Italian food is well known all over the world and for many people it is their favourite Italian cultural experience. But Italian cuisine is so much more than the famous iconic dishes like pasta, pizza and risotto. So, if you are planning a trip to Italy and would like to get to know the local cuisine while learning some fun and interesting facts about Italian food, keep reading, I’ve got you covered.

I would also like to point out that while I was born in Belgium, my dad was born in Italy and which I have visited many times, so I speak from 1st hand experience.

Italian village in tuscano with pine trees, vineyards and lush rolling hills

Italian cuisine is very diverse and forms part of the healthy Mediterranean style of cooking. But what makes Italian cuisine so unique? Italian food consists of fresh, healthy and amazing quality ingredients, as well as simple and authentic cooking styles. It’s homemade cooking with family friendly menu’s.

Basically, you will find the same dishes at home and in restaurants. Italian cuisine is known to pay close attention to the ingredients used, it’s based on the principle of what you see is what you taste.

So without further ado, here are some great and inspiring Italian food facts most people don’t know which will make you a food expert on your next Italian food adventure.

Interesting and fun Italian food facts

Italian cuisine is very regional

Italian food culture is very regional with each region having its own specialities. This is mainly due to the diverse landscapes within the country, the climate and the influences from neighbouring countries. Since Italians cook with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, you will find very different Italian food dishes when visiting an area by the sea, the mountains, the hills, or bordering other countries like France and Austria.

Italian flag on a stick with blue sky
Il Tricolore Italiana or the Italian flag

Italians eat their main meal at midday

An Italian meal is served in various courses. In general, first carbs are served and afterwards proteins. The first course is called ‘primo piatto’ and consists of a type of rice, pasta or soup. ‘Secondo piatto’ or second course is usually fish or meat with some vegetables. And the meal is closed off with some dolce or dessert.

Antipasti has nothing to do with pasta

Antipasto (antipasti in plural) is a type of appetizer that is served before the first course and can consist of cold meats, cheeses, bruschetta, olives, smoked fish and various vegetables. Antipasto is not an everyday thing but is instead served during a formal meal or when eating out in an Italian restaurant. 

Gelato is considered the best ice cream in the world

Italian ice cream or gelato is often considered to be the best ice cream in the world. Even though the basic ingredients between regular ice cream and gelato are the same, the ratio is different. Gelato contains more milk than cream, so a lower fat percentage. It is also churned at a much slower speed giving the gelato its characteristic silky and soft texture. Having worked in an authentic Italian ice cream parlour as a student for a mere 8(!!) years (yes, I have studied a long time) I can only confirm that gelato is indeed the best ice cream in the world (personal opinion…).

Woman eating icecream or italian gelato in Venice

Breakfast is the least important meal of the day

Italians generally only have a type of milky coffee, like cappuccino or latte macchiato to start the day accompanied by some cookies or small biscuits. They definitely don’t do a savoury breakfast early morning.

Pizza originated in Naples in Southern Italy

Pizza as we know it today was invented in the city of Naples or Napoli around the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century. One of the first was the pizza Margherita, said to be named after Queen Margherita of Savoy who liked the toppings of this specific pizza made in the colours of the Italian flag, red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella) and green (basil).

Seafood pizza with mussels, clams, calamari on a white plate
Seafood marinara pizza in Sorrento

The United States were the 2nd country to adopt the pizza

Italian pizza was introduced in the United States by Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century. The first pizzeria opened in New York City in 1905 and was called Lombardi’s.

Polenta used to be a working class dish

Polenta, a type of cornmeal porridge, is today often served as a fine dining comfort food. However, not that long ago, polenta used to be the staple food in Northern Italy for the peasants and the lower working class families. My dad grew up in Northern Italy and had to eat polenta as a child. To this day it still reminds him of ‘those’ days in Italy when life was hard for the lower working class and food was scarce.

Italy is the 2nd largest producer of olive oil

Italy is the worlds second largest producer of olive oil after Spain. Olive trees can be found all over Italy, but the actual olive oil production takes place mainly in the southern regions, like Sardinia, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia.

Bowl of olives with a bottle of Italian extra vergine olive oil
Italian olives and Italian extra vergine olive oil

Truffles are the black gold of Italy

Tartufo or truffles are a real culinary delicacy, of which Italy is one of the world’s leading countries in truffle production. Even tough truffles can be found throughout the country, the main areas are Umbria, Le Marche, Tuscany and Piedmont. Italy is home to various types of truffle, however, not all of them are edible.

Tomatoes play an important part in Italian cuisine

Tomatoes, or ‘pomodori’ in Italian were introduced in Italy during the late 16th century from the New World. Tomato sauce first appeared in the cookbook Lo scalco alla moderna by Antonio Latini in 1692 and set the base for the current Italian tomato sauce and its recipe variations like marinara sauce, puttanesca and arrabbiata sauce.

grey plate of caprese salad with burrata, tomatoes, arugula and basil with three vine tomatoes

Facts about Italian wine

Italy is the worlds largest wine producer

Italy is the world’s largest wine producer and accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the global wine production.

Wine is produced in every Italian region

Wine is produced in nearly the whole country, with the largest producing regions being Veneto, Tuscany and Piedmont.

The hills are alive in Tuscany

Tuscany is probably the most well-known Italian wine region by having one of the most scenic vineyards. It is also home to some of the most notable wines like Chianti and Montepulciano.

view over Tuscany hills with 2 wine barrels with pink flowers
View over the vineyards in Tuscany

Italian sparkling wines

Unlike some other countries, Italy has different types of sparkling wines, each produced in a different wine region. Prosecco, produced in Veneto, Lambrusco in Emilia, Asti in Piedmont and Franciacorta in Lombardy are some of the more well known types of Italian sparkling wines.

Italian coffee culture is a thing

Coffee was introduced in Italy in the 16th century

Having originated in Ethiopia, coffee was introduced into Italy in the 16th century by Venetian merchants. Over the years, Italy brought the consumption of coffee to a different level. Who has not heard of cappuccinolatte macchiato, espressocaffè latte (or milky coffee) which are all Italian coffee names used globally and known by practically everyone on the planet.

The world’s oldest coffee house is located in Venice

Caffè Florian is the oldest coffee house in the world. Located on St. Marks square or Piazza San Marco in Venice, Caffè Florian has been continuously operating since 1720. It has in the meantime become the place to be in Venice. Having a coffee in this institution is a true experience and will take you back to the atmosphere of centuries past. Do bring enough cash (Euros) or a credit card, because this wonderful authentic experience comes at a bit of a price.

Drink coffee like a real Italian

You know the expression; when in Rome Italy, do as the Romans Italians. Italians love to have their coffee at their local bar and when they do, they order and drink the coffee while standing at the bar counter.

cooking espresso coffee in a bialetti on a gas stove
Making coffee in a Bialetti moka pot

When in Italy…order your cappuccino in the morning

Cappuccino is a breakfast beverage. Italians never order or drink a milky coffee like cappuccino or latte macchiato in the afternoon or after dinner. So if you want to blend into local Italian culture and not stick out like a clueless tourist, just order a cappuccino for breakfast and you’ll be fine.

Facts about Pasta

Marco Polo did not introduce pasta into Italy

Legend says that pasta was introduced in Italy in the 13th century by Marco Polo after his travels to China. However, according to some historian, pasta was a thing in the Italian region even before Marco Polo started his journey to the East.

World pasta day

World Pasta Day is celebrated every year on October 25th and came into existence in 1995 to promote the eating of pasta along with its culinary importance, not only for Italy, but in every food culture.

There are over 600 shapes of pasta in the world

Over 600 shapes of pasta are produced worldwide, lots of them having their own particular name. But do you also know the literal meaning or translation of some of those well-known pasta shapes? Here we go; spaghetti means ‘little twine’, oriechetti ‘little ears’, vermicelli ‘little worms’, capellini ‘fine hairs’, farfalle ‘butterfly’, linguini ‘little tongs’ or tortellini ‘small pies or cakes’.

Fusilli ‘small and cute spindles’ can be used to make sage and butternut squash pasta or creamy tuna fusilli with leeks.

long creamy butternut squash pasta with sage in a dutch oven on a wooden plank
Butternut squash fusilli with sage

Pasta is not a main meal by itself in Italy

Unlike in most other countries where pasta is considered a main course, in Italy pasta is eaten as a primo piatto, or first course. It is followed by the segundo piatto which will feature a protein based ingredient. So when eating pasta in Italy, make sure not to eat a too large a portion because the main protein based course still needs to be served afterwards.

Always cook pasta al dente

Pasta in Italy is cooked ‘al dente‘, which literally means ‘cooked to the tooth’, in that the pasta is cooked but still has a bit of a firm bite to it. Pasta should certainly not be cooked to a mash, it should still hold its shape.

Cooking a good pasta is not that easy

Cooking pasta is often considered to be one of the easiest dishes to make. However, there are still a few rules that should be followed to ensure a good result. Use enough water in a large enough pot, then add salt. You should count on 1 litre of water per 100 grams of dry pasta and a good pinch of salt.

Forget about the oil

Many people believe that adding a teaspoon of oil in cooking water stops pasta from sticking together. So even though it is a common practice outside of Italy, Italians don’t add oil to the pasta water. In order to prevent pasta from sticking you can do the following:

  • Use a large enough pot,
  • Use plenty of water,
  • Add a generous amount of salt, for both flavour and to prevent sticking,
  • Stir the pasta occasionally while cooking.

Mix the pasta with the sauce before serving

The pasta should be mixed in to the sauce before serving to the table. Often it is seen to have a separate bowl of pasta and sauce and only then mixed on the plate. Next time, do it like the Italians and mix it in the pot. In the end, they will know best.

bowl of spaghetti bolognaise with parmesan cheese and parsley taken by a fork
This bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese is not made according to Italian standards, but still tasty

Spaghetti bolognese is not a dish in Italy

A fun fact about Italian cuisine is that spaghetti bolognese does not exist. Indeed, the most famous Italian dish outside of Italy is not an Italian dish or traditional Italian food. In Italy, ragù alla Bolognese is never served with spaghetti, but instead with either tagliatelle or in lasagna.

Eat pasta with a fork and only a fork

Pasta is eaten only with a fork, never with a spoon and certainly not cut with a knife.

Italian Cheese facts

The history of Italian cheese dates back to Roman times. 

The wealthier Romans had a separate kitchen to make cheese, which was called a caseale. Roman soldiers used to take cheese with them while conquering parts of Europe since it was easy to carry and could be preserved for a long time. They basically refined the Italian cheese making process.

Italy has many different varieties of cheese

Italy has over 2500 different varieties of cheeses, the highest in the world, and of these around 500 are commercially recognised. Lots of Italian cheeses are made very locally. The most famous Italian cheeses are without doubt Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Mozzarella, Pecorino, Ricotta and Gorgonzola.

Here are some recipes to make with Italian cheese: Marinated mozzarella balls, fig and gorgonzola bruschetta, fig and ricotta tartlets.

Casu martzu is the weirdest cheese in the world

One of the most notorious Italian cheeses is ‘casu martzu’, a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese. Casu martzu is pecorino cheese that is left outside to ferment with the rind partly removed so the phiophila casei fly can lay its eggs inside the cheese. When the eggs hatch, the maggots start eating the cheese. The cheese should be consumed with the maggots still inside it. The European Union food hygiene health regulations have declared this Sardinian delicacy illegal to either buy or sell it.

Buon Appetito

And last but not least, in Italy every meal is started by wishing everyone around the table to ‘enjoy their meal’ by saying ‘Buon Appetito’. In return, you can say ‘Buon Appetito’ or ‘Grazie, altrettanto’, meaning thanks, same to you.

Buon Appetito!

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