Buon appetito! Everyone loves Italian food. But how did the Italians come to eat so well?
The answer lies amid the vibrant beauty of Italy's historic cities. For a thousand years, they have been magnets for everything that makes for great eating: ingredients, talent, money, and power. Italian food is city food.
From the bustle of medieval Milan's marketplace to the banqueting halls of Renaissance Ferrara; from street stalls in the putrid alleyways of nineteenth-century Naples to the noisy trattorie of postwar Rome: in rich slices of urban life, historian and master storyteller John Dickie shows how taste, creativity, and civic pride blended with princely arrogance, political violence, and dark intrigue to create the world's favorite cuisine. Delizia! is much more than a history of Italian food. It is a history of Italy told through the flavors and character of its cities.
A dynamic chronicle that is full of surprises, Delizia! draws back the curtain on much that was unknown about Italian food and exposes the long-held canards. It interprets the ancient Arabic map that tells of pasta's true origins, and shows that Marco Polo did not introduce spaghetti to the Italians, as is often thought, but did have a big influence on making pasta a part of the American diet. It seeks out the medieval recipes that reveal Italy's long love affair with exotic spices, and introduces the great Renaissance cookery writer who plotted to murder the Pope even as he detailed the aphrodisiac qualities of his ingredients. It moves from the opulent theater of a Renaissance wedding banquet, with its gargantuan ten-course menu comprising hundreds of separate dishes, to the thin soups and bland polentas that would eventually force millions to emigrate to the New World. It shows how early pizzas were disgusting and why Mussolini championed risotto. Most important, it explains the origins and growth of the world's greatest urban food culture.
With its delectable mix of vivid storytelling, groundbreaking research, and shrewd analysis, Delizia! is as appetizing as the dishes it describes. This passionate account of Italy's civilization of the table will satisfy foodies, history buffs, Italophiles, travelers, students and anyone who loves a well-told tale.
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About the Author
John Dickie lectures in Italian Studies at University College London. Cosa Nostra, his award-winning history of the Sicilian mafia, has been translated into twenty languages and has sold nearly half a million copies throughout the world; it was hailed in Italy as the best book ever written about the Mafia. In 2005 the president of the Italian Republic appointed him a Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana. He lives in London with his family .
Read an Excerpt
Don't Tell the Peasants...
A drive through the country between Siena and the sea in the sunshine of an autumn evening. The Tuscan hills undulating past the car window become harsher, shading from vines and olive groves into pockets of dark forest. The destination is remote, yet it is a place where you can hear accents and dialects from across Italy. Here Venetians mix with Neapolitans, Palermitans with Turinese. In this quiet corner of Tuscany a people divided by ancient local rivalries comes to pay homage together at an altar to their common cult of food.
The building lies in the valley below the perfectly preserved medieval town of Chiusdino, but it is not easy to find. Not long ago, the track leading to it was nearly lost in thick scrub. Even now many people miss the discreet road sign. When the more observant visitors have negotiated a tight, descending corner and nosed over the narrow, parapet-less bridge, they are rewarded with the sight of a riverside field of Jerusalem artichokes yellow flowers craning toward the setting sun.
Then it appears, unwelcoming at first, resolutely turning its worn back to the outside world, as if hiding its famous face among the poplar trees. But recognition chimes the moment the corner is turned: a simple brick and stone structure, with a shallow roof and an unassuming tower; at its flank a mill wheel is gently propelled by the limpid waters of the river Merce. It was built by monks from the nearby San Galgano Abbey in the early thirteenth century. Even today one can easily imagine a friar emerging from the beamed kitchen with an armful of cheeses and salami for his brothers. Or a peasantpatriarch, his shoulder bowed by the weight of his hoe, trudging through the surrounding glade at the end of his day's toil. Perhaps the plates and glasses on the table under the pergola were set by his homely wife for their extended family. Dinner is still awhile away, but already the air is laced with appetizing smells.
To the foreign visitor, Il Mulino Bianco, the White Mill, seems to typify everything that Italian food should be. To Italians, it is one of the most iconic buildings in the land.
Yet it is also Italy's best-loved fake.
Italians eat lots of biscuits (cookies), mostly for breakfast. In 1989, the leading biscuit brand, Mulino Bianco, was looking for a set for its new advertising campaign. The White Mill shown on the biscuit packets was about to become a real place. The industrialized Po valley flat and featureless had distinctly the wrong image, thus ruling out locations in the region around Parma where the biscuits were actually made. Instead set researchers found what they were looking for, abandoned and almost derelict, off the Massetana road near Chiusdino in Tuscany. The old building was given a coat of white paint and a new mill wheel powered by an electric motor. In a short time it was ready to receive its imaginary family of owners. Dad was a square-jawed journalist; Mum, a pretty but prim teacher; their children, Linda with curly hair and a bonnet, and Andrea in slacks and a tie, were as smart-but-casual as their parents; a marshmallow-eyed grandfather completed the group. This, as the company Web site would have it, was a "modern family who leave the city and choose to live healthily by going back to nature." Their story, to be told in a series of mini-episodes, was to embody the second-home aspirations of millions of urban consumers. And to tell it, the agency hired two of the biggest talents in Italian cinema: Giuseppe Tornatore, fresh from winning the Oscar for best foreign film with Cinema Paradiso; and Ennio Morricone, famed for his scores to the spaghetti westerns (among other things).
The result, between 1990 and 1996, was perhaps the most successful campaign in the history of Italian television. So successful, in fact, that droves of people from traffic-clogged Naples, Rome, and Milan started to search the hills of Tuscany for the White Mill they had seen in the biscuit ads. Queues of cars stretched back to the ruins of the San Galgano Abbey. Visitors approached the site in reverential silence as if they were entering a shrine. The mill's owner recalls: "There were real processions. Hundreds of people came to visit the mill at weekends. Most of them were disappointed because obviously it wasn't like it was on television. Only the kids were happy: they ran around enthusiastically amid all the plasterboard and polystyrene."
After the last Mulino Bianco advertisement had been filmed in 1996, the White Mill changed again; it was transformed into another, more tasteful manifestation of the Italian rural idyll. The owner spent four years restoring it and converting it into an agriturismo the kind of rustic hotel-restaurant that has become so popular in Italy over the last twenty years or so. The building reverted to its old name, Il Mulino delle Pile the Battery Mill (it used to supply electricity to Chiusdino before the war). A swimming pool was put in and the stonework sandblasted clear of paint. But even if it is now no longer white, the White Mill still answers to the same nostalgia for country food as does the brand that made it famous. It still attracts plenty of people who want to hold celebratory banquets for their weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries where the ads were set. Children still ask the owner whether he is the one who makes all the biscuits.
The rooms in the agriturismo Mulino delle Pile conform to an ideal of simple country elegance. The menu in its Old Grindstone Restaurant conforms to current canons of what is good to eat: "authentic, typical Tuscan cuisine, based on fresh, seasonal produce." An antipasto of Tuscan sliced salami and hams, or pecorino cheese with honey. A primo of tagliatelle with wild boar ragù boar is a speciality. A secondo of Sienese entrecôte, or beef braised in Morellino wine, or local sausages with beans. A dessert of Vin Santo and cantucci biscuits.
It is not the best restaurant you could find in Italy. Nor is its menu quite as authentic as it claims: there are some concessions to fashion (fillet of beef in balsamic vinegar and green peppercorns), and some national and international favorites, such as penne all'arrabbiata, eggplant alla parmigiana, and veal escalopes. Maybe the persistent memory of those famous biscuit commercials makes it all just too kitsch. But I can personally attest that the food at the Old Grindstone is, without a trace of doubt or irony, delicious. One can eat twice as well here as anywhere one could find in London for four times the price. The restaurant is evidence of the indisputable fact that gastronomic standards in Italy are as high as anywhere in the world.
How did the Italians come to eat so well? The story of the White Mill has a simple lesson for anyone trying to find a historical answer to that question: it is possible to love Italian food without going misty-eyed about the fables that are spun around it, whether in Italy or abroad. Italy has become the model to imitate when it comes to making ingredients, cooking them, and eating them together. Some people believe that our health, environment, and quality of life may depend on whether we can learn some of the food lessons that Italy has to offer. It's all the more reason why we need a less syrupy story about how Italian food got where it is today than the one advertising and cookbooks have told.
The White Mill itself may be unknown outside Italy, but the family of images to which it belongs is all too recognizable across much of the Western world: the trattoria in the olive grove; the hams suspended from the rafters of a farmhouse kitchen; the sun-weathered old peasant with a twinkle in his eye; the noisy family gathered under the pergola while mamma serves the pasta. These same clichés recur in countless recipe collections, countless ads for olive oil, or those jars of unspeakable pasta sauce. Together they weave a powerful rural myth that finds its favorite setting in Tuscany. What that myth conjures up for us is a cuisine made from a thousand ancient country traditions; it is Italian food as peasant food. If the White Mill image of Tuscany has helped give Italian food a respectable claim to being the most popular cuisine in the world, then it has also helped make it the most widely misperceived. The Italian cuisine that the world so admires has surprisingly little to do with peasants.
In Italy, nostalgia for the rustic way of life is a recent development. The success of brands such as Mulino Bianco only came when the vast majority of Italians had left the hardship of the countryside safely behind. In Tuscany, the sharecropping system shielded the peasantry from the worst of the hunger and toil that was the timeless lot of the rural masses up and down the peninsula until as late as the 1960s. But even here, the contribution that dishes of exclusively peasant origin have made to local cuisine is not as great as the recent cult of peasant food would have us believe. The menu of the Old Grindstone Restaurant is not representative of the country fare of yore. Nor is there anything poor about quite a few of the recipes one can find in books on La cucina povera toscana, including bistecca alla fiorentina (a thick Florentine T-bone or porterhouse steak) and liver crostini with Marsala wine. The rural masses could only dream of such delights. And even genuine peasant cooking has been the subject of a rebranding exercise. Like the medieval mill near Chiusdino, it has been extensively reconstructed and rethought by contemporary Italians.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, ordinary people in the countryside of Italy ate very badly countless documents tell us as much. Such, for example, was the uniform conclusion of the many government inquiries into the state of the Italian countryside conducted in the decades after Italy became a unified country in 1861. The poverty of the peasant diet still echoes in a number of proverbs that have been handed down.
When the peasant eats a chicken, either the peasant is ill, or the chicken is. Among the poor of the countryside, chicken was a costly rarity reserved for the sick. Peasants were often only able to eat animals that had died of disease.
Garlic is the peasant's spice cupboard. Spices were essential to sophisticated cuisine from the Middle Ages until at least the seventeenth century. But they were largely unaffordable for the rural masses. Garlic, leek, and onion, by contrast, stank of poverty. This is not to imply that the well-to-do refused to eat these pungent vegetables just that they looked down on anyone who had no alternative when it came to giving flavor to food.
Saint Bernard's sauce makes food seem good. Saint Bernard's sauce hunger was the most important ingredient in the peasant diet for most of the last millennium. Happily the recipe has now faded from memory.
A history of Italian food written as the story of what peasants actually ate would make for a stodgy read. Many pages would be devoted to vegetable soup. There would be a substantial section on porridge. Bread made from inferior grains, and even from things like acorns in times of hardship, would need in-depth coverage. That is not the history I reconstruct here.
Another proverb, a favorite of mine, suggests that we need to look elsewhere for real history of Italian food. "Al contadino non gli far sapere, quanto sia buono il cacio colle pere" (Don't tell the peasant how good cheese is with pears). In other words, don't give anyone any information if they are in a better position to take advantage of it than you are. Or, keep your recipe cards close to your chest. This cynical piece of wisdom can also be interpreted as a simple parable about the imbalance in power and knowledge that underlies Italy's oldest gastronomic traditions. It may have been the country folk who produced the cheese and pears, but the people with the power to appropriate these ingredients, and with the knowledge to transform them into a delicacy by a simple but artful combination, were the inhabitants of the cities.
Italian food is city food.
Italy has the richest tradition of urban living on the planet, and the enviable way Italians eat is part of it. It is no coincidence that so many Italian products and dishes are named after cities: bistecca alla fiorentina, prosciutto di Parma, saltimbocca alla romana, pizza napoletana, risotto alla milanese, pesto genovese, pesto trapanese, olive ascolane, mostarda di Cremona... From early in the second millennium, the hundred cities of Italy hogged the produce of the countryside and used it to build a rich food culture. For centuries, Italy's cities have been where all the things that go to create great cooking are concentrated: ingredients and culinary expertise, of course, but also power, wealth, markets, and competition for social prestige.
So those urban pilgrims to the White Mill are not heading toward the traditional abode of Italian food: they are driving away from it. Italian food best expresses itself not in the farmhouse, but in the urban market. The real adventure of Italian food is not to be found by trekking off into the Tuscan hills. The point is to roam the city streets savoring the cooking and sniffing out the stories.
Italians sometimes refer to their "civilization of the table." The term embraces all the many different aspects of a culture that are expressed through food: from the agricultural economy to pickling recipes, from kinship ties to the correct technique for spitting an olive stone into your hand. Food itself is fascinating. But ultimately it is much less fascinating than the people who produce, cook, eat, and talk about it. That is why this book is a history of Italy's civilization of the table, rather than just of what Italians put on their tables.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote that "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." What he meant was that even our most sacred cultural artifacts, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, or Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, or Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, are inevitably marked by the unholy power struggles of the time when they were created. That is not to say that Michelangelo was to blame for the greed, corruption, and brutality shown by the patrons who gave him the resources he needed to make great art. But it does imply that we miss much of the poignancy and relevance of art if we cut it out of its historical frame if we shut our eyes to the power that makes it possible, and the horrors going on around it.
The same principle applies to cooking. In fact, because it is an art performed with the very raw materials people need to consume in order to live, cooking can be more intimately connected to barbarism than any other civilized activity. There is a dark dimension to the history of Italian food that cannot be ignored. For that reason, there would be something rather bulimic about a history that consisted of nothing but a long pageant of feasts and fine meals, of endless delicacies from days gone by.
The Italian civilization of the table, in short, is a product of Italian history. And Italian history is marked by division and violence as much as it is by beauty and creativity, by barbarism as well as civilization. All of these things are ingredients in what I have written here. Malnourishment, hunger, and famine are an essential part of the story of Italian food. This book also moves between the food of the powerful and the food of the powerless, between everyday eating and elite dining. Put a different way, it combines elements from the history of the Italian diet and elements from the history of Italian cuisine.
But as the title suggests, this book was a joy to research, and its pages give plenty of space to the delights of eating mostly other people's, and just occasionally mine. Even though I have spent many years studying Italy and living there, working on this book brought many pleasures I had never tasted before. Like pane squarato in Marsala (a deliciously chewy bread that is boiled before baking, like bagels, and then flavored with fennel seeds); or animelle in Rome (toothsome sweetbreads, served with artichokes); or cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara (pasta envelopes with a pumpkin filling that teeters at the edge of sweetness where a pinch of nutmeg can play to its most subtle and delicious effect). The more one explores Italian food, the more rich diversity there is to discover and every dish seems to have a story worth telling. So I have inevitably had to resist many temptations. Coffee, wine, and other drinks have been excluded because their history has different laws of motion. I have also tried not to get drawn into foody one-upmanship, into the competition to seek out ever more obscure culinary curios. The focus tends to be on the best-known dishes. So you do not have to know your caciocavallo from your Castelmagno to enjoy the story. Pasta is the best-known Italian food of them all, and it provides one of the most important unifying themes in Delizia! From the first evidence of dried durum wheat vermicelli on Italian soil in the 1150s, to the extraordinary vicissitudes of tortellini since the 1970s, the history of pasta and the history of Italian food as a whole move to the same rhythms.
Exhaustiveness is another temptation that I have had to resist. Italian food has become a world food, and comprehensive study of its history would encompass Britain, the United States, South America, and Australia as well as Italy. Many of the stories recounted here go to show that Italian food has been shaped at least as much by its promiscuous traveling as it has by its steadfast roots in the soil of the peninsula. But where Italian foods have traveled so far that they have entered the history of countries other than Italy, I have ceased to chart their path.
The reason for this determinedly Italian focus is that, at its best, Italian food has charisma. And its charisma derives from an almost poetic relationship to place and identity. The main reason why Italians eat so well is simply that eating enriches their sense of where they come from and who they are. Italy's cities are where these links between food and identity were forged. It is no coincidence that cities are also where the diversity of Italian food is made most manifest, or that cities have seen the most dramatic interplay of civilization and barbarism. Thus it is in the cities that the most compelling documentary sources are to be found, sources that show how great Italian dishes have registered the ebb and flow of Italian history. Cities therefore give Delizia! its distinctive structure. Following a path dictated by the sources, each chapter in turn tells a self-contained story located in a single city. Together, these slices of urban life build into a single narrative that spans the centuries from the Middle Ages to the present day. The result aims to be both a history of Italian food, and a history of Italy through its food.
Copyright © 2008 by John Dickie
Table of Contents
Tuscany: Don't Tell the Peasants 1
The Medieval Table
Palermo, 1154: Pasta and the Planisphere 13
Milan, 1288: Power, Providence, and Parsnips 29
Venice, 1300s: Chinese Whispers 45
Cooking for Renaissance Popes and Princes
Rome, 1468: Respectable Pleasure 61
Ferrara, 1529: A Dynasty at Table 77
Rome, 1549-50: Bread and Water for Their Eminences 100
Bologna, 1600s: The Game of Cockaigne 129
Naples, late 1700s: Maccheroni-Eaters 146
Turin, 1846: Viva l'Italia! 167
Food for the New Nation
Naples, 1884: Pinocchio Hates Pizza 183
Florence, 1891: Pellegrino Artusi 196
Genoa, 1884-1918: Emigrants and Prisoners 216
Fascists in the Kitchen
Rome, 1925-38: Mussolini's Rustic Village 243
Turin, 1931: The Holy Palate Tavern 249
Milan, 1936: Housewives and Epicures 256
The Land of Plenty
Rome, 1954: Miracle Food 269
Bologna, 1974: Mamma's Tortellini 290
Genoa, 2001-2006: Faulty Basil 303
Turin, 2006: Peasants to the Rescue! 311
Notes on Sources 327