Italians trace their gastronomic heritage to Romans, Greeks, Etruscans and other Mediterranean peoples who elaborated the methods of raising, refining and preserving foods. But dining customs acquired local accents in a land divided by mountains and seas into natural enclaves where independent spirits developed during the repeated shifts of ruling powers that fragmented Italy from Roman times to the Risorgimento.

Still, despite the different attitudes about eating expressed from the Mediterranean isles to the Alps, Italian foods have points in common. Consider pizza, which migrated from Naples to become what must rank as Italy's--and the world's--favorite fast food. Every Italian town has a gelateria making ice cream, sherbet and shaved ice granita. And every piazza has a bar or two where tiny cups of densely aromatic espresso are brewed rigorously to command. Italian meals may progress through multiple courses, from antipasto to primo and secondo, formaggio, frutta and on to dolce. But even a simple repast would not be complete without vino in the country that produces more wine than any other in the greatest variety of types and styles. Italy, with a population of about 57 million, consists of 20 regions subdivided into 103 provinces that take the names of prominent towns.

Each province boasts distinctive foods and wines, which, needless to say, have an inherent affinity for one another. Today, in a world of ever more uniform tastes, Italians retain their customary loyalty to distinctive local foods and wines. A growing number of these authentic food products has been officially protected under European Union regulations for DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta). The program in Italy is modeled after the successul system of wines of controlled origin, which applies to more than 300 appellations identified by the initials of DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (the G for garantita or guaranteed) and the recently instituted system of IGT (for Indicazione Geografica Tipica), which applies to about 120 "typical" wines throughout the country. Italy is also the leading European country for organic or biological foods with some 50,000 farms committed to growing produce by natural methods without the use of chemicals.

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