In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.
What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.
Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.
Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.
I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…
Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.
Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.
With Caesar’s death, the Roman Empire began. It reached its zenith with Augustus, the emperor after Caesar. The month of August is named after Augustus and Augustus ruled for four decades. His reign ushered in two centuries of Roman glory, called Pax Romana, Roman peace. The last five emperors of this time were selected for their ability to rule and they were known as “the five good emperors.” The inscription that one knows from movies like “Gladiator,” SPQR, is an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning “the senate and people of Rome.” During Pax Romana, trade increased including the import of slaves, silk, and spices.
The winds of history started changing and in 395 CE, with the death of Emperor Thodosius, the mighty Roman Empire which ruled over 70 million people, was split in two, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. Reverberating down the ages is the Sack of Rome which happened in August 410 CE. At this time, Rome was not the capital of the Roman Empire. The capital was Mediolum, modern Milan, and had been moved there in 285 CE. The significance of the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 CE was that it marked the first time that Rome had been conquered in 800 years. In 455 CE, Rome was sacked again by the Vandals and that is where we get the word vandal. The sackings continued until 476 CE when a Germanic warlord declared himself King of Italy.
At the same time as the rise and fall of Rome, the greatest story ever told happened. It was about a Jewish boy named Jesus. You may have heard it. In the Roman Empire, there were struggles between the emergent religion, Christianity, and the old religion. When the Roman Empire split, the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Byzantium, modern day Istanbul. At the time, the Byzantines called themselves Romans and their empire was the Roman Empire since the peninsula around Rome had fallen to barbarians. This is the source of the name of the country of Romania. In Byzantium, Constantine I made Christianity the official religion in 324 CE and Christianity flourished. Back in Latin Rome, the Western Empire, things were looking dark.
During the Dark Ages, Italian history is a series of wars, but the main thing to happen is the rise of the Papal State. In 800 CE, Charlemagne was crowned at St. Peters in Rome, by Pope Leo III, as emperor. The term, “Holy Roman Emperor” was used later to connect to the divine with the might of the Roman Empire. The empire ruled by Charlemagne and the Franks stretched down to the middle of the Italian peninsula. Even north of Rome, there were still many independent city states that flourished from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. These included city states such as Genoa, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Amalfi, Florence, and Venice. Due to location, location, location, Venice became a hub for trade.
One of the merchants who was from Venice was John Cabot. John Cabot, first to explore the North American shores since the Vikings, was an Italian. He was Giovanni Caboto, Zuan Chabotto in Venetian. He actually signed his name as Zuan Chabotto. Zuan is a form of John. Zuan Chabotto was a well traveled merchant who had been to Egypt in his trade of silk and spices. He may have been born in Genoa and a contemporary described him as “another Genoese like Columbus.” Genoa is one of those places I will visit as I have heard so many stories about it, mainly from my Peruvian-Italian family, when they tell their immigration story to the Americas.
Amerigo Vespucci was a merchant, explorer, and navigator from Florence who was part of the Age of Discovery, or Age of Exploration, and he had two continents named after him. The earliest use of his name for the continents was on a map in 1507 when it was used for the continent of South America. Amerigo Vespucci’s legacy were his letters. In these, he described a “new world” that was not India, as Christopher Columbus said of the same place when he had bumped into it a few years earlier. There are some historians who believe that America was named after the Amerrisque Mountains in Nicaragua or Richard Amerike, supposed owner of John Cabot’s explorer ship.
Christopher Columbus was also Italian. Cristoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristoffa Corombo in Ligurian. He was born in Genoa, son of a weaver and cheesemonger. Young Christopher helped at his father’s cheese stand. The cheese that he sold could have been “bros” cheese. Bros or “brus” is a cheese made with old cheese and grappa. Like many foods, it grew out of frugality. Old, moldy, hard, or stale cheese was mixed with homemade grappa to make an entirely different product. Grappa is the liqueur made from distilling the pomace, pulp, left after winemaking. The old, smelly, cheese was mixed with grappa, spices, and possibly butter and then left to ferment in an earthenware jar until it became creamy. This fermentation created a product that was preserved. It was served spread on bread. There are variations including using wine and “brus da ricotta” or “bruzzu” which is made without wine or grappa. Brus da ricotta is made with fermented sheep’s milk ricotta mixed with chili or black pepper. Ricotta means “re-cooked” and is the cheese made from the whey that is left over after making other cheeses. It is similar to cottage cheese. Ricotta in Italy is made from the milk of cow, sheep, goat, or water buffalo. Water buffalo were imported from Asia, perhaps as early as Roman times.
Christopher Columbus traveled far including possibly as far north as Iceland and as far south as Ghana. Since the middle ages, the route to find spices was through the silk road and east. Christopher Columbus wanted to find a western route to the East Indies, as all of East and South Asia was called at that time. When he reached land, an island in today’s Bahamas, he called the natives “Indians” and it is assumed that he thought he had reached India.
Then there was the Renaissance. Which means the introduction of the fork. Of course, you may recall that “renaissance” means “rebirth.” The Renaissance started in Florence in Tuscany and spread southward and then to the rest of Europe. The Renaissance was a re-awakening of culture, arts, philosophy, and literature. In 1320, Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy, a poem that he called simply “the Comedy.” This was published in his local language of Tuscan therefore cementing Tuscan as the Italian language. Modern day scholars believe that Dante was influenced by the Islamic work Kitab al Miraj which is the tale of the prophet Muhammed going to heaven. The Renaissance was a time of learning from the Islamic world, much through al-Andalus, Islamic Spain. The Divine Comedy is the journey of a man on a quest to find god. This is where we get the phrase “the ninth circle of hell” which is actually described in the story. In the ninth circle of hell, sinners are punished by being made to lie in a icy slush that is produced by never-ending frozen rain. Sounds like soup weather. The sin that sent one to the ninth circle of hell was betrayal.
Another literary work of the Renaissance was Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” This book was dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, father of Catherine, who introduced the fork to the French court. Lorenzo’s other child, Alessandro de’ Medici, became the first Duke of Florence, and he was black, which at the time was not a hindrance to upward mobility. Alessandro was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo and an African house slave, Simonetta da Collevecchio. Female house slaves who served as handmaidens were called “ancilla.” Slavery was a common part of the ancient, medieval, and renaissance worlds. The Catholic Italians would buy slaves from the Islamic world, and the muslims would buy slaves from the heathen Catholic world. The city-states of Genoa and Venice controlled the slave routes and this included selling Slavic peoples, thus the word “slave” comes from the Slavic people of the modern day Balkans. In Roman times, slaves could easily blend in with the Roman populace so they were branded on their foreheads.
Alessandro’s nickname was “the Moor” due to his complexion. This designation is also used with Othello, of Shakespeare fame. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare spent his “lost years” in Italy. Alessandro was assassinated by a cousin and the duchy returned to another branch of the Medici family.
The Renaissance in Italy, along with being a time of exploration, was also a time of continued strife and battle between the city-states on the Italian peninsula. During the fifteenth century, Florence, Milan, and Venice emerged as the strongest. They signed a peace treaty in Lodi. But the wars continued. The varying Italian city-states continued to be at war with France, Spain, and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was King of Spain, Lord of the Netherlands, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, and head of the House of Habsburg. As Holy Roman Emperor, he had control of the northern parts of Italy and as King of Spain, he had control of southern Italy as they controlled Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. Charles was the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, who had financed Christopher Columbus. There is a Flemish legend that Charles V preferred beer over wine and as a result there are beer brands named after him.
Emergent throughout was the power of the Papacy, the Roman Catholic Church. Since gaining traction in the fourth century, Christianity had risen from strength to strength, crusades, and had split with the Counter Reformation. In Italy, while the constant battles had ravaged the economy of the Italian peninsula, the church got richer.
New world explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus were both Italian but in some ways their search for the alternate route to find the spice islands, source of black pepper, led to the demise of the power of mercantile powers such as Genoa and Venice. That, and the Black Death. The plagues 1630 and 1656 killed twenty-five and forty-three percent of the population. This loss of population, thus economic growth, lead to a decline of 31 percent in the GDP, gross domestic product, in two centuries.
The next couple of centuries saw more war on the Italian peninsula and at the end of the eighteenth century, the result was that Austria won over Spain in ruling the Italian city-states.
Then along came Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1796, he forced Austria to retreat, and he then spent the next three years conquering the Italian peninsula in the name of the French revolution. This included declaring himself King of Italy in 1805 in a region around Venice. He ruled the rest of the peninsula but mainly through his rule of France. In 1809, Napoleon made it to Rome. He had been excommunicated earlier by the Pope, but now the Pope fled. There was a lot more fighting and eventually Napoleon was exiled to Elba, escaped, and still did not succeed.
The seed of unification was planted. Revolution and independence were popular at that time in Europe and abroad. The British colonies had declared themselves free a few decades back, and the French people had had a revolution as well. On the Italian peninsula, where the seed of unification was sprouting, the flame blew into the Italian Wars of Independence from 1848-1866. These wars were mainly against Austria, that big brute, and the Kingdom of Sardinia did most of the heavy lifting.
Part of the unification of Italy involved choosing a king. King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia was chosen as King of Italy in 1861. Italy was a kingdom until 1946 when a referendum created the modern Italian Republic. Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general who is considered one of the fathers of modern Italy. Garibaldi’s life took him all around the world and he became a much admired figure in history. For the sake of a book on food, I mention him as part of history. He helped create Italy as a unified country, but there are still Italians who wish he had stayed home.
The flag of Italy, “il Tricolore” contains three panels with equal vertical panels of green, white, and red. Green is for the evergreen scrubland of the Mediterranean, white for the snowcapped Alps, and red for the blood shed during the revolution. Garibaldi’s men were also called redshirts after their uniform. According to Catholic interpretation, the flag colors represent hope, faith, and love. The “love” part of this represents the virtue of charity and love for God and for thy neighbor. Quite appropriate for a land of neighbors. Just to prove what a patchwork of nations Italy was, here is the title of the King of Italy up until 1946:
[Name], by the Grace of God and the will of the Nation, King of Italy, King of Sardinia, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Armenia, Duke of Savoy, count of Maurienne, Marquis (of the Holy Roman Empire) in Italy; Prince of Piedmont, Carignano, Oneglia, Poirino, Trino; Prince and Perpetual Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire; Prince of Carmagnola, Montmellian with Arbin and Francin, Prince bailiff of the Duchy of Aosta, Prince of Chieri, Dronero, Crescentino, Riva di Chieri and Banna, Busca, Bene, Bra, Duke of Genoa, Monferrat, Aosta, Duke of Chablais, Genevois, Duke of Piacenza, Marquis of Saluzzo, Ivrea, Susa, of Maro, Oristano, Cesana, Savona, Tarantasia, Borgomanero and Cureggio, Caselle, Rivola, Pianezza, Govone, Salussola, Racconigi over Tegerone, Migliabruna and Motturone, Cavellermaggiore, Marene, Modane and Lanslebourg, Livorno Ferrraris, Santhia, Aglie, Centallo and Demonte, Desana, Ghemme, Vigone, Count of Barge, Villafranca, Ginvevra, Nizza, Tenda, Romont, Asti, Alessandria, of Goceano, NOvara, Tortona, Bobbio, Soissons, Pollenzo, Roccabruna, Tricerro, Bairo, Ozegna, delle Apertole, Baron
of Vaud and of Faucigni, Lord of Vercelli, Pinerolo, of Lomellina, of Valle Sesia, of the Marquisate of Ceva, Overlord of Monaco, Roccabruna and eleven-twelfths of Menton, Noble Patrician of Venice, Patrician of Ferrara.
Talk about name dropping, or name-including. I think my favorite part is the “eleven-twelfths of Menton.”
Italy was part of the Allied Powers in WWI giving them a seat at the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. In 1922, the prime minister, former journalist Benito Mussolini, head of the National Fascist Party, led a coup d’etat. His rule was a “legally organized executive dictatorship” from 1922-1943. Mussolini consolidated his power through his use of his secret police, laws, and any other means necessary. Mussolini formed a Italian East Africa by invading Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He was an inspiration to Adolf Hitler. In WWII, Mussolini entered Italy on the Axis powers siding with Hitler. He also recognized the independence of Vatican City as a country.
Italy as the Italian Republic was formed on June 2, 1946. This also gave Italian women suffrage, the right to vote. This date is celebrated as Republic Day. Over the next few decades, Italy joined NATO, became a part of the EEC, forerunner to the European Union, and benefited from the Marshall Plan.
In the 1990s, Italy went through terrorist attacks by the Sicilian Mafia. During the period of 1990-2011, Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister through four governments, making him the third longest lasting prime minister since Italian unification. This shows that Italy continues to be a land of neighbors. During the 2010s, Italy has been at the center of the European migrant crisis, taking in more than 700,000 refugees, most crossing from Africa. In 2020, Italy was one of the hardest hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic.