Fun Facts Behind Favorite Italian Foods

John Cabot University students discover delicious new foods as they study abroad in Rome.

John Cabot University students discover delicious new foods as they study abroad in Rome.

One of the many pleasures of living in Italy is getting to experience its famous food culture firsthand. Students can learn how to cook fresh pasta in one of JCU’s many Italian cooking classes, sip an authentic espresso during a coffee-shop study session, or enjoy a cool gelato as they explore Rome’s iconic landmarks and cobblestoned streets.

Food is so important in Italy that throughout the year, the John Cabot University Cultural Program arranges trips where students are exposed to new culinary experiences in Tuscany, Naples, and Rome. And while many students may already be familiar with some of Italy’s most famous foods – like pizza and pasta – there is a lot about Italian cuisine that isn’t quite so well known.

Read on to discover four fun facts behind some of the world’s most beloved Italian foods.

Tomatoes Weren’t a Major Part of Italian Cuisine Until the 19th Century

While it’s difficult to image Italian cuisine without this famous staple, tomatoes aren’t actually native to Italy. They were brought to Europe in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors returning from South America – but even then the tomato didn’t become a popular food item in Italy for over 200 years.

At the time, wealthy Italian aristocrats used pewter plates for their food, and didn’t realize that these plates had a dangerously high lead content. Acidic foods, like the tomato, leached the lead from the plates and into people’s bodies, wreaking havoc with their health. In fact, many people suffered from lead poisoning and blamed the tomato, dubbing it the “poison apple.” The creation of the pizza (like the tomato-based “Margherita”) certainly helped the tomato shed its shady reputation.

There are Many Regional Dishes for Students to Discover as they Study in Italy

While many popular Italian dishes are served around the world, students living and traveling in Italy get to experience a much more complex, locally diverse food culture. In Northern Italy, for example, students can enjoy regional dishes like risotto and polenta. In the South, on the other hand, students can sample creations made with eggplants, artichokes, garlic, and olives. Menus change with local customs and the availability of fresh ingredients.

Whether you’re taking art classes in Italy or studying international business, discovering a wide range of unique local dishes is something every JCU student can enjoy – and a fantastic window into Italian culture in general.

Fettuccini Alfredo Doesn’t Exist in Italy, and Neither Does Spaghetti and Meatballs

Some foods that are commonly associated with Italy around the world are not, in fact, truly Italian at all. International students in Italy might consider “fettucine Alfredo” and “spaghetti with meatballs” as quintessentially Italian – but the truth is, neither are common in Italy. In most Italian restaurants and home kitchens, meatballs are served separately from pasta dishes.

Fettucine Alfredo is a good example of how Italian foods were adapted to American tastes and traditions after waves of Italian emigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s said that the original sauce for the recipe was invented by a Roman chef, and included only butter and Parmesan cheese – quite different from the cream-rich, herb-enhanced “Alfredo” sauce many Americans know and love!

Students learn how to cook fresh pasta in one of JCU's many cooking classes.

Students learn how to cook fresh pasta in one of JCU’s many cooking classes.

Pizza was Invented in Naples

JCU students who sign up for the Cultural Program’s upcoming Campania weekend trip will enjoy a stop in Naples, which many people believe to be the birthplace of modern pizza.

Students enjoy a pizza during one of JCU's many weekend trips.

Students enjoy a pizza during one of JCU’s many weekend trips.

As the legend goes, in 1861 Queen Margherita fell in love with the delicious pizza of Naples, which up until then, was considered a very humble dish, typically eaten by poor locals. However, with the Queen’s endorsement, pizza grew in popularity. To this day, the iconic tomato, mozzarella, and basil topped variety is referred to as pizza Margherita in her honor.

What Italian foods do you want to try while you study in Italy this year?

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