Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Tastes of the Mediterranean: Italian food before Italy

Woodblock print illustrating the proper set up of a kitchen
Woodblock print illustrating the proper set up of a kitchen

Although many people know the Folger Shakespeare Library for its holdings in early modern English literature, the library also has an extensive collection of early modern Italian books, including some of the earliest cookbooks ever printed.

Italian food has evolved so much over the past 500 years that even so-called ‘classic’ Italian dishes—such as risotto alla milanese, pizza alla napoletana, bistecca alla fiorentina—would have been utterly foreign to early modern Italians in their current configurations. In fact, many of the ingredients we now most associate with Italian cooking, such as tomatoes, had only just been introduced to Europe by Spanish colonizers returning from North America during Shakespeare’s time.

Even the name “early modern Italian food” is a misnomer. In 1500, Italy didn’t exist as the boot-shaped country we know today: before Risorgimento (the process of unification) in the 19th century, Italy was composed of independent city-states, with constantly changing borders. Italian food was equally regional—and this regionality remains true today: there was and is no singular dish or ingredient that can represent the country. But the regions share a culinary history that is rooted in the ingredients, tastes, and techniques that came out of early-modern innovations, explorations, and cultural movements.


Valert Payne’s recipe for Italian Crust is copied from the second edition (1623) of John Murrell’s A Delightful Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. Italian Crust was a bisket (later biscuit) served at sweets banquets—Murrell’s cookbook is mostly a banqueting book—but it does not belong to the biscuit family that ultimately gave us the sponge biscuits called lady fingers. The tip-off is the butter that tenderizes Italian Crust. Butter was absent from all forms of sponge biscuit in the 17th century, which were instead tenderized by prolonged, strenuous beating. I would also add that sponge biscuits were not formed in finger shapes in the 17th century. Biscuits were then baked in individual square or round pans or were dropped.

I do not know if the English Italian Crust is actually Italian, but it could well be, as the 17th century English adapted many Italian biscuits for banqueting, including sponge biscuit and hard meringue. On the other hand, it is possible that Italian Crust is not Italian at all but merely seemed Italian to the English by virtue of its shape or some other feature, much as we today call dishes “Italian” when they involve tomato sauce.

Stephen Schmidt — May 7, 2019