Since Italy didn’t become a unified (and I do use that term loosely) country until the 1800s there is really very little unified about the wine, food, and local culture. For argument’s sake you can break Italy down into four geographic areas that are similar enough to draw a comparison rather than having to learn the ins and outs of all 20 provinces.
Starting at the toe of the boot and working our way up you have Southern Italy, Central Italy, Northwestern Italy, and Northeastern Italy. Now I’m not trying to say that every province within these regions is exactly the same, I’m simply trying to break Italy into manageable chunks, draw some comparisons, and convey the differences in local food (and wine) culture.
Geographically, we are talking about the boot from about mid-shin down, and for simplicity, we’ll toss both islands of Sicily and Sardinia in here too. This region produces nearly half of the wine consumed in Italy, but most of this can be attributed to low-quality, high-quantity bulk wine. Very little of the massive wine production is fine wine, and very little of it is exported – with the Marsala of Sicily being the one notable exception.
The food and wine culture is far more Mediterranean than the rest of Italy, probably due in large part to the colonization of this area by both the Greeks and North African Muslims at different points in its history. Food and wine are ubiquitous and ever-present. None of the finest foods or the finest wines come from this region, leave that hype to others. When it comes to food and wine, it must be simple and delicious.
Central Italy encompasses the area from the curve of the calf on up, well, pretty much all the way up. Food and wine are serious business here, with the region accounting for about one-third of Italy’s wine exports, and all things alla fiorentina housed here. Chianti, arguably Italy’s most famous wine region, is situated in the heart of Tuscany alongside the Brunellos, Rossos and of Montalcino, Orvieto, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. Basically, a good chunk of the Italian wine section of your local wine store comes from this region.
The food and wine culture here isn’t just big business, it’s also serious business at the dinner table. Florence is often touted as the birthplace of Italian cooking, at the dinner table of the Medici court. Here food and wine are painstakingly prepared to be their very best, and once you’ve tasted Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Orvieto you’ll thank your lucky stars that the locals put so much stock in and take so much pride from their preparation. Read more about Central Italy.
Some extraordinary, not to mention underrated, fine white wines come from this little crook of Italy, nestled between the foothills of the Alps and the Adriatic coast. This is the most technologically advanced and possibly least Italian (coincidence?) wine region in Italy.
Most of the wines are fresh, bright, clean whites which pair beautifully with the local cuisine full of cream, risotto, potato dishes and polentas. The climate is quite cool, and the food shows a definite influence from nearby Germany and Hungary, so it is no wonder that white wine grapes would grow better (cool climate) and white wines would pair better with the food (germanic influences). Read more about Northeastern Italian wines.
This region is possibly the hardest to group together as one cohesive unit, because the provinces are rather divergent. The relative proximity to France, Monaco, Switzerland, and Germany change the local culture significantly. When it comes to wine – the best is in Piedmont. When it comes to food – the best is in Emilia Romagna.
The consistent vein weaving through the local food and wine culture of this disparate region is richness. The food is laden with truffles, Parma ham, Parmesan Reggiano, cream, butter and the finest chocolate of Italy. The wine is equally rich with the Nebbiolo based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, Dolcetto d’Alba and the creamy bubblies of Franciacorta. If you visit the Northwest of Italy, make sure to bring your walking shoes. You’ll need them to work off the rich delicacies which are too delicious not to indulge in.