Here in the United States the definition of soul food is pretty straightforward: It indicates traditional Southern food that is representative of the African-American heritage and legacy. It is in every sense the result of the African diaspora and the necessity that displaced communities, during the dark ages of slavery, had to maintain their historical identity, using food as a medium.
It is not as easy, when referring to Italy, to define a similar way of cooking, mostly because of the peninsula’s much longer history. Italy always has been a point of access to Europe for many civilizations that lived on the Mediterranean Sea; it has been colonized and/or dominated through the centuries by foreigners such as Greeks, Byzantines, Spaniards, French and many North African populations, and those have made their way into our Southern regions since history can remember. Because of the access that the Italian peninsula offers to central Europe, in the past few decades our land has also become a real highway for many people migrating away from countries like Morocco, the Balkan regions and the Middle East, to more promising economies such as France and Germany.
As a result, many recipes and ingredients in the south of Italy carry memories of ancient times and modern migrations as well: Middle Eastern flatbreads, Moroccan couscous and Turkish capers are the first examples that come to mind as you explore the culinary offerings of Sicily and other southern regions.
Tuscany is historically a poor region as far as industrial development or city expansion goes, so our land has not really absorbed much in terms of food belonging to different ethnicities, simply because not many migrating groups decided to settle here; you can consider the food in Tuscany as one of the purest forms of Italian food. Some would argue that the same exact thing happened to Italian language in Tuscany: It has evolved in an unadulterated way for centuries, stemming from its Latin roots, and is often held to form a linguistic group of its own, aside from many other regional Italian dialects where a foreign influence is more detectable.
Tune in to Extra Virgin tonight at 8pm ET to watch Gabriele and Debi hang out with Fab Five Freddy and try some of his favorite Harlem haunts.