Italian Food Lesson for Kids: Facts & History

Instructor: Jenna Conan

Jenna is a fourth grade teacher with a master's degree in instructional design and an undergraduate degree in elementary education.

In this lesson you will learn about the history of Italian food. Read on to find out how some of our favorite foods were first made, and why they are still so popular today!

Bon Appétit! The History of Italian Food

What is your favorite food? Many kids would say pizza or pasta. These are just a couple of the many dishes known as Italian food, which has developed over centuries.

Roman Empire

Italians have been known for their food since at least the time of the Roman Empire. Wealthy citizens of ancient Rome feasted on many different foods during banquets. One of the things that made the food so good was that the Romans adopted ingredients and flavors from many of the lands they conquered. The ancient Romans imported spices from the Middle East, fish from the Mediterranean, and wheat and cereals from northern Africa. However, while the wealthy enjoyed these delicious feasts, most Roman citizens did not. The average Roman diet was based around bread, olive oil, and wine. Elements of both the wealthy and average diets continued to influence Italian cooking throughout its history.

Italy may also be the home of the first ever cookbook. Sometime during the fourth century, Marcus Gavius Apicius is thought to have written the book On Cookery, detailing instructions for preparing a number of Roman dishes.

Middle Ages

The enjoyment of food and good cooking were not as important in Italy during the early Middle and Dark Ages. However, there was one very important development in Italian food during this time: pasta! Arabs from Libya brought what they knew about pasta-making over to southern Italy when they conquered Sicily in the 9th century, and pasta has been made in a similar way ever since.

A modern pasta dish
A modern pasta dish

In the later Middle Ages, the pleasure of food once again became important to the Italians, especially royalty and the wealthier citizens. This was an age of castles and lords, and these rulers often wanted food to be impressive, demanding that it be presented in decorative and spectacular ways. For example, they would have birds served decorated with their own feathers, as if they were still alive.

During this time, new spices and cane sugar were introduced to the Italians by the Arabs, and many new recipes and flavors emerged. One particularly well-known Italian treat invented in this period is gelato, a dessert similar to ice cream or frozen yogurt that's made from a mix of sugar and fruit juices. Gelato was first made during the Middle Ages, became popular in the 1600s, and is a favorite dessert to this day!

Gelato served in Italy today
Gelato Display

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