Just add parmesan: Tracing the roots of Italian food

France may still have the edge in haute cuisine, but the best everyday food is undoubtedly found in Italy. A few years ago in Florence, I experienced a heavenly example of this democratic excellence. Sauntering round the city during a free hour on a press trip, I came across a cluster of working men in overalls buying lunch from a small cart outside the central market. After a minute or two jostling towards the vendor, I handed over a couple of euros and received a bowl of warm tripe. Simmered with tomatoes and a hint of chilli pepper, it was tender, tasty and deeply pleasurable. The visceral slivers were incomparably superior to the bland, chewy, vinegar-soused tripe of my Yorkshire childhood.

It was so good that I tried the vendor's alternative offering. Tripe in a beefy broth with vegetables proved almost as Elysian. The only drawback about my initiation into the glories of Italian tripe was that I could not do full justice to the bistecca alla fiorentina that my hosts on the trip had laid on for lunch. After a couple of desultory nibbles, I was forced to push aside this legendary steak, described by one authority as "having no equal in size, texture and taste".

It may seem perverse to have taken on board so much cheap offal that I couldn't enjoy this expensive treat, but I have my excuses. For one thing, I did not know that the steak lay in wait. For another, my pre-lunch snack was one of the best things I've ever eaten.

Celebrated in sonnets, tripe was a Saturday-night treat in 19th-century Lazio, and nose-to-tail eating remains the norm in main parts of the country. This stems from the tradition of cucina povera (poor kitchen) that remains a powerful theme in Italian gastronomy. It involves the use of cheap – or even free – ingredients in simple, satisfying dishes. For example, Anna Del Conte, one of our finest food writers, laments the British disdain for nettles. "It seems a sad waste that these eminently edible weeds should hardly be eaten in a country where they grow in such profusion."

The most potent example of cucina povera is grappa. Sadly underrated in Britain, this often excellent Italian spirit is made from the winemaker's residue of skins and stems. Extracting everything that a foodstuff has to give is instinctive for Italians. When he worked in the New York kitchen of Italian-American chef Mario Batali, food writer Bill Buford remarked on "the peculiar sight [of] this large man bent over and up to his elbows in a black plastic sack of discarded foodstuffs". Batali was rummaging for such invaluable items as celery leaves, bits of kidney or the dirty tops of wild leeks. "What have you done? You're throwing away the best part of the celery!"

Along with this admirable emphasis on economy, the distinctive features of Italian cuisine are a delight in seasonality and a continuing pride in highly localised dishes. Italy was unified in 1861 but this might have been yesterday where food is concerned. As you drive south, butter gives way to olive oil as the preferred cooking medium. All of Italy benefits from a climate that makes its tomatoes sweeter, its vegetables more plump and tasty than anywhere else. And they know it. While I was waiting to cross the road in Messina, Sicily, a passing van driver leaned out and handed me an orange the size of a grapefruit. "Our own produce!" he said before driving off.

As Alan Davidson points out in The Oxford Companion to Food, "Italians have succeeded better than any other European country in developing and spreading over most parts of the world a cuisine that has the enormous merits of being cheerful, tasty, varied, inexpensive and unworrying." He might have added that the Mediterranean diet magically manages to be both healthy and delicious. Sadly, trippa al pomadoro hasn't caught on here but, both at home and in restaurants, we have become avid consumers of pasta, pizza and many other items from the country's prodigious menu. Gastronomically, we are all Italians now.

In his huge, passionate cookbook Made in Italy, Giorgio Locatelli insists: "An Italian's role in life is to feed people. A lot. We can't help it." Any British person who has had the privilege of being invited to a feast in Italy will ruefully acknowledge the truth of these words. The introductory antipasti and pasta dishes are so delicious and profuse that the necessary pacing to allow consumption of the main course is all but impossible. Yet, as we shall see, Italians also practise moderation. They like foodstuffs to speak for themselves rather than being masked by superfluous flavours. Though often debased in foreign versions, the country's classic dishes are characterised by restraint.

The acreage of shelf space given to pasta in UK supermarkets testifies to our love for this polymorphous dough, but we tend to drown it in tomato or meaty sauces. In Italy, the use of sauce is restrained so that pasta can be enjoyed for its innate flavour. They have had somewhat longer to learn the best approach. Pasta arrived in Italy possibly with the Arabs, but certainly not with Marco Polo. A reference to "basket full of macaronis" appears on a Genoan document from 1279, two decades before the explorer returned to Venice with the first Chinese takeaway.

Over the centuries, pasta gained appeal among all classes. Ravioli and pasta in broth were popular with grandees, while the poor, particularly in the south, survived on dried pasta imported from Sicily. In the 18th century, Naples had 280 pasta shops. Visitors paid to see street urchins eat spaghetti. Their technique involved "raising the strands at arm's length and gradually lowering it into the mouth".

Industrial manufacture of dried pasta began in the gulf of Naples during the 19th century and steadily invaded the north. Garibaldi saw the significance of this simple, invaluable dish. "It will be macaroni," he declared in 1860, "that will unify Italy." The taste for these pasta tubes went far beyond the Mediterranean. In her Household Management of 1861, Mrs Beeton advised readers when boiling macaroni to "let it be perfectly tender but firm", which sounds rather more appealing than al dente.

"Making fresh pasta is one of the most pleasurable of cooking experiences", insist Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers in The River Café Classic Italian Cookbook, but I have failed to gain the habit despite owning two pasta machines. Once you've gone through the messy grind of making your own pasta, the result is as enjoyable for its gloriously springy texture as its taste. You need nothing more than a little melted butter with herbs as a sauce. Homemade pasta is so staggeringly good that you pledge never to eat shop-bought again. Then you put the machine back in the cupboard for another year.

Gratifyingly, Italians do just the same. "It is dried pasta that most Italians cook and eat every day," say Gray and Rogers, who also maintain: "It is better to buy a superior dried egg pasta than to use commercially manufactured fresh pasta." If we want to eat pasta like the Italians, we should follow their less-is-more approach to sauce. A favourite dressing in the home of pasta is aglio e olio – minced garlic sautéed in olive oil with a sprinkle of dried chilli and some chopped parsley. This allows you to actually taste the pasta (slender spaghettini or capellini is best), so it is worth spending a little more on a good brand.

Like pasta, pizza is a worldwide favourite associated with Naples, though similar dishes of flat bread with a toasted topping have been known throughout southern Italy for a millenium. It was the country's fervent adoption of the alien tomato that transformed the fortunes of pizza. Grown in the mineral-rich soil around Vesuvius, the San Marzano tomato (originally of Peruvian origin) proved to have an unparalleled flavour when cooked.

The pizza Napoletana emerged in the 18th century, but the dish was regarded as so simple – the topping consists of oil, tomato, garlic and oregano – and so plebeian that the recipe was not recorded until 1858. A favourite food of mariners (though the suggestion that they made it at sea is unlikely given the high temperature required for baking pizza), it became known as Marinara. This pizza is often, though not necessarily, decorated with two or three salted anchovy fillets.

In 1889, a second Neapolitan pizza gained eminence when a restaurateur called Raffaele Esposito presented Queen Margherita with a pizza topped with tomato, mozzarella and basil to symbolise the Italian tricolore. The queen was applauded for her brave snack (Naples was racked by cholera at the time) and the dish became an instant classic, though the same topping had been around for many years previously.

For purists, the pizza story stops with these two classics. In his introduction to Nikko Amandonico's La Pizza: The True Story, Ian Thomson insists, "Everything else is dross." (This assertion must have been a slight embarrassment since the book includes recipes for another 24 pizza toppings.) The most ardent observer of this rigorous approach is a Neapolitan pizzeria called Da Michele. Since 1847, it has only sold pizza Marinara and, in a reckless extension of the menu after 1889, pizza Margherita.

Despite this extreme restraint, there is always a queue outside the premises, which are near the cathedral in Naples. (Unfortunately, the queue has lengthened since the restaurant featured in the 2010 Julia Roberts film Eat Pray Love.) You take a ticket and wait for your number to be called. Eventually you are allowed into the pizzeria esteemed by devotees as varied as Maradona and Sophia Loren. Inside the white-tiled restaurant, a large, hellishly hot, wood-fired stove is visible through a large window. When Heston Blumenthal visited Da Michele for a TV series in 2006, the read-out of his industrial thermometer registered 500C (932F) before it threw in the towel.

A pizza can only survive this scorching for 90 seconds. When I ordered a Margherita at Da Michele shortly before Heston's visit, the result had an undulating surface that reminded me of my mother's Yorkshire pudding. The nodule-like uplands of this terrain were slightly singed by the intense heat of the oven, while the valleys were relatively soft. It was the contrasting textures of this miraculously light pizza, along with the sparse topping of puréed San Marzano tomatoes dotted with basil and molten buffalo mozzarella, that produced such a sublime result. It was so good that I followed the example of the gent seated opposite me and ordered another pizza. My Marinara went down with astonishing ease. Having consumed the entire menu of Da Michele, I stopped ordering pizzas.

Another of Italy's gastronomic miracles involves rice. Considering the humble supporting role that the grain plays in most cuisines, a well-made risotto is a richly luxurious surprise. Curiously, at least to my mind, risotto tends to be a love-it or loathe-it dish. If you have yet to be converted, most Italians feel the same. It is very much a dish of northern Italy, adored in an arc running from Turin via Milan to Venice. Risotto utilises rice (Carnaroli is generally recommended for risotto) from the paddy fields of the Po valley, and butter, the favoured fat of the north.

Though it takes only 20 minutes to prepare, risotto has failed to duplicate the international success of pasta. One reason is that the preparation involves a tricky decision about whether the rice has been done enough. Too brief a simmer in the stock and the rice is crunchy. Too long and the rice becomes soggy, or "blown" in chef's parlance. It is a personal choice, though the risotto you get in Turin on the River Po heads for the crunch. The best risotto I have ever eaten came from even further north. Scarborough, North Yorkshire, is not exactly risotto heartland but the chef Giorgio Alessio, who cooked my transporting porcini risotto in the Lanterna restaurant, is from Piedmont. Gathered by him from local woods (more cucina povera), the crescents of sliced porcini were so rich and exquisitely cooked that they were sauce in solid form.

In Venice, the arrival of spring means various types of pea risotto characterised by the motto "A pea for every grain of rice". In Piedmont, an extravagant risotto is made with pricy Barolo wine and local Castelmagno cheese. But Katie Caldesi, author of The Italian Cookery Course, says, "In Italy, risotto tends to be a much more simple affair than the sophisticated versions often made in restaurants here in the UK." She admits the plainness of saffron-flavoured risotto alla Milanese might be disappointing for the British. "But how right the Italians are to stick to such simple, really lovely flavours."

Considering the rich invention of Italian cuisine, it may seem a little unfair that they also happen to be brilliant at making bread. From delicious crunchy grissini to olive oil-soaked focaccia and salt-free pane Toscano (invented to avoid a salt tax), bread is a vital part of the diet. This is particularly so in Tuscany. Michelangelo, an archetypal Tuscan, ate little else. "I feast on bread and wine, and feasts they are." I bit into the most remarkable loaf of my life in Fiesole, outside Florence. The harvest treat of schiacciata (it means squashed) is packed with the tiny Sangiovese grapes used in Chianti.

The principles of cucina povera are applied to elderly bread. Chunks are used to stiffen tomato soups and the Tuscan vegetable soup known as ribollita (twice boiled) almost to the point of solidity. I do not believe that there is any better way of relishing olive oil than when it is drizzled over these sensational slurries. A summer alternative is panzanella, the bread salad that also comes from Tuscany. Tomatoes, cucumber, onion and capers are combined with olive oil and fragments of ageing bread to sensational effect. Giorgio Locatelli once wrote, "Because of panzanella, I don't think I have ever thrown a single piece of stale bread in the bin." Considering their loathing of waste, it is slightly surprising that the maestri of Italian cooking have bins at all.

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