When it comes to cooking, pasta in its different shapes and forms is the adhesive that unifies Italy - but there are great regional differences. Only a few dishes are considered ‘national dishes’; each region has its own typical food, cooking methods, and recipes, as well as dialects. This is due to centuries of small city states before the country, at least on paper, fairly recently was “united”. The Unified Kingdom of Italy only happened in 1861. As a result, Italy is all about regional food. To experience the best of Italian cuisine, one should try typical dishes in their home region. There are some trends that allow the division of Italy into 3 general areas, coinciding with the approximate geographical division into North, Center, and South.
North: Gastronomic tradition here revolves around hearty food, hot soups, minestrone, vegetables like radicchio. The Northern tradition is based on dishes richer in fat, more of cold weather and mountain foods. Cheese, truffles, apples, polenta, risotto, mushrooms, speck, butter, game, gnocchi, and Germanic influences with buckwheat and potatoes. Example: Pizzoccheri, short tagliatelle made with 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour, cooked along with Swiss chard or Savoy cabbage and cubed potatoes, layered with cheese, and dressed with garlic and sage that are lightly fried in butter.
Center: The Center is renowned for being the area of heavy-bodied foods: Pecorini (cheeses from sheep’s milk), Scamorze (cow’s milk cheeses similar to Mozzarella), Insaccati (sausages), and Sottoli (pickles/preserves). Umbria is famous for truffles and mushrooms. Some special pastas here include: paste fresche, maccheroni, and spaghetti alla chitarra, often with sauces containing meat and game. The meat of choice in this area is pork.
South: Southern food is typical Mediterranean cuisine. A lot of fish; shellfish on pastas or pizzas. Pizza in Naples it’s relatively thick by Italian standards. Mozzarella and other dairy products are specialties here. A lot of herbs and spices are used, seasonings like basil, oregano, citrus, red pepper. tomato-based sauces. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is the pride of the South. All cooking is done with olive oil while in the North, butter is often used.
Cuisine is an important part of culture, and that’s still true of fictional cultures.
For instance, Southern Italian cuisine is very common in America, with its tomato sauces, pasta, cheese, and amazing spices, among other types of dishes. We got it from the waves of Southern Italian immigrants around the 19th century and the early, early 1900s, and it’s since been changed, so what you’d find here is quite different than what you’d find in Sicily or Rome or any part of Italy.
Our pizza is much heavier and greasier, our pasta is all over the fucking place (I just made organic Christmas pasta–naturally green, red and ‘normal’ in the shapes of Christmas things), and our doughnuts are also heavier and come in different shapes as compared to, say, Zeppoli.
But, here’s the thing: because Southern Italians were predominantly agricultural, they were very good at incorporating new foods. So, they’ve done similar things in the past–tomatoes came from the new world, and pasta was an idea from the East, where noodles had long been in consumption.
So, Southern Italian food is a fantastic example of how cuisine both changes and affects the cultures around it or somehow involved with it.
Almost everyone I know can make rigatoni, which is Italian-based, and that’s because my corner of America had a lot of immigration. Similarly, pierogi are very popular as well, and stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut and all manner of foods brought over.
Cuisine is a thing to take into account, because pretty much no cultures exist in a vacuum, and it can help you tie together how your world works.