Eating is a serious matter in Italy. Cooking and food are among the finest expressions of Italian culture, vividly portraying the country’s history and traditions. Like all other arts, cooking is based on measures and proportions,on the balance and fusion of different elements. It blends ancient traditions with contemporary innovation and evolves constantly, even in the twenty- first century, as a result of its position at the center of Italian family life. At home with family or friends,for a special occasion, in a fancy restaurant or in a humble trattoria, or even when preparing a simple everyday meal, for Italians, cooking is synonymous with good food, good wine and good company, all this you will find in our Montreal Italian restaurants section.
Whether rustic or sophisticated, Italian cooking is traditionally based on excellent, fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is one of the main reasons why Italian food varies so much from region to region and even from village to village. In the north, where cattle and dairy farming are prevalent, we find a cuisine based on butter, meat and Parmigiano, while travelling towards the south we encounter olive oil (extra vergine, of course), ripe tomatoes, gorgeous eggplants and fresh fish. Italian cooking is based on Italy’s rural traditions and depends very much on the vast variety of the country’s agricultural produce. Yet even if nowadays you can find almost any kind of food at any time of the year, Italians still follow the rhythm of the seasons and will wait until spring to enjoy asparagus, or the summer for a fresh Insalata caprese. But as soon as the temperature falls in the autumn, everyone is ready for a warming plate of Braised Beef with Barolo. In Italian families, special occasions are still celebrated at home with a five-course meal (antipasto,first course, main course with vegetables, cheese and dessert). But, when eating everyday, a one-meal dish such as lasagne, pizza or ribollita will satisfy even the most demanding of appetites.The country’s infinite variety of dishes allows Italians to create an excellent and healthy meal whether they choose to spend their entire day cooking, putting together a stunning Brodetto Marchigiano (a fish soup made using several varieties of fish and shellfish), or if, instead, they go home and make a simple but authentic dish of Spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino,with its four ingredients never missing from any Italian kitchen.
Authentic Montreal Italian restaurants dishes are very often based on just a few, humble ingredients.What makes them so tasty and delicious is that, over the centuries, Italians have discovered exactly how to achieve the perfect mix of flavors. It sometimes seems that Italians learn to cook before they learn to talk and their skills are handed down from one generation to the next.The perfection of Italian cooking has been achieved through centuries of testing in family kitchens, with millions of dishes served to the most discerning of critics. what Italian cooking is really about. This is the basis of all good Montreal Italian restaurants.
Italy has only one unifying Italian language, yet hundreds of different spoken dialects. Italy is a country of great variety, and cooking is just another aspect of the diversity of Italian culture.
Italy is a peninsula separated from the rest of the continent by the highest chain of mountains in Europe. In addition, a long spine of mountains runs north to south down through this narrow country. These geographic features create a myriad of environments with noticeable variations: fertile valleys, mountains covered with forests, cool foothills, naked rocks, Mediterranean coastlines, and arid plains. A great variety of different climates have also created innumerable unique geographical and historical areas.
But geographical fragmentation alone will not explain how the same country produced all of these: the rich, fat, baroque food of Bologna, based on butter, parmigiano, and meat; the light, tasty, spicy cooking of Naples, mainly based on olive oil, mozzarella, and seafood; the cuisine of Rome, rich in produce from the surrounding countryside; and the food of Sicily, full of North African influences.
The Romans politically controlled the territory about two thousand years ago, integrated Greek civilization, and created an empire that laid the foundations of Western civilization. They imported all kinds of foods from all over the known world. Roman ships carried essential food, such as wheat and wine, as well as a variety of spices from as far away as China, to satisfy the Romans’ appetite for exotic ingredients. Roman cooking habits fascinated and influenced generations in the centuries that followed. The fall of the Roman Empire was caused by unstoppable waves of invading people—barbarians who came from as far away as Tibet. They pillaged and destroyed, but they also took with them new cooking customs. It took centuries before some order was restored and medieval peoples could begin to rebuild something that could be called a cuisine.
During medieval times, the absence of a powerful central authority allowed the creation of many fiercely independent cities. These Comuni, from the Alps to the border of the Kingdom of Naples, progressed faster than the other European towns of that time in wealth, and in artistic and intellectual achievements. The cities of northern Italy developed mostly through the trading of valuable merchandise, such as spices and fabric, with northern Europe and the East. A rich cuisine developed offering great diversity from one town to another.
After the decline of the city states, the territory of northern Italy was partially occupied from time to time by France or Austria, which left additional culinary influences in the Northeast. The richness of the cities of northern Italy is reflected in particular in the creation of a “culture” of fresh pasta. While dry macaroni was an item of mass production, fresh pasta associated with eggs, cheese, sugar, cream, and other expensive items was a luxury item. Even though fresh pasta became diffused throughout the peninsula and outside the borders of Italy, it is in northern Italy that we find the most spectacular recipes. It is no coincidence that many consider Bologna the gastronomic capital of Italy.
Tuscany represents a phenomenon by itself in Italian history. Starting from the thirteenth century, the city of Florence in particular became rich during the evolution of the banking system. The De Medicis, a family of merchants and bankers, would become patrons of the arts and would accelerate the movement that became known as Renaissance. It was the birth of a new way of seeing human beings as controllers of their own destinies. New social rules were created here and were exported all over Europe, which at that time was on the verge of great transformations due to the discoveries of the age of exploration. The Renaissance initiated a great revolution in the arts, which was also reflected in spectacular and extravagant new ways of cooking.
While the north would see the creation of many small independent political entities, the south of Italy remained mostly unified for a long time. Separated from the great trading routes with northern Europe, the south suffered greater poverty and isolation. The people of southern Italy made the best of what they had. But it is here, in southern Italy, that spectacular dishes like spaghetti and pizza, originated. Born as the poor people’s way of cooking, these dishes were exported by groups of Italian emigrants and disseminated outside their regions of origin, making them extremely popular everywhere. Dry pasta is the greatest contribution from southern Italy and a favorite now amongst the Montreal populos.
Dry macaroni is suitable for storing, trading, and transporting. The invention of the bronze press industrialized the manufacturing of pasta, making macaroni affordable. Present in Sicily since Arab occupation, macaroni became extremely popular in Naples in the 1700s. It is from there that dry pasta started its journey to conquer the world. Sicilian history is fascinating for all the different people that occupied the island during different times. The greatest influence was left by the Muslim occupation that lasted for two centuries. Muslims contributed greatly to Western cuisine with a variety of foods: rice, spinach, alcohol, oranges, lemons, apricots, sugar and more. And in Sicily their influence is still greatly felt today.
The tradition of preparing and selling all kinds of pizzas in the streets remains well alive today in the small lanes of downtown Naples. Pizza and calzoni, panzerotti, and pizzelle fritte are delicious when eaten warm—prepared right on the spot—in the hundreds of small shops. As with fast foods, they can be either a snack or a full meal.
Local traditions result from long complex historical developments and strongly influence local habits. Distinctive cultural and social differences remain present throughout Italy, although today mass marketing tends to cause a leveling of long-established values. In a country so diverse, it is impossible to define an “Italian” cooking style, but traditional food still is at the core of the cultural identity of each region, and Italians react with attachment to their own identity when they are confronted with the tendency toward flattening their culture. Visit Little Italy in Montreal or any Montreal Italian restaurant to get a taste of Italy in your own back yard!