Growing up in an Italian-American household, I became accustomed to the strong role food plays in family life.  Christmas dinner at my Sicilian grandmother’s house saw her and a gaggle of aunts cooking, shouting, banging pots and pans for hours in the kitchen while the menfolks waited, helpless, in the living room.  Grandmom’s meatballs were legendary—they stewed for hours in a marinara sauce of her own making and were so tender they practically melted upon contact.  Pasta was plentiful and always steaming.  Each lesser matriarch brought her own homemade dessert: biscotti from Aunt Trish, tiramisu from Aunt Rose, and anise-flavored pizelles from my mother.  There was nothing better for your heart, my Uncle Joe always assured me, than red wine, olive oil, and lots and lots of garlic.

Italy’s relationship with food is a time-honored one in which a good meal serves as nourishment for all five senses.  When most people think “Italian food,” pasta and pizza is what immediately comes to mind.  In truth, Italian food is unbelievably diverse and varies from region to region.  Northern Italy is famous for its stuffed pastas, such as lasagna, ravioli, and manicotti.  Venice is known for risotto and polenta, which are often cooked with seafood ingredients closer to the coast.  Fegato alla veneziana is Venice’s signature dish, made from thinly-sliced veal and sautéed onions.  Liguria, another region in northern Italy, is heavier on vegetables in their cooking, using a lot of pesto sauce as well as artichokes in their pasta dishes.

Central Italy is where you find many of the traditional notions of Italian food: pasta dishes with heavy use of tomatoes, meat, fish, and pecorino cheese.  Tuscany, whose dishes come from peasant traditions, uses a lot game in cooking its famous minestrones, while Umbria depends more on vegetables, herbs, and freshwater fish.  Naples, which many consider to be the Mecca of Italian food, (indeed, that’s where pizza originated,) has too many delectable foods to list, including spaghetti alla puttanesca and eggplant parmigiana.  In the southern regions, including Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia, seafood plays a very large role in cuisine, including tuna, swordfish, cuttlefish, eels, lobster, and shrimp—you name it, and it’s sure to be the main ingredient in a creative, traditional meal that the Italians have been perfecting for hundreds of years.

Ironically, I didn’t learn to properly cook until after college, when I got a job in a vegetarian café.  (We weren’t big on pasta there, as about half of our clientele were on the Atkin’s diet, but I did learn to cook with loads of garlic.)  In fact, for much of my life I’ve avoided Italian restaurants whenever possible, seeking to broaden my horizons beyond the Mediterranean fare I grew up with.  But recently I’ve found that when I go to visit relatives I always bring cannoli from the family-run deli near my house.  When I meet up with friends for dinner, I suggest we go to Little Italy.  When I cook dinner for friends I generally end up making pasta with meat sauce—easy to prepare and it tastes stunning.  (With enough rosemary and oregano, you can’t go wrong.)  These foods not only remind me of family—and of my grandmother who, not speaking much English, used her cooking as a way to convey love to her grandchildren—but they are my way of proving that I can live up to the proud culinary heritage that I come from.