Few cuisines seem more tied to the tomato than Italian cooking—at least in the popular imagination. What dishes could be more Italian than penne al’arrabiata, spaghetti al ragù bolognese, or a simple margarita pizza? All rely on the tomato for a fresh burst of flavor and are simply unimaginable without it.
But here’s the thing: tomatoes aren’t native to Italy.
Until 1492 (when Columbus sailed the ocean blue), no European had ever encountered the tomato. They were native to western South America and had been domesticated and cooked with by Aztecs and other Mesoamericans since around 500 BC.
At some point between 1493 and 1540, someone brought tomatoes back to Europe—it may have been Christopher Columbus or Hernán Cortés, although there’s no record. Either way, by the 1540s, it was being grown in Spain, Italy, and other Mediterranean climates to which it was well suited. It was probably eaten soon after—and cuisine in Europe was never the same again.
Italian Food Is More Complicated Than You Think
So, Italy didn’t get the tomato until the 1540s—right in the middle of the Renaissance—which makes for a few fun facts. Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably the most famous Italian ever, died on May 2nd, 1519, so never had the chance to try it. Donatello (who died in 1466) and Raphael (who died in 1520) wouldn’t have had the opportunity either. Of the pizza-loving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s namesakes, only Michelangelo, who didn’t die until 1564, could have done so—though there’s no record if he did.
And, also it raises the question: what did these pre-tomato Italians eat?
Before answering that, we need to understand one thing: Italian food is a lot more diverse than its often given credit for—and extremely regional. Many dishes and ingredients are named for the area they’re originally from. Neapolitan pizza—the original modern pizza—is from Naples (or Napoli in Italian). Spaghetti al ragù bolognese is so called because it’s a meat sauce from Bologna. Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmesan cheese is named for the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia, where it’s produced. While all these might get served in your local Italian restaurant, they’re originally from different parts of Italy which, historically, have very different cuisines.
Because, historically, they were all different city-states that had a fractious relationship. Italy, as a country, wasn’t unified until 1861—nearly 100 years after America declared independence.
Regional Italian Fare
If you look at the different regional Italian cuisines, you can get a hint at the kind of things they ate before tomatoes—by looking at the many, many dishes that don’t include them.
In the alpine north of Italy, close to the French and Swiss borders, the local food is heavy on butter, local cheeses, and cream sauces. Rice, cured meat, and on the coast, seafood are also prevalent.
In the center of Italy, beef and wild boar from the hills of Tuscany are a significant hallmark. More cured meats, different local cheeses, and lots and lots of olive oil feature in dishes too. And of course, like the other areas of Italy: on the coast, they eat anything that comes from the sea.
In the south of Italy, the Mediterranean climate prevails. Citrus fruits, beans, olives, pork, and lamb are popular in the various regions. Spicy foods made with peppers are common here too. And the sea is a source of everything from tuna to anchovies.
And even such classics like the TMNT’s beloved pizza hasn’t always relied on a heavy dose of tomato sauce. Even today, you can get pizzas topped with just olive oil, garlic, cheese, herbs, and the like—not a tomato in sight. One of the original versions of pizza was topped with sardines and olive oil. The modern version is just an extension of the kind of flatbread-with-whatevers-on-hand dish that’s been eaten around the Mediterranean for thousands of years.
What the Romans Ate
Go back far enough, and all of Italy becomes Rome, and really, the cuisine still has its roots there.
While the Roman aristocracy adored banquets and ate pretty much anything that could be found in any corner of the empire, from ostriches and honey to wild game birds, and yes, lots of fish, most people weren’t able to afford such luxuries. Instead, they lived off three staples that would be familiar to any Italian today: olives, bread from cereal grains, and wine.