Enthusiastic historian John Dickie takes us on a 6-episode romp through Italy's past to reveal just how much of it was actually shaped by food. In this feast of horrors and delights, we bust myths, expose legends and crack mysteries.
15 Jul 2016 - 5:54 PM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2017 - 12:52 PM

The history of Italian food is an adventure that takes us a long, long way from advertising's cosy tales of mamma rolling gnocchi for the bambini, or the peasants eating pizza under the pergola. The idea that Italian food issues from a world of timeless rustic simplicity is false.

This six-part series focuses on Italian identity, and with it the Italian flair for food. It's also rather funny - host John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College London, and the author of several books including Delizia - the epic history of the Italians and their food Mafia Republic: Italy's Criminal Curse and Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, but he's far from a dusty academic. He brings to the series wit and a rather entertaining willingness to throw himself into all manner of unexpected situations, from donning painfully authentic recreations of Roman sandals to drinking a vile "sports" drink. Happily for our adventurous host, there are also some fine meals and meetings with good cooks and leading chefs. 


Episode 1 - What the Romans ate

Aired Friday September 15 at 4.30pm; then see it on SBS On Demand here

Rome was not built in a day but it certainly was ruled by food! In this episode, John Dickie reveals how grain shortages had emperors shaking in their sandals, and how they fed their fearsome army. John discovers what ancient Roman wine tasted like and how inbetween the battles in the Colosseum, the cadets cooked their lunch. Together with an Italian athlete, John subjects himself to the diet of the gladiators who far from eating a diet rich in protein like modern athletes, managed to survive their long training hours and battle in the arena on a diet of grain, washed down with a “sports drink” of vinegar and ash. Intrigued, yet?

we'll stick with pasta and pizza!
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Finally, John attempts to cook and serve Ancient Roman fast food to visiting tourists. Because far from being a modern lifestyle, fast food is in fact a Roman invention… 

Episode 2 - Holy food

Aired Friday September 22 at 4.30pm; then see it on SBS On Demand here

John Dickie explores how Catholicism has played an extraordinary central role in the Italian diet, with meat and fish playing musical chairs on Italian tables. He spends some time looking at the diet of popes through the ages and some more interesting quirks along the way. his episode reveals how the rules that dictated the Christian diet were broken, how desperate meat eaters considered goose to be fish because they spent so much time in the water and what is the bedrock of Roman cooking today.

Episode 3 - Power lunch

Aired Friday September 29 at 4.30pm; see it on SBS On Demand here

John Dickie takes us into the corridors of power in Italy to show how the mighty ate. He reveals how Charles V used food to display his power and his lasting legacy on Italian food and how Napoleon’s victory at Marengo led to the now famous chicken recipe. 

Make your own Marengo!
Chicken Marengo with olives (poulet Marengo aux olives)

This dish is from the Corsica region. Chicken Marengo is a dish created by Napoleon Bonaparte’s cook to please the emperor after the battle of Marengo. It’s lovely served with delicate broad beans.

John reveals how the men who unified Italy were eating French food, why Mussolini put the country on a diet of bread and rice and how Berlusconi served the leaders of the 2001 G8 summit a sumptuous feast, whilst Genoa was raided. And of course any good history of Italian food should include pesto. 

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Is pesto really pesto if it doesn’t have garlic?
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Episode 4 - The private life of pasta

Aired Friday October 6 at 4.30pm; then see it on SBS On Demand here

In this episode: Marco Polo did not bring spaghetti back from China, the Arabs brought it with them when they invaded Sicily in the late 12th century. John Dickie takes us to a pasta factory and learns how to operate an antique screw press to make pasta by hand. He shows how a King’s bad manners may have led to the invention of a four-pronged fork. He also exposes the role played by pasta in politics, from the 18th century when it could be used to quiet an unruly mob to the mid 20th, when politicians would buy votes in Naples. 

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It was all a lie: the scandalous history of pasta
From whimsical marketing ploys to an outrageous carbonara, humble pasta has had a bumpy ride through the ages.

Episode 5 - Going Hungry

Aired Friday October 13 at 4.30pm; then see it on SBS On Demand here

Italy, the land of plenty, has over the centuries often run on empty. But the very hunger that killed thousands and the disease that accompanied extreme poverty and despair have also given rise to extraordinary resourcefulness and the invention of the world's favourite food, pizza. In this episode, John Dickie reveals how the rulers of Italy’s centres of power distracted the mob from its hunger by staging extraordinarily cruel food games and how pizza, born in the cholera ridden slums of Naples, was almost consigned to the garbage bin of history. 

How pizza ruled the world
History with bite: the secret life of pizza
The beloved slice has its own dramatic tale, including a king, a queen and some culinary snobbery.

He also gets a lesson in pizzamaking from a world-champion pizzaiola, Teresa di Iorio. Then he looks sets Bruno Barbieri, a leading Italian chef and host of Italy’s Master Chef a challenge - to cook delicious food for a family for a week, on a poverty-line budgetIs eating well is still the reserve of the middle and upper classes of a country that has known more that its fair share of hunger?

Champion pizza maker Teresa Iorio and John Dickie make pizza together.

Episode 6 - Viva l'Italia

Aired Friday October 20 at 4.30pm; then see it on SBS On Demand here

Italian food’s conquest of the world is today almost complete and it is now considered the world’s best cuisine. But it was not always like that. John tells the story of a remarkable transformation. In this episode, Johns subjects a group of modern tourist to the food served to 19th-century tourists on their grand tour of Europe. He walks in the footsteps the unlikely father of Italian Food, Pellegrino Artusi, who through his seminal book of recipes did much more to bring Italy together than any politician had until then and, some might argue, since. John reveals how Italian cuisine today is unpretentious, delightful and most of all, healthy! At least that is what the American Scientist Ancel Keys declared when he popularised the term "Mediterranean diet", setting Italian food on its way to conquer the world…a conquest that was completed by the incredibly talented Italian chefs who today are Italy’s most important ambassadors.

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Let's clarify the different types of fat in foods and why searching for the saint and the sinner among them misses the core of many heart-related issues.