History of Food Italian Food

History of Italian Cuisine in the 20th Century

The last decade of the 19th century and the first 15 years of the 20th are generally known as La Belle Époque: relatively economic and political stability had given to the people of Italy, and Europe, a much-needed respite from the events of the tumultuous first 80 years of the 1800s. With this post, we’ll have a look at Italy in the 20th century and the history of Italian cuisine in the 20th century.

These are times of celebrations and banquets, where the rich, once again, much like the aristocracy of the Renaissance had done, enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle centered on a complete abandonment to the pleasures of life. In are again banquets and luscious dinners, filled with delicious food, wines, spirits, and music. Dinners were held in each and every wealthy family’s residence, a spread of lucullian dishes and Tiffany and Cartier jewels.

History of Italian Cuisine – 20th century

A vintage commercial of Bonatti's chocolatiers, in Milan
A vintage commercial of Bonatti’s chocolatiers, in Milan (by Bianca Bueno at flickr.com)

The 20th century has been, undoubtedly, a time of immense changes from a historical and cultural point of view. Also, science and technology concurred to dramatically mutate the way people lived, not only in Italy but everywhere in the world. Of, course, gastronomy, too, was invested by such changes. The invention and diffusion of cars were, very likely, the most evident sign of a newly acquired well-being, due to the development of technology on a wide scale: people began to travel and communication became faster and easier than ever before. Because of this, people became more aware of the cultural differences among countries, but also within the same state, because it was easier to witness with one’s own eyes how people lived and behaved far from one’s area.

Easier communication also meant that ingredients traveled more easily and that a larger amount of people became aware of foreign, non-local flavors and recipes. During the years preceding the First World War France once again was, from a culinary point of view, the most active and lively of all countries. However, Italy, too, witnessed a certain gastronomic ferment.

In 1909, La Nuova Cucina delle Specialità Regionali was published: the text came in the wake of the Artusi manual (about which we talked in History of Italian Cuisine III), emphasizing and broadening Artusi’s will to define Italian cuisine by its regional differentiation. It’s for this reason that La Nuova Cucina is so important because for the first time recipes from all over Italy were organically collected in large numbers, including those from areas Artusi had, even in his later editions, neglected. Recipes were recorded simply so that all users could try them and learn to appreciate them. From simple recipes, of simple execution (such as the schiaccia Maremmanaa type of focaccia with added milk and white wine), to complex preparations (such as the cappon magro from Liguria, a dish of fish and vegetables with more than 30 ingredients), La Nuova Cucina included them all. Agnetti, the author, relied very little on written sources, and almost exclusively on the orality of recipes, collecting them directly from the people who’d make them. A great ethnographic, as well as culinary, work.

The Great War and Italian Cuisine

The years of the First World War were difficult also when it came to nutrition. Battles and the militarization of large areas of the country, especially the North East, provoked immense damages to cultures and consequent diminution of produce availability. People didn’t eat enough food and, even when managing to do so, may have lacked sufficient quantities of essential nutrients: this caused serious deficiencies that resulted in the spreading of illnesses such as pellagra. The situation was dramatic for soldiers, too, with their food rations diminishing day after day. 

The quality of food consumed on the front was low, too. It was usually cooked behind the front line and delivered to it at night time: this meant the rice or pasta given daily to soldiers reached them already mushy and with a glue-like consistency. The broth would turn into jelly, bread and meat (when there was any) reached the trenches as hard as rocks.

Quantities of this unappealing grub were, on the other hand, quite good, and generally higher than those available too, for instance, Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Italian soldiers in the trenches were entitled to about 1 1/2  lbs of bread, 3 1/2 oz of pasta (or rice) with meat, 1/4 liter of wine, and some coffee. Fruit and vegetables were sometimes distributed, too. Drinking water was, on the other hand, pretty scarce.

Each soldier could only count on about 1/2 liter of it per day. Before the battle, rations were enriched –so to speak– with some chocolate, jellied meats, biscuits, and, sometimes, spirits. In many museums dedicated to the First World War, you’ll still be able to see tinned goods that used to be distributed to soldiers: meats, anchovies, candied fruits, contained in cans embossed or decorated with patriotic mottos. Let’s move on for later years and the history of Italian cuisine in the 20th century.

Italian Futurist Cuisine

Tommaso Marinetti
Tommaso Marinetti (by StefanoRR at wikimedia.org)

After the end of the First World War, Italy witnessed the diffusion of the ideas of Futurism, as outlined by artist Tommaso Marinetti. These didn’t only change the way we produced and looked at art in all its forms but also tried to introduce spectacular changes in the kitchen. Futurism was all about power, change, novelty and force, ideals futurists tried to apply to gastronomy, too. Futurist theorists wanted to break the mold of traditional gastronomy and hoped chemistry and technology together could offer new culinary horizons to the country.

The aesthetic ideals of Futurism quickly penetrated the realm of gastronomy, trying to impose those very same ideals of speed, movement, progress, creativity, and colors already highlighted in the Manifesto Futurista for visual arts. In a poll entitled Inchiesta per un’Arte Culinaria Imperiale (An inquest to create an Imperial Culinary Art), aiming at getting people’s opinion for the creation of a cuisine apt for an “Empire,” as such Mussolini considered Italy after its poor colonial conquests, Italians were asked some peculiar questions, indeed.

For instance, “do you, Italians, believe in the unchangeable dogma of traditional cuisine?”, or even better “don’t you think that mechanics, speed, war, which became a daily occurrence of everyone’s life, should help to determine and creating an entirely new type of cuisine?”.  The questionnaire continued, asking whether the public believed that the color and movement typical of Futurist art could be used also in the kitchen and help to create new dishes and whether creativity, used to discover and experiment with unusual, cheaper ingredients, could help to supply food when money was scarce (the latter was certainly a pretty common occurrence in post First World War Italy).

More about the history of Italian cuisine in the 20th century

Marinetti wanted to bring together food and art, but art intended as he and the Futurists intended it: centered on progress, colorful, powerful, innovative, focusing on unusual ingredients, just as Futurist art focused on unusual art matters and subjects. In other words, Marinetti wanted a type of cuisine that was, at once, creative and cheap, and able to “take people away from their gastronomic conservatism.” His idea was to kick pasta out of the kitchen because it made people “inactive, nostalgic, lethargic and neutralist”. His culinary battle had a true manifest, published in 1931 on Comoedia.

However, the cucina futurista remained mostly theoretical in nature: its most famous restaurant, the Taverna Santopalatoopened its doors in central Turin on the 8th of March 1931 but remained open only a couple of years. The pièces de résistance of futurist cuisine were unedible delicacies such as the porcoeccitato(literally, a horny pig), an improbable concoction of pork marinated in eau de cologne (yes, you DID read that right) and espresso, and roasted carnation.

The Futurist restaurant of Turin did not last long but certainly left some interesting dishes behind, memorable, if not for their taste, certainly for their name: an aerovivanda tattile con rumori ed odori (a “tactile” aero-dish, with noises and scents), a ultravirile (an ultra-manly dish), a reticolati del cielo (a sky netting dish). Unfortunately, our source did not tell what was in each of them, but we can certainly say that, without a doubt, their names were creative indeed.

On a side note, while Marinetti was busy dousing pigs in perfume, Umberto Notari founded La Cucina Italiana, the first (and, still today, best-loved and renowned) recipes magazine of the country, in 1929.

Italian cuisine...Marinetti-style
Italian cuisine…Marinetti-style (by Franco Vannini at flickr.com)

Marinetti’s flamboyancy in the kitchen did not encounter the favors of Italian housewives: just as quickly as the cucina futurista arrived, it was forgotten, even though its search for alternative ingredients, curious names, and war against carbs is reminiscent of some modern extreme dieting régimes!

Fascism and WW2 in the history of the Italian cuisine in the 20th century

We’re now in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, the years, in Italy, of Fascism. Just as it changed people’s habits and behaviors for the 20-something years it ruled, Fascism also influenced profoundly the aesthetics of Italy and, to a certain extent, also the way we cooked. Of course, this latter circumstance was very much tied to the fact the country had to face very specific circumstances throughout the length of the régime: a world economic crisis (1929), the implementation of a fully autarchic régime (throughout the 30s and during the war) and, of course, a world war, between 1940 and 1945.

So, what did happen in the kitchen during the Ventennio? Well, first of all, we had to be frugal. Waste was a no-no and saving money as well as ingredients was essential. Feeding the family with flavorsome yet cheap dishes became a symbol itself of the brava massaia (the good housewife, a figure much dear to Mussolini).

First, because autarchy (an economy-based régime, according to which a country should rely only and exclusively on produce and products coming from within its own borders) had forced families to make do with what was available in the country; then, because the war placed the nation, who had just begun to find its way after the destruction and hunger of the First World conflict, once more in a situation of economic restrictions, where hunger became a fierce issue, especially in the urban areas.

Food products during WW2 in Italy

Certain ingredients, such as coffee, sugar, salt, or butter, were rationed. The bread was usually brown and the meat was a rare delicacy. Never the ones to feel disillusioned, Italian women made a virtue out of necessity and managed to keep the country well fed throughout the conflict.

Lack of meat was supplied by a larger use of vegetables and pulses, often mixed with meat stock to flavor. Famous is a recipe for meatballs, only using 1/2 lbs of meat, with 1 1/2 lbs of spinach, 3 oz of ricotta, and one egg. The mixture, divided in little meatballs and fried in half a spoon of butter, was served with diluted tomato sauce and could feed a family of 6.

Recipes were adapted to save on all ingredients that were rationed, such as butter. Even methods of preservation for vegetables were changed to save precious olive oil and butter: for instance, eggplants, usually preserved in olive oil, were kept in savor, which was a type of pickling procedure.

What’s interesting is not the pickling, but the fact that a stratagem was invented to make a little olive oil last longer: when the moment of frying the eggplants came, only one or two tablespoons of oil had to be poured into the pan, but a gauze filled with coarse salt was to be placed at the center of it. By doing so, the housewives of the time maintained, you could keep on frying much longer.

Cuisine in the 1950s and the rebirth of Italy

Un Americano a Roma (1954). Alberto Sordi representing what became an Italian post-war stereotype: pasta, Chianti and a busy kitchen, giving a wink to American culture (Sordi is eating spaghetti wearing a baseball cap)
Un Americano a Roma (1954). Alberto Sordi representing what became an Italian post-war stereotype: pasta, Chianti and a busy kitchen, giving a wink to American culture (look at that baseball cap!). From wikimedia.org by luca Z.za.

Continuing the history of Italian cuisine in the 20th century, we arrived at the 50s’ in Italy. The years after the end of the War bring us into what we can consider the era of Italian contemporary cuisine: in the 50s, Italian kitchens became more technological and thanks to cooking appliances, cooking times were diminished significantly. After some years of post-war hardship, in the 1950s Italy was finally ready to find long-desired stability and wealth.

The years of the economic boom brought into Italian kitchens, as said, new appliances: fridges, gas cookers and ovens, washing machines changed people’s habits in the kitchen and also the way we cooked.  Women began to work and the time to dedicate to cooking diminished significantly.

Many things once considered either too expensive or not “fancy enough” to be cooked, were embraced as the holy grail of quick-cooking, chicken breast, and veal being the most notable examples of it. Many other ingredients, however, disappeared from Italian larders, because considered too “old-fashioned” or too cumbersome to prepare: polenta, legumes, cabbage, parsnips, and suedes only managed to make them come back a couple of decades later.

1950 is the year of the publication of another seminal Italian cuisine text, Il Cucchiaio d’Argento: for the first time recipes want to be simple and of easy execution. Time has become essential, as more and more women work outside the home and no longer have entire days to spend in the kitchen. More importance and Il Cucchiaio d’Argento is witness to that, is also given to how healthy and light foods and recipes are: for the first time in Italian history, the country is healthy and wealthy enough to worry about eating less rather than packing up the calories for survival. Italy had become a first-world country.

Modern Italy and the history of Italian cuisine in the 60s and 70s

With the full industrialization of the country and the development, in the 60s and 70s, of a powerful tertiary sector, women began to be a steady presence of Italy’s workforce and time to spend in the kitchen diminished, creating an open market for “ready-to-eat” dishes. 

Besides the rise in popularity of fast food, the 70s and the 80s witnessed other changes in the way we cooked. These are the years of the Italiannouvelle cuisineinspired by its French counterpart, endorsed and symbolized by one of Italy’s most representative chefs, Gualtiero Marchesi. The nouvelle cuisine, in France, just as in Italy, was based on the idea that cooking had to be creative and that rules existed to be broken. Chefs began to experiment with flavors and brought back alike for simplicity; cooking times had to be reviewed and “local and fresh” became the true mantra of Italian chefs, but not as a sign of respect to tradition, but rather as a way to embrace a newer way to prepare food.

However, it was not all Nouvelle Cuisine: Italians of the 80s, in particular, became very fond of intricated recipes, rich in cream and mayonnaise, somehow still popular in anglo-Saxon Europe: penne with vodka, cream and salmon sauce, tortellini with ham and cream, Marie-rose sauce for fish. The kitchen of 1980s Italy mirrored the wealth and comfort of the Italian society of the time. Those were also the years where everything ended up in jelly: cheese, eggs, ham. Everything.

Today these recipes, although occasionally still a pleasure to try, have been put aside in favor of flavors and combinations closer to our tradition and our past.

The progressive entry of processed foods into the Italian market and the rise in popularity of fast-food chains have had, however, some positive consequences. After about two decades of the increasing popularity of non-healthy, non-Italian grub, the country has reacted with pride and returned to its culinary roots, embracing once again those dishes and ingredients that helped to make Italian food famous all over the world.

Italian Slow Food?

The birth of movements such as Slow Food demonstrated how Italy is truly tied to its culinary origins and how proud Italians are of their cuisine. The importance of enjoying local over imported produce has taken relevance not only from an economic point of view (supporting local producers versus pumping money into larger firms): Italians have learned that what comes from home is naturally healthier because it has to undergo fewer procedures to be preserved and it reaches the table considerably faster.

Italians have also become more aware of how healthy their cuisine is when compared to others, especially when Mediterranean style recipes are involved: the large use of olive oil, fresh vegetables, fruit, and fish have made Italian food the epitome of the Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest on the planet.

Italian Cooking today

The latest chapter in the history of Italian cuisine in the 20th century is certainly its newly found appreciation for traditional foreign flavors: far from the cheap, greasy taste of chain restaurant burgers, Italy has, nowadays, learned to discover the beauty of true international cuisine.

For decades, we Italians have been naturally recalcitrant to discover and accept other countries’ culinary traditions: that stereotype of the Italian abroad constantly seeking a plate of pasta used to be not that far from the truth. Today, things have changed. We have been traveling more and enjoying other cultures more; people from all around the world have made Italy their new home and some of their traditions have become a bit our own, too.

More and more Italians discover every day the joys of Japanese, Indian, or South American cuisines and happily keep a corner of their shopping trolley for spices, couscous, Curcuma, and wasabi. We are not going to change our tradition, but we Italians love good food, wherever it comes from.

In recent years, Italians’ love for foreign dishes and flavors has increased the popularity of fusion cuisine. Fusion cuisine in Italy can be of two kinds: on one side, it’s characterized by the juxtaposition, often within the same restaurant, of culinary traditions from the same areas.

For instance, South East Asian restaurants, which may place together Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodian cuisine. It’s now become very common, also, to serve sushi in Chinese restaurants. But “fusion” is also a type of cuisine that brings together flavors and ingredients of different cooking styles and creates new recipes. Both have become very common and were born thanks to Italians’ relatively new love for foreign flavors in the kitchen.

The history of Italian cuisine is, truly, the history of Italy. It mirrors how the country has developed socially and culturally and, in each period of history, it has somehow given space to the trends and fashions of the time. Even before Italy was politically a country, Italians were already united by their unconditional love of food and their creativity in preparing it. Unification, along with the improvement of ways of communication, has made regional cuisines national. These are true and important highlights about history of Italian cuisine in the 20th century.

Today, we speak of Italian cuisine as one, and it truly is: even though dishes may be typical of a region or another, we Italians see them all like our own, and rightly so, because the kitchen remains a patrimony, a gift, a treasure of each and every Italian that no economical crisis will ever take away from us. Even if we look at the most popular Italian dishes, it’s easy to see, by their ingredients and flavors, that they encompass the tradition of each and every region. Here’s our top ten of the most famous Italian dishes of all time: what do you think? And have you tried them already?

See also History of Italian food part 1, History of Italian food part 2  and  History of food part 3

A little “History of Italian Cuisine” bookshelf:

  1. Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari: Italian Cuisine: a Cultural History. Columbia University Press, NY.
  2. John Dickie: Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and their Food. Free Press, NY.
  3. Waverley Root: The Food of Italy. Vintage Books, NY.
  4. Pellegrino Artusi: Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
  5. Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa: A Taste of Ancient Rome. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. AA.VV: The Silver Spoon. Phaidon Press.
  7. Elena Kostioukovitch and Umberto Eco: Why Italians Love to Talk about Food. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY.
  8. Dave Dewitt: Da Vinci’s Kitchen: A Secret History of Italian Food.
  9. Carlo Petrini: Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean and Fair. Rizzoli “Ex Libris.”
  10. Katherine A. McIver: Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy: From Kitchen to Table. Rowman and Littlefield, NY.


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