The Italians have a rich history and culture when it comes to their cuisine. While it is easy to stereotype Italian food as primarily being dishes with pasta and marinara sauce, such as spaghetti marinara or lasagna, there are many different types of Italian food which utilize the rich variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, meats and grains of the region. In addition, Italian food varies greatly from one part of the nation to another. The food that is commonly eaten in Northern Italy is not identical to the food eaten in the South; additionally, the autonomous island of Sicily, also a part of the Italian nation, has its own unique culinary culture.
One of the primary aspects of Italian food culture that may seem baffling to chefs in other regions is the tendency for dishes to remain very simple. A limited amount of ingredients are used, but the ingredients are prepared in such a way that you are able to taste each ripe tomato, leaf of basil, drop of cold-pressed olive oil or creamy cheese. The emphasis in this style of cooking is on letting the quality and natural flavors of the ingredients speak for themselves rather than having to dress them up in unnecessarily complex dishes. Dating back to the culture of the Ancient Romans, seasoning food to any kind of extreme was frowned upon. While this aspect of food culture went in and out of vogue over the years, it seems to be generally embraced in many aspects of Italian cuisine.
When people think of Italian cuisine, they do naturally tend to think of pasta. This is not without reason, although many have the misconceived notion that pasta found its origins in Italy, when it was in fact invented in China. The Italians make great use of pasta in their cuisine, using many different shapes, sizes and types. The pasta may be stuffed with fillings of meat or cheese and simply dressed in an herbed olive oil, or sauced with something more complex such as a Bolognese, Alfredo or Pesto sauce. However, pasta is not the sole and primary starch consumed in Italian cuisine. Risotto, a rice based dish which generally utilizes Arborio rice and Parmesan cheese is also a staple of the cuisine. Polenta, a thick and somewhat custard like hot grain paste made from corn meal, is also extremely popular and widely consumed side dish.
One aspect of Italian culinary culture that remains a widespread tradition even today is the idea of the traditional Sunday family lunch. A meal like this takes significantly longer and contains significantly more food than what one would traditionally consider a lunch to contain. It begins with appetizers such as antipasto, which includes meats, cheeses, vegetable spreads and other similar dishes. The lunch generally then has two main courses, beginning with pastas, risottos, soup or similar dishes, and following with a meat or fish course that is served with a prepared vegetable. At the end of the meal, fruit or a dessert is consumed. These lengthy meals often take a great deal of time to prepare but are culturally considered to be a key aspect of family togetherness.