Italy in Bocca: The origin and nature of what we call Italian food


Simply put, there was no Italian food before there was an Italy. There was Tuscan food and Ligurian food and Sicilian food and Sardinian food, but for 2,000 years there was no Italian food. Not until 1861, when most of its 20 regions were unified as a kingdom under Victor Emmanuel II, was there a country called Italy. Even then, city states like Venice and Rome, which was declared the new capital, and part of the Papal States, remained separate from the new country. Before 1861 and for a century afterwards, what people ate in Rome had little to do with what they ate in Bari, and when Florentines dined, it was not on the same food and wine enjoyed by Neapolitans or Venetians. There was regional food, but for 2,000 years there was no Italian food. Especially in the kitchen, Italians have always resisted being mere Italians.

After the Unification, Italy saw the slow but certain rise of its own middle class, and housewives had more consistent access to good, fresh products. These they used not in slavish imitation of French culinary models but to refine their own traditional regional dishes and to create new ones expressive of their evolving status. Most urban Italians, of course, ate at home and with the rise of the middle class, many preferred to do so. By the last quarter of the 19th century something that could be called la cucina italiana was beginning to coalesce. All it needed was someone to make sense of it all.

The man to do so was a Florentine silk trader, a bachelor named Pellegrino Artusi (1820 1911), who, upon retiring in his late sixties, wondered how he would live out his remaining years, spending his time going between his home in Florence and his seaside estate in Viarreggio. For his amusement, he decided he would write a little cookbook based on his experiences and travels through Italy.

The research and writing pleasantly occupied his time, and he hoped his opus might have a readership outside his circle of friends. But upon submitting it to publishers, none believed enough people would be interested in such a collection of recipes. So, in 1891, dedicating his book to his cats, Biancani and Sibillone, he privately published La Scienza in Cucina e L’arte di Mangiar Bene: Manuale Pratico per Le Famiglie (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well: a Practical Manual for Families), printing just 2,000 copies. He was going to need a lot more.

Artusi’s book went on to become one of the two best-selling books in Italy of that or any other era, going through 14 editions by 1910, by which time it had sold an astounding 283,000 copies. (The other bestseller was Alessandro Manzoni’s 1827 novel of northern Italy, I Promessi Sposi, The Betrothed.)

The success of Artusi’s work was due not only to its being the first cookbook aimed at an emerging middle class and that treated of a cuisine that could truly be called Italian, but to his writing in the Tuscan dialect then being adopted by educated people as the lingua franca of their new country. As a result, the housewives of Italy found in Artusi not just a guide to the running of a modern Italian kitchen but how to read and speak Italian itself (1).

Along with Scappi’s Cooking Secrets of Pope Pius V, the best-known cookbooks of the Renaissance were De honesta voluptate et valuetudine by Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina, which appeared in the 1470s, and Martino de Rossi’s Libro de arte coquinaria, appearing from 1456 to 1467 in sections, and from which Sacchi admitted he took scores of recipes. Sacchi embraced good health in cooking, while discouraging the overuse of spices and the dissipation of essential flavors with too many elaborations. Both books were published in Latin, for royalty, Church dignitaries and men of high rank.

Artusi’s book was not written for aristocrats’ kitchen staff, so he dismissed the overwrought, French-based briconella (frippery) of previous recipe books. When he did include a French dish it was clearly because he thought it was a good one, like béchamel sauce, but tweaked it to be more Italian, less complicated, renaming it balsamella.

By the same token, writing for and being of the upper class himself, Artusi snobbishly avoided dishes he felt had “a whiff of the folkloric” or those so regional as to be “limited to particular environments or social levels.” He did not, however, ignore regional dishes, though those from the South are few and far between in the book. Thus, the reader finds tortellini alla bolognese, anolini alla parmigiana, tagliatelle all’uso di romagna, risotto alla milanese, maccheroni alla napoletana, ravioli alla Genovese, Triestian presnitz and scores of other regional recipes. Not surprisingly, given Artusi’s station, he gives only a very few recipes for polenta, so associated with lower class kitchens (2).

Beyond Artusi’s extraordinary achievements in terms of book sales and use of accessible language, he approached his subject of food science and the art of eating well by embracing the kind of foods more and more Italians were eating, owing to their access to more diverse ingredients. The book covers fried artichokes, a specialty of Rome’s Jewish populace, though he says they are also a Tuscan specialty; couscous, introduced to Italy by the Arabs, for which Artusi gives a recipe given to him by two Italian Jews; black risotto in the Florentine style; macaroni with sardines in the Sicilian style; and meatballs (polpette), which were in Artusi’s day, shaped in “the size of an egg.”

Of meatballs he writes, “Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to tell you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everybody knows how to make, including absolute donkeys,” a statement that indicates just how ubiquitous polpette were in the Italian kitchen. He does not, however, connect them with spaghetti, as in the Italian-American dish that became the icon of the early twentieth century.

Single chapters cover soups (including those for “days of abstinence”), starters, sauces–salsas, which denoted condiments rather than a sauce for pasta, called sugo–eggs, fried dishes, entremets, stews, chilled dishes, greens and legumes, fish, roasts, and desserts, broken into pastries and torte e dolci al cucchiaio (cakes and sweets to be eaten with a spoon), syrups, preserves and ice creams, including sorbets.

Artusi also included sample seasonal menus for “an elegant dinner for each month of the year,” which showed his disdain for the extravagance of courtly excess by trimming service to a mere seven or eight courses, beginning with soup, usually containing pasta, a simple appetizer like figs and prosciutto, a fish dish, entremets like stuffed zucchini, a roast, dessert, fruit and cheese. While this may seem like a great deal of food, it was not being recommended for everyday meals and, overall, the dishes are light, based on the seasons and never elaborate. Artusi was a great believer in fresh, healthy food and disdained the richness and heaviness considered a virtue in the past. His fish and roasts are served simply, perhaps with a light sauce of the meat drippings.

He also insisted that “Those who do not do physical labor should eat more sparingly than those who do,” and “Unless you lead an active life, you should forgo the use of wine at lunch, because red wines are difficult to digest, while white wines, which contain more alcohol, cloud the mind.” Most important, he lectures, “Guard yourself from gluttony.” He also advocates exercise and temperance and warns that to be “overrun by wine [is] to commit a hideous sin.”

Artusi did not always provide strict measurements for recipes, in the assumption that home cooks would have a grasp of such details, but he offered a great deal more than did most cookbook authors of his time. Thus, in a complex dish like calf’s tongue in spicy sauce, Artusi instructs the reader to mince a 6-inch stalk of celery and small carrot, a quarter cup of olive oil, 2 anchovies, 7 tablespoons of “well-rinsed capers,” a quarter cup of breadcrumbs sprinkled with “just a drop of vinegar,” a piece of onion the size of a hazelnut and “less than half a clove of garlic.”

Artusi recommended the use of garlic, in moderation, but acknowledged its notorious reputation for its strong odor and its association with the lower classes. “The ancient Romans left garlic to the down and out,” he writes, “while King Alfonse of Castile abhorred it to the point that he would punish anybody who dared appear at court with its odor on his breath.” Artusi was familiar with long-held claims for garlic’s medicinal and health benefits, repeating claims that “it provides relief to those suffering from hysteria, promotes the secretion of urine, bolsters the stomach, aids in digestion and, since it cures worms, is a preventive against endemic and epidemic diseases.” He wags a finger at those who would banish it from their kitchens as a social stigma of the lower classes, insisting, “this fixation deprives them of tasty, wholesome food.”

Perusing Artusi’s book, one can only come away with the notion of how modern it seems and how remarkably it reflects what became the staples of 20th century Italian food on menus, not just in Italy but around the world. Look on any page and you’ll find dishes like minestrone, vitello tonnato, fried zucchini, baccalà, chicken alla cacciatora, bistecca alla fiorentina, saltimbocca, risotto with cuttlefish, potato gnocchi, Tuscan cacciucco seafood stew, zabaione, babà with rum and zuppa inglese. Not so surprising is his omission of Ligurian pesto sauce made from basil, garlic and olive oil, since that condiment was of fairly recent vintage, having been first mentioned in a cookbook, Vera cuciniera genovese, only as recently as 1863. He also includes a recipe for pizza libretti (“little book pizza”), which he says a lady sent to him, insisting it was not to be called schiacciata, “squashed”– “because it should come out anything but flat.” Indeed, the puffy pizza libretti he describes bears no resemblance to what we know of as Neapolitan pizza alla margherita, topped with mozzarella, tomato and basil; instead, it is merely dough made with eggs, cognac, or meat broth, folded over, cut into triangles and fried in oil.

It is even possible that Artusi may never have tasted or even heard of Neapolitan pizza, or that he included it among the foods he said were “limited to particular environments or social levels.” In fact, pizza alla margherita was of very recent origin, created to celebrate the new Queen’s visit to Naples in 1889. Its fame had not yet spread north from Naples.

Artusi does include sugo di carne, a meat sauce simmered for five or six hours, but it contains no tomato. And then there is but a single recipe for sugo di pomodoro, but he seems dismissive of the whole idea, writing, “I will speak anon about tomato salsa, which must be distinguished from tomato sugo, as the latter is simple, i.e., made from tomatoes that are simply cooked and run through a food mill. At the most, you may add a small rib of celery and a few leaves of parsley and basil to tomato sugo, if you feel you must.”

And that is all. He included no instructions, no recipe at all for a sauce that was soon to become the foundation of what would be known and beloved around the world as Italian cooking.

Artusi’s achievements in publishing La Scienza in Cucina e L’arte di Mangiar Bene were momentous for Italy itself, though he was hardly aware of it at the time. He had found a rewarding way to live out his retirement years, donating his fortune to a home for the elderly and dowries for poor girls; bequeathing the royalties from his book to his servants. Artusi died at the age of 91 in 1911, a year after publishing the last edition of his famous cookbook, in which he wrote his own epitaph, at the end of a recipe for gnocchi alla romana: “I hope you will like these as much as my guests have. If you do, toast me if I’m alive, or say a Rest in Peace if I’ve gone to push up cabbages.”


(1) As Gillian Riley writes in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food (New York, 2007), p. 28, “Artusi’s book made a greater contribution to the unification of Italy than all the efforts by politicians and linguists to bring a century of separate entities with their own dialects into a coherent nation.”

(2) The best English translation of Artusi’s book is by Kyle M. Phillips III (New York, 1996), from which these quotations are taken.

About the Author


John Mariani is an author and journalist of 30 years standing, having begun his writing for New York Magazine in 1973.  Since then, he has become known as one of America’s premiere food writers  (a three-time nominee for the James Beard Journalism Award) and author of several of the most highly regarded books on food in America today. He has been called by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press.”  His renowned books include: The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink  (Ticknor & Fields, 1983), Eating OutFearless Dining in Ethnic Restaurants (Quill, 1985), Mariani’s Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide (Times Books, 1986), and America Eats Out (William Morrow, 1991). Mariani co-authored annual editions of Passport to New York Restaurants (Passport Press) and was editor of Italian Cuisine: Basic Cooking Techniques (Italian Wine & Food Institute). He has written the food and restaurant sections of the Encyclopedia of New York City (The New-York Historical Society and Yale University Press, 1995) and contributed entries to Chronicle of America (Chronicle Publications). Mariani’s other books include The Four Seasons: A History of America’s Premier Restaurant (Crown, 1997; revised 1999); Vincent’s Cookbook (Tenspeed Press, 1995), with chef Vincent Guérithault; The Dictionary of Italian Food & Drink  (Broadway books, 1998) which was nominated for an IACP award; and, with Marie Rama, Grilling for Dummies (IDG Books), which first appeared in 1999 and was revised in 2009.  His new book is How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011).