To define Italian cuisine in America, we must first look at the history of Italy itself and distinguish it from its Italian-American counterpart

The waters of the Po river filled the brine wells of Salsomaggiore Terme. The wells were mined as a source of salt for the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The common ingredient found in all of our pantries was pivotal to the development of the delicacies from the region we still love to eat today.

In the 13th century, Benedictine and Cistercian monks were looking for a way to preserve cheese. Using the salt of Salsomaggiore, which contained high concentration of iodine and bromine that were crucial in the process of preserving food, and the milk from local cows, they created a cheese in large wheels that aged spectacularly.

The lore of the cheese grew to the surrounding regions over the following centuries and the growth in production and sales followed suit. The process became industrialized and made more efficient. As happens with all great foods, it also became widely forged.

To protect the authenticity of the cheese, The Duke of Parma, Ranuccio I Farnese, created the Protected Denomination of of Origin (PDO, or DOP in Italian) in 1612 to ensure the authenticity of this cheese we now know as, Parmigiano-Reggiano, The King of Cheese.

In this same region, select breeds of pigs, such as Duroc, were selected for their meaty thighs to be be cured using the Salsomaggiore salt in one of the first and most essential steps of creating Prosciutto di Parma. The roots of the process itself can be traced back over two-thousand years, when preserved pork legs from the Po valley were being traded with Greece.

Think about that for a second. The origin of prosciutto is as old as Jesus.

So, why does that matter?

It’s simple, really. Italy was unified as a nation in the 1850s and became a Republic in 1946. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is over 600 years older than Italy. Prosciutto is even older. Italian food is older than Italy. That means Italian cuisine is not national, it is regional.

Let’s localize that for a second. What is American cuisine? Depending upon in which part of the country you may live, you may consider it to be barbecue, gumbo, burgers, or even pizza.

We use the expression, “as American as apple pie” but apples are not native to American and apple pie was created in England. We coopted it and made it ours.

The same happened with Italian cuisine. When Italians emigrated to the United States, they had access to affordable meat for the first time. From that, Italian-American cuisine was born. It (d)evolved over the years and became into the ubiquitous red sauce and meatball dishes that surround us today.

Italian-American cuisine is a product of the region, in the same way that Italian cuisine is defined by its regions. They are wholly distinct from one another.

The dishes of Emilia-Romagna differ greatly from those of Lazio which differ greatly from those of Sardinia. Thankfully, all of them differ from chicken parm.

In the four years since opening my first food business, my perception of Italian cuisine has continuously changed. At first, I stuck with what I knew, the comforting foods of Abruzzo, which cookbook author, Anna Teresa Calle, deemed to be Italy’s pastoral land. These were not the dishes I cooked or served in restaurants, but they were the dishes I grew up eating.

I gathered the recipes that belonged to my mom and my Nonna and began making the dishes they made for me as a child. The more I cooked, the more of a pattern I noticed. The recipes focused on a handful of fresh, local ingredients where each complemented the next.

That, at its core, is what we can call Italian cuisine: treating fresh ingredients with the respect they deserve. That philosophy, not a specific dish or ingredient, is what unifies the regions of Italy as one cuisine.

This is the same approach we must take in America to create Italian cuisine. We must respect the ingredients, using what is fresh and local to us. We must make the most of what we have, regardless of whether or not it grows in Italy.

We can make great use of tomatoes and cucumbers in New Jersey, mimicking the vegetables that grow in Italy but we can also use cranberries and sweet corn and treat them with the same regard.