Italian cuisine is a staple of family dinner tables from Rome to all four corners of the globe. Italian restaurants delight in offering the authentic taste of Italy and there have been countless recipe books published over the last 100 years that show us how to make dishes like chicken piccata and fettuccine alfredo.

The truth is that country we call Italy today is very young in comparison to some of its neighbors. The Kingdom of Italy only formed in the mid-19th century. Before that, it was just a series of regions, each with its culinary specialties.

When Did Italian Cuisine Begin?

Here we take a quick look at how Italian cuisine developed over the years.

Times and dates

It took centuries, dedication and creativity of Italian chefs before Italian cuisine evolved to what it is now. Let’s take a closer look at the years Italian food was evolving for a detailed understanding of how Italian cuisine began.

500 BC – 476 AD— Ancient Rome

Around 500 BC to 476 AD in Ancient Rome, grains, olive oils, wine, and cheese were the main source of food. However, the Roman Empire expanded and due to this new spices and produce were transported in from Asia, Egypt, and Middle East.

500 AD – 1400 AD— Middle Ages

Rome fell during the Middle Ages and the fall of Rome made Italians poorer, this period food moved from been based on grains, olive oils, wine, and cheese to simpler and more affordable meals like beans, flatbread, and vegetables, only the upper class could afford and enjoy meats, wine, pastas and seafood.

1400 AD – 1700 AD— Renaissance

The Renaissance period ushered in new ingredients from the New World into Italy, corn, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes are among the ingredients. This was also the period when pasta dishes became renowned most especially in Southern Italy. This period was when pizza originated in Naples too.

1700 AD – present— Modern Era

Italy unified in the 19th century and this fostered the development of Italian cuisine. Recipes were shared with love between regions and during this period emigration contributed to the spread of Italian cooking globally. In our present day, Italian cuisine has evolved and is still evolving to adapt to modern cooking techniques, recipes are been fused into Italian cooking too yet, Italian cuisine’s remains the same at heart— simple, fresh, and shared to be relished with love.

Roman Cuisine

fried fish Rome
Fresh deep-fried roman style squid served with fries and salad in local restaurant in Los Gigantes on tropical island Tenerife, Canary in Spain. Spanish food specialties.

At its height, the Roman Empire covered three continents including the majority of Europe and a good part of Asia and North Africa. The trade between these regions brought new foods to the center of civilization, including grains, spices and fruits.

The Romans were particularly fond of their food so it’s not surprising that this period in history saw a great deal of experimentation. Surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean, the empire was also blessed with a plentiful supply of fish – it’s no surprise that seafood recipes from Rome plays a fundamental role in modern Italian cuisine to this day.

During this time, we also see the first recipe books being written. The most famous, by the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, contained dishes aimed at the indulgent rich including more exotic offerings such as braised flamingo.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages was a turning point for Italian cuisine, what we know as Italian cuisine started taking shape during this period.  Specific regional flavors began to emerge in the 8th century; this was influenced by some historical events, one of which was the invasion by Germanic tribes. When the Holy Roman Empire gained control new spices and cooking techniques were brought in.

As the Roman Empire declined, the regions that would later form Italy became more fragmented. With the rise of Christianity, there was a more ‘moral’ slant to daily living, even for the rich, compared to the excesses of the Romans. This naturally seeped into what you were supposed to eat – the tendency was towards plain foods. If you were a monk during Middle Ages, your diet would largely have consisted of beans and other legumes with bread with perhaps some cheese for special celebrations.

Areas like Sicily came under the control of the Middle East and Arabic countries. Because of this, trade was still vibrant and led to some development in the culinary arts. Pasta, for instance, is thought to have originated in Asia but came to Italy via the Middle East at about this time. We’re all about blending Asian and Italian flavors together at SESAMO.

Moving forward to the 13th century, tomatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas were it originated from and was incorporated into Italian cooking. Pasta gained popularity during the 13th century and other dishes like lasagna sprang up. Herbs such as thyme, basil, rosemary, and oregano became popular and this period was when cheese varieties like provolone and parmesan were created.

The Renaissance

Renaissance era sketch
Leonardo Davinci engineering sketch from the renaissance period

Considered a re-birthing of culture in Europe following the Crusades, the Renaissance ran from the 14th to the 17th century.  This was the time of Catherine De Medici, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, and Michelangelo. It’s no surprise that this was also a period in history that saw greater experimentation with food.

The evolution of Italian cuisine continued in the 15th and 16th centuries when pizza originated in Naples. During this period there was further refinement of flavors in particular was the incorporation of New World ingredients like bell peppers, corn, potatoes, and chocolate.

One of the most important areas was Tuscany which became a center of excellence. Some of this was certainly driven by the fertile lands and market towns like Florence where fine local meats, vegetables and cheeses and wines were sold.

The rise of Catholicism and a central pope also changed the way religion oversaw the local regions and beyond. There was the return of great feasts to celebrate holidays. Sugar had also been introduced to the region, leading to more experimentation in cooking. Indeed, a monopoly of sugar was held in Venice making Italy one of the most powerful trading countries in the world.

17th to 20th Centuries

As we head through the 17th century, we see simpler foods becoming popular in the wider region with the creation of macaroni, tagliatelle and gnocchi, staples of Italian cooking even today. There was a good deal of regional variation which exists to this day, especially in areas like Sicily and Naples.

It’s about this time that we also see the precursors of modern cookbooks. Giovan Battista Critci wrote a long text on southern cuisine and, with the invention of printing, this could be distributed widely.

By the 1800s, the different regions finally joined together to form the Kingdom of Italy. Advances in cuisine went hand in hand with the rise in technology and better communication between provinces. We also see the invention of revolutionary practices such as pasteurization and the ability to store meat and poultry for longer which made certain foods more widely available to the general public.

Italian Cuisine in the Modern Era

italian pasta with wine
Italian pasta w chicken pieces and spinach

The last 150 years largely tell the tale of how Italian cuisine has spread around the world. Large numbers of immigrants traveled by ship to destinations like New York, especially at the turn of the 20th century, where they helped changed the culinary landscape.

Immigrants to America started almost immediately to make their variations on Italian classics. The cannoli, created in Sicily, became a favorite with local New Yorkers and is still one of the big sellers in authentic Italian bakeries in busy areas like Hell’s Kitchen.

During the first half of the 20th century, Italy itself was faced with some desperate times including a worldwide depression and the outbreak of war as well as the rise of fascism. Hard times meant ingredients were often in scarce supply which required a good deal of imagination when cooking. Modern authentic Italian cooking tends to use few ingredients, something which grew out of this period of austerity.

After World War II, there was a growing sense of prosperity and freedom. We saw the rise of fast food, with a more affluent population eating out at restaurants more. Family meals were still an integral part of Italian culture and feasts like spaghetti bolognaise not only became staples of the home table but gained popularity around the world.

Italian Cuisine Today

Go online today and you can find hundreds of different recipes for ragu, pesto pasta or fettuccine. You’ll see weird and wonderful pizzas available for delivery or on supermarket shelves along with different types of pasta.

The mass-produced Italian cuisine many of us are familiar with, however, is much different from the authentic cuisine that still exists in many homes and restaurants around the world. The US alone has an Italian American community of more than 18 million, many of whom still hold onto the recipes that have been handed down through families over the years.

At its heart, true Italian cuisine is about simplicity and flavor but it’s also about community and belonging. The people you break bread with and enjoy an evening meal are just as important as the feast on the table and the wine that you drink. That’s one thing that will never change.