Hoard, mid 1st century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Silver.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

A variety of legumes, vegetables, and bread made up a large part of the average medieval citizen’s diet. Bread made up 50-70 percent of caloric intake and about one kilo a day of bread was consumed per adult. White bread was for the rich. The poor had what we would call multi-grain bread. Nothing was wasted with crumbs gathered up to add to the next meal. Tough old hens and the poorer cuts of meat needed to be boiled for hours for the majority of the population. Spit roasting meats was for the wealthy as it required a good cut of meat. The super-rich (princes, kings, cardinals) consumed about 6,000 calories or so a day.

Cookbooks were written and distributed beginning in the 1300s. Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1570 recipe book attest to the entire use of the animal in cooking. The thirty-six recipes for veal (a real luxury) include six for the head, four for the tongue, four for the breast, and others for the brain, eye, blood, and tripe. Animal testicles have their own chapter. Certain animals went in and out of fashion, notably the pig. Fowl and wild birds were considered lighter fare in the Renaissance, elevated in the culinary hierarchy.

Scappi precisely described an ideal large household kitchen layout. Separation of cold areas (for milk) and hot areas (hearth) was essential. Everything had its place, including all the utensils, knives, and pots. He would not condone the chaos of Vincenzo Campi’s painting of a kitchen. According to Scappi everyone had their work zone, washed their hands, and did their job. Without refrigeration, the depiction of butchering and preparing the animals for cooking immediately in Campi and Annibale Carracci’s works is accurate. Preservation was limited to pickling, drying, and salting, so most cooked meat when fresh.

Carracci’s Bean Eater portrays a peasant eating a typical meal. His food includes wine, a generous portion of bread, a bowl of black-eyed peas, onion, and possibly greens under flatbread or dried meat on the plate. His nails have dirt under them and his straw hat is frayed. He eats soup with a spoon, and the only other utensil is a knife. The setting is indoors, perhaps at a tavern or his home.

Annibale Carracci, The Bean Eater, 1584-85, Palazzo Colonna, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Annibale Carracci, The Bean Eater, 1584-85, Palazzo Colonna, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Annibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop, early 1580s, Kimbell Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Annibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop, early 1580s, Kimbell Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Campi’s Ricotta Eaters is unusual as cheese was not often eaten alone, but considered an ingredient to be added to other dishes. Cheese was considered for hundreds of years to be a humble person’s food and was regarded with suspicion because it underwent a process of coagulation and fermentation. Initally sheep and goat milk were made into cheese although cow’s milk gained popularity. Cheese was considered unhealthy and early medieval physicians advised little consumption. Slowly the status of cheese moved up the ranks.

Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, 1580, Museum of Fine Arts Lyon, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, 1580, Museum of Fine Arts Lyon, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

By the fourteenth century spit roasted cheese was considered appropriate for the nobles. One hundred years later, two cheese have moved to the top: parmigiano and Tuscan marzolino. Scappi names many types of regional cheeses like sardesco, romanesco, caciocavallo, mozzarella, and pecorino, among others. Following in the French style, cheese gained additional status and became something to be enjoyed by itself in the twentieth century and was served at the end of the meal, before dessert.

Unlike Northern European art, Italian art isn’t well known for paintings or engravings of peasant life or simple everyday people. Carracci and Campi are some of the few sixteenth century artists who made subjects of people eating or selling food. In both cases the subjects are treated with some degree of exaggeration compared to a more subtle treatment such as the Netherlandish painters Vermeer or Frans Hals. There wasn’t a large market in Italy for subjects of everyday life.

Take a close look at Campi’s Kitchen and notice beyond the arch the table being set for 10-12 guests. Besides the meat and fowl being prepared, pasta is being made in the center table, a woman leans over to grate parmigiano, and the old woman approves of her taste of the herbs she grinds in her mortar. While the painting is more crowded than Scappi’s ideal kitchen layout, the foods and preparation are true to the era.

Vincenzo Campi, The Kitchen, 1580s, Pinacoteca de Brera, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Vincenzo Campi, The Kitchen, 1580s, Pinacoteca de Brera, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Salads continued to be popular as did the Roman penchant for sweet and sour combinations. Foods were well spiced, especially meats and vegetables. Here is a common spice mixture (adapted from Liber de Coquina XIV Century and excerpted from The Medieval Kitchen by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi, University of Chicago Press). Saffron was popular more for its ability to color food yellow than for taste.

2 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1-1/2 tablespoons saffron threads, loosely measured and crushed to a powder

¾ teaspoon ground cloves

Mix in a bowl or grind with a mortar and pestle. Sprinkle generously over food.

Renaissance humanist and gastronomist Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Il Platina, wrote a fifteenth century treatise on food, featuring many specialties from various regions. He instructs that an insalata mista (mixed salad) should be well salted and served with oil and vinegar. The greens may not be as familiar as what one can find in the grocery store today: lettuce, oxtongue, mint, catnip, fennel, parsley, watercress, oregano, chervil, chicory, dandelion, wonderberry, fennel flowers and other herbs.

Mostarda was another popular relish, with many variations, and a prototype to the bright yellow mustard in a squeeze bottle used today. A basic recipe calls for boiling grapes until liquid and reduced, like a young wine, and adding ground mustard seeds. Other regions used some form of macerated fruit mixed with white mustard powder for a sharp contrast. The mostarda tradition lives on today in Italy, over six hundred years since it appeared in a recipe collection. Mostarda, like the one found in this jar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, could be purchased at the pharmacy along with spices and candies. This container could hold a lot of mostarda with dimensions of thirteen inches high and eight inches across. The reverse is painted to show what is needed to make the condiment.

Mostarda storage jar, 1543, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Tin glazed earthenware.

New world foods made their appearance in Italy with tomato, potato, and corn, but became substitutes for existing ingredients. Potato sometimes took the place of turnips or flour; corn as a substitute for millet; and tomato was added as a sauce. Although there were a variety of foods available there was little use of tableware. Spoons were common for mixing and eating liquids, but hands acted as forks at the table.

Dishes were served simultaneously and in no particular order, until well into the sixteenth century, usually with diners sharing cups, a cutting board, and if the meal was a stew, eating directly from the same pot on the table. Mouths were wiped on a tablecloth, most likely a rough piece of canvas. The more cultured used three fingers to eat with as opposed to peasants who used their whole hands. More tableware appeared in the 1500s as well as individual place settings. It wasn’t until the 1800s that flatware was common for most with individual place settings. Soon the idea of first, second, and third courses was introduced. Many mourned the loss of a communal eating experience and opposed the taste of a metal fork as the intermediary between food and mouth.

Pasta and Pizza

These familiar Italian foods have a long history. Romans flattened a dough into a thin wide sheet and cut it into strips three fingers wide. Cooked in the oven, they called it lagana, a precursor to lasagna. This tradition was modified in the 1300s cookbook Liber de coquina describing how the rectangular cut pasta is boiled in water, seasoned, and layered with cheese. Parmigiano was the favorite cheese for layering. The spices were cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and pepper. Sometimes the pasta was boiled in milk, or a beef broth. Cooks turned the pasta dough into all kinds of shapes and hollow tubes, filled with cheese, or meat. Al dente was not what they preferred, as the pasta would be quite mushy by our tastes. By the early 1800s tomatoes were used for sauce.

Sicily and Naples were the birthplace of modern pasta and pizza, largely born out of poverty, and influenced by a long-standing tradition blending Roman, Arab, and Near East cultures. Seventeenth century Naples experienced famine as the Spanish controlled the government and did not provide well for the Neapolitans, who turned to industrialized dry pasta making. Pasta became a main staple for the people. Nonetheless, Neapolitans were lampooned for their food and the poor folk who ate it. Neapolitans soon became ridiculed as macaroni eaters.

Gaetano Dura, Mangia Maccaroni, c. 1840, British Museum, CC BY NC SA 4.0, public domain. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Hand colored lithograph.
Gaetano Dura, Mangia Maccaroni, c. 1840, British Museum, CC BY NC SA 4.0, public domain. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Hand colored lithograph.

Gaetano Dura (1805-1878) was a native of Naples who made a career of making lithographs of common people in his home town. His subjects included street scenes of people dancing, women in regional costumes, fishermen, sailors, robbers, and street vendors. Lazzaroni, very poor men hanging around on the street waiting for small jobs as porters or couriers, or resorted to begging, were also popular subjects. They were large in numbers and often ganged up together and eventually took sides when Naples became politically unstable. Lazzaroni were named so because they looked like the biblical subject Lazarus in rags.

Pizza was mentioned in texts about 1000 CE as a baked leavened bread, akin to a focaccia. Baked in stone ovens, the pizza we know today began to take shape in the seventeenth century with the additional of tomato. Like pasta, the pizza came into its own as a poor people’s food in the 1800s. Pizza was a food even lazzaroni could afford.

After foreign powers were expelled from Naples and Italy was unified, King Umberto of Italy and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889 where they tasted a selection of pizzas, some made with lard, garlic, and salt. This was a political and social demonstration of unification when the King and Queen come to the economically depressed south to eat poor people’s food. There was a pizza made especially for her, with mozzarella, basil, and tomato. It was favorably received by the Queen and the Pizza Margherita was born.

Pizza started as low brow sold only as a street food and slowly gained popularity in central and northern Italy. Italians settling in America brought their cuisine with them. The first American based pizzeria opened in New York City in the early 1900s. In 2017 the humble art of Neapolitan pizza making was added to UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The pizzaiuoli (pizza makers) of Naples rejoiced, finally recognized for their craft.

Buon Appetito!

Il Pizzaiuolo, 1858. British Library, public access.
Il Pizzaiuolo, 1858. British Library, public access.


Capatti, Alberto and Massimo Montanari. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. Translated by Aine O’Healy. Columbia University Press, 2003.

Dyson, Stephen L. Rome: A Living Portrait of an Ancient City. The John Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Mattozzi, Antonio. Inventing the Pizzeria: A History of Pizza Making in Naples. Translated by Zachary Nowak. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Montanari, Massimo. Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or, Food and the Nation. Translated by Beth Archer Brombert. Columbia University Press, 2013.

Montanari, Massimo. Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table. Translated by Beth Archer Brombert. Columbia University Press, 2015.

Parasecoli, Fabio. Al Dente: A History of Food in Italy. Reaktion, 2014.

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