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Italian food has developed through centuries of social and political changes, with roots as far back as the 4th century BC. Italian cuisine in itself takes heavy influences, including Etruscan, ancient Greek, ancient Roman, Byzantine, Jewish and Arab cuisines. Significant changes occurred with the discovery of the New World with the introduction of items such as potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and maize, now central to the cuisine but not introduced in quantity until the 18th century. Italian cuisine is noted for its regional diversity, abundance of difference in taste, and is known to be one of the most popular in the world, with influences abroad.
Ingredients and dishes vary by region. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated with variations throughout the country. Cheese and wine are a major part of the cuisine, with many variations and Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) (regulated appellation) laws. Coffee, specifically espresso, has become important in Italian cuisine.
Italian cuisine has developed over the centuries. Although the country known as Italy did not unite until the 19th century, the cuisine can claim traceable roots as far back as the 4th century BCE. Through the centuries, neighboring regions, conquerors, high-profile chefs, political upheaval and the discovery of the New World have influenced one of the premiere cuisines in the world.
Italian cuisine has a great variety of different ingredients which are commonly used, ranging from fruits, vegetables, sauces, meats etc. In the North of Italy, fish (such as cod, or baccala), potatoes, rice, maize, corn, sausages, pork and different types of cheeses are the most common ingredients (tomato is virtually absent in most Northern Italian cuisines). Ligurian ingredients are quite different, and include several types of fish and seafood dishes, basil, (found in pesto sauce), nuts and olive oil are very common).
In central Italy (including Emilia-Romagna), common ingredients include ham (Parma ham), sausage (Zampone), different sorts of salami, truffles, lasagna, grana, parmigiano reggiano), tomatoes (Bolognese sauce or ragu), and tortellini are important elements. Finally, in Southern Italy, tomatoes (either used fresh or cooked into tomato sauce), peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, oranges, ricotta cheese, aubergines, courgettes, certain types of fish (anchovies, sardines and tuna), and capers are important components to the local cuisine.
Italian cuisine is also well known (and well regarded) for its use of a diverse variety of pasta. Pasta include noodles in various lengths, widths and shapes, and varieties that are filled with other ingredients like ravioli and tortellini. The word pasta is also used to refer to dishes in which pasta products are a primary ingredient. It is usually served with sauce. There are hundreds of different shapes of pasta with at least locally recognized names.Examples include spaghetti (thin rods), macaroni (tubes or cylinders), fusilli (swirls), and lasagne (sheets). Two other noodles, gnocchi and spätzle, are sometimes considered pasta. They are both traditional in parts of Italy.
Pasta is categorized in two basic styles: dried and fresh. Dried pasta made without eggs can be stored for up to two years under ideal conditions, while fresh pasta will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator. Pasta is generally cooked by boiling. Under Italian law, dry pasta (pasta secca) can only be made from durum wheat flour or durum wheat semolina, and is more commonly used in Southern Italy compared to their Northern counterparts, who traditionally prefer the fresh egg variety. Durum flour and durum semolina have a yellow tinge in color. Italian pasta is traditionally cooked al dente (Italian: "firm to the bite", meaning not too soft). Outside Italy, dry pasta is frequently made from other types of flour (such as wheat flour), but this yields a softer product that cannot be cooked al dente. There are many types of wheat flour with varying gluten and protein depending on variety of grain used.
Particular varieties of pasta may also use other grains and milling methods to make the flour, as specified by law. Some pasta varieties, such as pizzoccheri, are made from buckwheat flour. Fresh pasta may include eggs (pasta all'uovo 'egg pasta'). Whole wheat pasta has become increasingly popular because of its perceived health benefits. Most whole wheat pastas have a mixture of whole grain and regular grain ingredients.