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Do you think you know Italian food?

Everybody loves Italian food! Well, almost everybody. The great thing is that it's not just good, but if you're careful it's one of the healthiest diets in the world. The Mediterranean diet, with emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates in the form of pasta or rice, virgin olive oil, and fish and chicken for protein is as healthy as it can get. The Italian cooking relies upon what the country can produce. This has shaped a diet popular for centuries, particularly with the poorer Italian people, and is called la cucina povera. Now we are seeing a resurgence of this "poor people's food" and the Mediterranean diet is being touted as the model around which we should restructure our eating habits.

Perhaps much to your surprise, what is known as "Italian cuisine" is a galaxy of regional cuisines. Almost every city and town in Italy has its specialties, and there are regional trends too; the end result is a huge number of local cuisines rather than a single national cuisine. However, there are some dishes that you will find almost everywhere, and that are now standards among the many Italian communities scattered across the globe.

In spite of regional differences, Italian food in general is often characterized as being flexible and innovative, building itself on a model of theme and variation. So, no two gnocchi with Bolognese sauce will be quite the same from any two kitchens. Compare this to a classic French béarnaise sauce which, so the cliches hold, should be as constant as the morning star, no matter who prepares it.

Authentic Italian food is inspired by local traditions and relies on the freshest of ingredients. Above all, although the Italian cuisine uses a complex array of criteria, ingredients and millenary considerations, it privileges simplicity in presentation and approach. Part of the success of Italian food is that it's the food that is easiest to live with. So, in a restaurant, nothing is cooked until you order it.

The philosophy

The Italian cuisine follows a combination of the following criteria.

(a) First of all food should be prepared with genuine and natural products.

(b) It should involve important cultural factors as attachment to the family, to tradition, and to the very important underlying cultural, ethical and moral aspects.

(c) It is a convivial cuisine: people should ideally enjoy meals together, strengthening family or friendly relations. Moreover, like in all Mediterranean cuisines, eating means sitting around the table, and exchanging ideas, values and emotions with other people, possibly having a different outlook.

(d) Food must have good taste, and it should be healthy too. Like all Mediterranean cuisines, there should be predominance of vegetables, and low content of meat, fish, and animal products. There should be hence a correct low quantity of saturated fats and cholesterol, and an adequate intake of complex carbohydrates (as it occurs in pasta).

These are the distinctive features making the Italian cuisine rightfully famous. This is also why the peasant tradition survives. Another good sign is that the vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular. By respecting the animals' rights to live, people find out that they eat and live better, and that they are healthier. Mediterranean food can easily be adapted to vegetarians as most food that use meat, only have a scatterings of meat on top.

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