Most people can recognize "Italian" food. Pasta, tomatoes, basil, etc. But many of the plants used in Italian food, didn't actually originate in Italy. Or even anywhere in the Old World. The tomato, for instance, is a South America plant that eventually migrated to Europe after contact. Likewise, another quintessentially Italian ingredient, Basil, originated in India.

So when and how did these plants become so quintessentially Italian? When and how did modern Italian food come into being?


3 Answers 3


Wikipedia has a pretty decent write-up with references.

Specifically to tomatoes, it says:

Significant changes occurred with the discovery of the New World with the introduction of items such as potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and maize, now central to the cuisine but not introduced in quantity until the 18th century.

As far as not-in-quantity, the Wiki's source article states:

Another staple of Italian food is the tomato. It was introduced to Italy in 1522 by the Spanish, who ruled over the kingdom of Naples. They had picked up the tomato in Peru, where it was known by the Mayan word xtomatl. (Although if you ask Neapolitans, they'll tell you that Neapolitan sailors brought the tomato into port themselves.)

Basil (aka St. Joseph's Wart) - not sure how it came to Italy, but it spread from India a long long time ago and was known both to ancient Egyptians and Greeks of early Christian times, if not before; as well as Ancient Romans). However, Basil was thought to be unlucky, bad for you (I especially love the "scorpions in the brain" theory) and all-around evil till at least 17th century.


  • 8
    Nice to see references that are NOT wikipedia for once. +1
    – MichaelF
    Dec 20, 2011 at 13:22

tl:dr: Starting from the 19th century it took until after 1945 to form "modern classic Italian cuisine". These beginnings curiously coincide with the widespread adoption of tomatoes for pasta dishes. As a sauce ingredient, tomatoes gained popularity earlier. Basil was only modestly popular compared to other herbs, but it was so indeed since it first came to Italy.

Italy only exists as a unified state since the middle of the 19th century. ("it is true that the problem of 'creating Italians' emerged after national unity had been achieved") The country is as the language starkly contrasted between North and South. And this is reflected in the kitchen systems. A 'national' cuisine did not came into being at first. Since the middle ages cookbooks with local or regional focus were written in Latin, then French and finally in vernacular Italian.

Keeping in mind that for upper classes 'Italian' cuisine was at the absolute forefront of culinary excellence in Europe, before a Medici bride entered the French court and initiated the advance of French cooking.

As such, the "Italian cuisine" or 'national cuisine' is late and deliberate construction, still not very well reflected in everyday life in Italy itself. Only at the regional level was the commonality of recipes observable to a greater extent. That would make a list of a few 'cuisines': mainly Liguria, Lombardy, Venice, Tuscany, Emilia and Romagna, Rome, Naples, and Sicily.

The History of the pizza would be one example: Until the beginning of the 20th century, pizza and pizzerias remain a purely Neapolitan phenomenon, and only gradually Italian.

A question for a quintessential Italian dish may be answered with 'pasta with tomato sauce'. But thinking of "then it must be slightly younger than the Columbian exchange" falls short of the actual integration of the fruit into that dish. It took until ~1820 that the olio and cheese variants had to share the spotlight with the tomato-dish. Although Neapolitan recipes generally still prefer another variant for pasta with meat.

From this cerebral construct of 'national identity' as difference we observers note the following:

The “local” product, if consumed only at a local level, is devoid of geographical identity, since identity comes into play through a process of relocation, of “delocalization.” Mortadella from Bologna is called “Bologna” only when it leaves the city where it is produced. “Ascoli-style olives” (olive all’ascolana) assume this name when they travel beyond the borders of Ascoli, even if they are promptly shipped back there, bearing this name, in a kind of boomerang effect.

The 'typical Italian cuisine' and its history is now largely obscured through a century of marketing and re-branding via Italian immigrants, mainly to the US:

Italy’s culinary heritage is usually asserted and recognized through references to city-based identities. This is evident not only in the names of elaborate recipes and food preparations that were devised in urban settings, in the workshops of culinary artisans or, more recently, in industrial establishments (Cremona relish and Neapolitan spaghetti, for example) but also in the names of products originating in the countryside, the mountains, and the sea. When we speak of Treviso chicory, Bitonto oil, Ravenna turbot, Messina swordfish, Sorrento walnuts, or the ewe’s-milk cheese called pecorino romano, we are highlighting marketing centers rather than the areas where these foods are actually produced. It is understandable that the most successful “typical” products in the history of Italian food are those with the strongest industrial support (we have only to think of pasta, Parmesan cheese, and tomato sauce). These, in effect, are the products that travel best.

These late — and industrialised — additions to the culinary arsenal are so dominating the picture today that it seems complicated to unearth 'authentic' Italian recipes. Which of course, never existed in the first place, if we mean to understand 'never changing since the fall of Rome'.

Focusing back on the gift the Genoese brought back:

But unlike France, where Parisian cuisine competes with Provençal cooking, Italy, though gastronomically divided by regions, gains from its decentralized character and manages to sell pizza with tomatoes everywhere, popularized by emigrants of southern Italian origin.


The tomato, initially regarded as an ornamental fruit and later adopted as a food, was an exotic curiosity that first appears in the writings of P. A. Mattioli and José de Acosta, travellers and naturalists. Apart from these sources, allusions to its consumption are very rare. Costanzo Felici tells us, however, that the usual “gluttons and people greedy for new things” did not realize that they could eat the tomato as they would eat mushrooms or eggplants, fried in oil and flavored with salt and pepper. Although we must not exclude the possibility that tomatoes were consumed at an earlier date by the common people, it is only at the end of the seventeenth century that we observe their inclusion in elite cuisine, thanks to the Neapolitan recipe collection of Antonio Latini. Iberian influences may be detected in their adoption for culinary purposes, since various recipes that call for tomatoes are designated as “in the Spanish style.” Among these is a recipe for “tomato sauce,”41 which is flavored with onions and wild thyme “or piperna” and subsequently adjusted to taste by adding salt, oil, and vinegar. With a few modifications, this preparation was to enjoy a remarkable future in Italian cuisine and in the industry of preserved foods. The custom observed in ancient and medieval times, as well as during the Renaissance, of serving sauces as an accompaniment to “boiled foods or other dishes” – as Latini expresses it in this instance – facilitated the acceptance of the tomato by integrating it into an established gastronomic tradition. For the same reason, it gained widespread currency in Italian cooking in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Panunto in Tuscany, Vincenzo Corrado in Naples, and Francesco Leonardi in Rome all include it in their recipe books.

This integrative model proved far more successful in Italy compared to partial replacement that using potatoes would have required. The tubers were only acclimatised very slowly and erratically in the kitchen systems.

The appearance of new, cheaper, and more readily available vegetables — both fresh and preserved (in the case of potatoes and tomatoes) — on the dinner table all year long favored this revolution. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the tomato was the basis for a sauce used universally in restaurants both humble and grand as an accompaniment to meat and also as a sauce for pasta dishes. Its stable, moderately acidic taste and its bright red color, undiminished by the process of preservation, ensured its success, and it became an ingredient that appeared equally in the dishes of the poor, the middle class, and the aristocracy. The story of the potato was somewhat similar. Although it had a poor reputation in terms of flavor and consistency, it was nonetheless easily transported, manipulated, and combined with other foods. So the potato too became an ingredient that was used across Italy’s social spectrum, though its cultivation was still unevenly distributed in the nineteenth century. Potatoes and tomatoes also raised the issue of territorial provenance, since they were ubiquitous and easily replanted and hence constituted culinary references that were not characteristic of a single place but could be considered universal.

For the spices, this is quite different. Medieval recipes from the peninsula are heavily dominated by marjoram and mint. And to a lesser extent by

basil, bay leaf, catnip, and, in Scappi’s work, pimpernel and wild thyme. […]

Italian recipe collections reveal an acceptance of nature that was unparalleled elsewhere, since they feature even ingredients such as mushrooms and truffles, the sign of an intense exchange of knowledge between the world of the peasants and urban and aristocratic environments. […]

The great recipe collections of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries adopted and expanded this tradition. Cabbages, turnips, fennel, mushrooms, squash, let- tuce, parsley, and all sorts of herbs and legumes—such as broad beans and peas—are the basis of many preparations proposed by Maestro Martino (soups, torte, and fritters). Platina carefully offers detailed instructions on how to flavor lettuce, endives, oxtongue, moss rose, mallow, radishes, sassafras, pimpernel, and sorrel, as well as mixed salad:

A mixed salad is prepared with lettuce, oxtongue, mint, catnip, fennel, parsley, watercress, oregano, chervil, chicory, and dandelion greens (described by doctors as taraxacum and arnoglossa), wonderberry, fennel flowers, and various other aromatic herbs, well washed and drained. These are placed in a large dish and flavored with abundant salt. Oil is added, and vinegar sprinkled on top. The salad is then left to macerate for a short while. Because of the wild coarseness of the ingredients, one must be careful to chew thoroughly when eating. […]

In 1569 Costanzo Felici wrote: “Salad foods, according to those who live beyond the Alps, are almost exclusive to greedy Italians, who have appropriated the food of those base animals that eat raw greens.” His statement appears in a long letter to Ulisse Aldrovandi, titled De’ insalata e piante che in qualunque modo vengono per cibo del’homo (On salads and plants that in some way become the food of men), which constitutes a genuine treatise on gastronomic botany. We find many other famous examples of this type of document—part scientific treatise and part cookbook – in Italy.

The use of basil as 'typical Italian preference' is strange from an Italian perspective and a result of outside observation? Whereas other herbs and spices may grow well in colder climates or travel well in dried form, dried basil is one example that is in practice a whole different herb compared to fresh.

Quotes from Alberto Capatti & Massimo Montanari: "Italian Cuisine. A Cultural History", ('La cucina Italiana: Storia di una cultura', transl Aine O’Healy), Arts and Traditions of the Table, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003.


I can answer this question in terms of how Italian-American cuisine...."came to be":

It began with the arrival of Italian immigrants to Ellis Island beginning in the late 1800's. The vast majority of Italians arriving to the United States 100 plus years ago, were primarily from Southern Italy-(namely the Calabrian region, as well as the city of Naples) and Sicily. Most of the Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States settled in New York City, specifically, the Lower East side of Manhattan whereby, "Little Italy", was founded-(with its famous streets, such as Mulberry and Prince Streets).

However, there were just as many Italians who relocated to other Northeastern cities, such as Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities, such as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey-(as well as nearby Hoboken, New Jersey). In addition to the Northeast, Italian immigrants spread out across the continental United States, to cities, such as, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans and San Francisco. Interestingly, when settling in California, many Italian immigrants also settled in more rural/pastoral areas of Northern Califorina-(such as the Napa and Sonoma Valleys).

This preliminary information is necessary in order to better understand the evolution of Italian-American cuisine and how it essentially became synonymous with some of the cities and towns listed above....especially....New York City.

While the Italians initially settled into the Lower East side of Manhattan, they would eventually move throughout the five boroughs of New York City, with heavy representations throughout Manhattan-(especially in Upper Manhattan), Staten Island, Brooklyn-(South), parts of Queens and much of the Bronx. If one has ever lived in, worked in, traveled through or just taken a daytrip through New York City during the 20th and 21st centuries, one will see, the overwhelming number and representation of Italian restaurants, eateries, Pizzerias, Gelaterias, Supermarkets, Groceries, Butcheries, Cheese shops and Delis that are available for lunching, dining and snacking-(especially, in Manhattan). Many of these centers of Italian cuisine have deep New York City roots dating back 100 plus years....in other words, there is, indeed...a historical longevity and legacy to many of these places.

Italian-American cuisine and New York City, are almost inseparable....it has been and is still, very much, a central part of New York City's cultural and culinary identity. Before the arrival of the Italians in the late 1800's, New York City cuisine, was rather....bland?, perhaps a bit lackluster in taste and aroma? However, with the arrival of Italian cuisine into New York City, it dramatically transformed the diets of many New Yorkers-(both Italian and non-Italian alike), but, over time, would become a defining feature of everyday New York City life-(from the subway rider.....to the CEO).

So, how and why did this happen? Well, one could write numerous articles, position papers and books on this topic-(which I am unqualified to do). However, one answer perhaps, may have to do with the majority of non-Italians, who have and continue to enjoy the various types of foods and ingredients that Italian Cooks and Chefs have been using in their cuisines for centuries.

Interestingly, many so-called, "Italian foods", are actually, not Italian in origin. The tomato, for example, was and is indigenous to the Americas, coffee, is indigenous to East Africa, the noodle, is indigenous to China and (the aforementioned) Basil, is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent-(as well as pepper). All of these above mentioned foods would have been foreign to the Romans and other Latin speaking peoples across the Italian peninsula during Ancient, as well as Medieval times. However, with Explorers, such as Marco Polo, as well as other Northern Italian Merchants who traveled far and wide along the Silk Route and other famous Spice routes during the Late Middle Ages, as well as during the early years of the Renaissance, many of these foods were brought back to Italy, as well as to its maritime colonies in the Mediterranean. These imported foods would dramatically transform Italian trade and marketing, but would ultimately and irreversibly transform.....the Italian diet itself.

By the late 1800's, when Italian immigrants emigrated to the United States, Canada and South America-(especially Argentina, Brazil and Chile),they brought with them centuries of unique cuisine specialties that were both, indigenous to the Italian peninsula-(which is fairly rich in agriculture, coupled with its access to the sea), as well as from other parts of the world. This created a type of dietary syncretism for both the Italian communities in these above mentioned places-(especially, in New York City), but also, for many, many non-Italians, who have helped to keep Italian (especially, Southern Italian) cuisine.....alive and well.

  • Please explain the downvote?
    – Alex
    Jan 18 at 0:16
  • 3
    Because, despite being interesting and informative, it answers a question that was not asked ('When and how did "Italian-American" cuisine come to be?'). It also lacks sources for the different parts: 1) Italien migration to the US (in general) ; 2) Italien migration within New York City (specificly) ; 3) development of Italian cuisine: When and how did classic "Italian" cuisine come to be? - History Stack Exchange. Jan 18 at 5:35
  • As I stated at the beginning of the essay, I was primarily focusing on "Italian-American" cuisine and how it, "came to be".
    – Alex
    Jan 18 at 15:55

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