Italian food is the foundation for Italian cuisine, only Italian dishes have become so international that it is difficult to know how much comes from the original Italian recipe and how much is due to other influences.
What makes Italian food Italian?
The question posed by the title may seem puzzling. The answer would have to be that the dish originates from Italy, wouldn't it? Yes, or maybe it has to do with what ingredients are used. Or, what spices. Or, what it is served with. Or...
You see? That question may not be so easy to answer after all. So, let's take the easy way out and just say "All of the above, and then some".
Take the ingredients. Shellfish, tomatoes and pasta in the south, drenched with olive oil. Fish, fowl and farm animals, and native vegetables in the north, made creamy with butter. But even here, those regional differences are not unique to Italy, much less within Italy.
Migration inside the sections of this lovely country have mixed and matched dishes by the score. Influences from other countries played a role, too. In the north, the proximity to France has shown up in dozens of dishes. In the south, the conquest by Arab cultures centuries ago left a mark on Italian cuisine that persists to this day.
Most Italian dishes, to be sure, originated in Italy. Most of them are centuries old, after all. The great Italian immigration to America began around the turn of the 20th century and many dishes from 'the old country' didn't become popular here until after WWII. Returning soldiers brought many things back, not least of which were many Italian brides, including recipes from all the regions of that grand country.
But even modern dishes like tiramisu are completely Italian in character. Who -besides the French, maybe- would think to combine ladyfingers with coffee and cognac and make it, not a snack with a drink on a tray, but a dessert that mixes them all together?
That inventiveness is a major part of what makes Italian food Italian.
Sure, oregano and basil give a flavor that is strongly associated with that country's cuisine. The tomatoes and pasta over which those seasonings are spread are the essence of southern Italian cuisine. But tomatoes only came into Italy in the 16th century (from the New World, as it happens) and pasta came from Asia. Long before the Renaissance, Italian food had a distinctive character. Even those spices are used by many other cultures.
No, it's not just the origins or the ingredients - though they're admittedly a significant part of the final result. It's the sheer ingenuity that can take the simplest list of foods and spices and create a masterpiece that takes Italian food to its mighty pinnacle. That culinary Everest is truly what makes Italian food Italian.
Explore Italian food
Get ready for a dining adventure. Italian food is being sought. You won't want to miss out. Before you set sail to seek out culinary perfection, explore an Italian dish.
You may prefer the traditional foods that everyone associates with this lovely country. But which tradition?
Tomato sauce and pasta - the quintessential Southern Italian ingredients - no doubt have their fans, and those people are found all over the world. Where could you go and not find pizza? But, the Northern Italian dishes - heavy on the butter, skip the olive oil, and make it creamy - are served from New York to New Dehli. Yes, you can go to India and get Fettucine Alfredo any time you want.
Let's not forget about Napoleon's birthplace either. Sicilian sauces are one of the best kept culinary secrets of this sun-drenched land. But once the world finds out, there will be no holding back the hordes eager to invade to get them. You can have, if you wish, a plain old marinara. But try it Sicilian sauce style and you may abandon old traditions forever to start a new one.
Italian bread is another of those less well-known highlights of Italian cuisine. Sure, you've probably had some Focaccia. But when was the last time you went to the store or restaurant and picked out Piadina or clutched at a Ciabatta?
You'll need some cheese to go with that bread, and for the hundreds of Italian dishes you have yet to explore like a fine risotto. You may be under the impression that the French have more to offer here. Think again.
Go beyond the Gorgonzola and embrace a fine Fontina for your fonduta and you may change your mind. Try an Abbamare from the sunny island of Sardinia if you're not fully convinced yet. Sooner or later, you just can't help but regard Italian cheeses as the equal of their cousins to the north.
While you're trying to decide, you might get hungry. A little gnocchi can help stave off those hunger pangs. These potato dumplings are great for a snack, or as part of a larger dish. They even make for a great addition to any of dozens of zuppa (soup) recipes. Once the Minestrone Veronese is served you'll be too busy thinking about how wonderful you feel to worry about it anymore.
But, hey, no one says you can't have a plain old pizza. This dish from Naples, with ingredients as far flung as tomatoes from Spain (by way of the New World) and flatbread from Greece, is now popular the world over. Of course, you may be surprised to learn that it isn't just California that has found a hundred new ways to make it. That innovation started in the old country when every sailor decided to try his hand at making something to take on the long sea voyage.
So, get ready for new adventures in cooking and dining. Italian food is about to be served...