Differences Between Northern & Southern Italian Cuisine

The Astronomical clock in the Medieval City of Mantua in Lombardy Northern Italy
The Astronomical clock in the Medieval City of Mantua in Lombardy Northern Italy

red checkered table cloth“Let’s go find a good Italian restaurant tonight.” If you immediately envision pasta with lots of red sauce, you are not alone. Italian cuisine is very often lumped into one red-check-tablecloth-covered category.

Yes, this image is part of the Italian culinary experience, but it is only a small part of the whole picture.

If you were to travel the length of Italy, you will find a vast difference in Italian cuisine.

And that’s a bit surprising considering Italy is only about 800 miles long and 200 miles wide.

How A Small Countries Cuisine Can Vary

The answer lies in the topography of Italy.

From snowy mountains in the north to sandy beaches in the south, Italy covers every climate known to man.

How does this account for the variations in cuisine? Let’s take a look at a few culinary differences and the reasons behind them.

Meat and Seafood

Northern Italy borders Switzerland, Austria, France, and Slovenia and shares their mountainous topography.

Although snowy and frigid in some regions, the seas play a part in keeping other areas rather temperate.

These warmer temperatures and an abundance of inland lakes and rivers make the northern region ideal for pasturing several types of livestock. 

In addition, the region’s inland waters provide refuge for wild game. These rich northern resources result in meals that feature plenty of meat, cream, and cheese.

On the other hand, southern Italy has a drier, hotter climate overall and doesn’t have the rich, green pastures and deep woods needed to support livestock and wildlife.

It does, however, have a vast coastline with access to large bodies of water. This makes deep sea fishing possible.

Since southern Italy is very narrow and surrounded by large bodies of water, you can see why seafood is a staple in every household and why many meals are designed around fresh seafood.

Mozzarella Chicken with Rosemary & Marinara Sauce
Mozzarella Chicken with Rosemary & Marinara Sauce

Southern Italy is also a producer of poultry. The number of chickens slaughtered in 2019 alone was 511 million – far more than the entire population of the European Union – with 99.8% being intensively reared. 

Butter and Olive Oil

As mentioned, the northern climate in Italy with its rich pastures is perfect for raising livestock. Dairy cows are a natural fit for the region, making butter a mainstay in every household.

Olive trees need a sunny, moderate climate to grow and the balmy southern region is a perfect match. As a matter of fact, southern Italy is one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil.

Root and Vine

Northern Italy’s summers are short. Whatever can be grown in the ground or in the shade will find its way onto the table.

You won’t find a lot of ‘red sauce’ in the northern region because tomatoes are not abundant. What you will find is cheesy, cream based dishes, soups and stews using root vegetables and oftentimes cured meats.

Creamy Sun-Dried Tomato Chicken Gnocchi

The southern region is where you’ll find an abundance of world-famous tomato sauce.

Thanks to a long growing season, fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs are easy to find in the south.

Therefore, fresh is the name of the game in southern Italian cuisine. Lemon, eggplant, tomato, and herbs all play a part in these fresh dishes and are often just tossed lightly with pasta and a drizzle of olive oil.

Grilled Figs and Eggplant Salad with Blackberry and Fig Dressing- detailed close up
Grilled Figs and Eggplant Salad with Blackberry and Fig Dressing

Although Italy is a relatively small country, the mountainous regions combined with almost 5000 miles of coastline form countless pockets of unique climates, resulting in extreme diversity in the country’s natural and agricultural resources.

From north to south, you can see why Italy offers so many culinary differences… and delights!

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