One of the great traditional divides in Italian cookery has been the use of cooking fats, with the North preferring butter and Central and Southern Italy relying on olive oil. The origin is quite simple: each region’s cuisine derives directly from its land. The North, home to Emilia-Romagna – producer of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the undisputed “king” of Italian cheeses – and Alpine regions bordering France, Switzerland and Austria, historically had the natural resources to raise excellent breeds of cattle from which exemplary butters were made. On the other hand, a significant part of Southern and Central Italy, particularly the sun-soaked regions of Puglia and Sicily, is blanketed by ancient olive trees. Although modernization and mass marketing have weakened the Great Olive Oil-Butter Divide, preferences persist among older generations and young gastronomes dedicated to preserving traditional regional cooking.
Long before its myriad health benefits became known, my Sicilian mother relied exclusively on extra virgin olive oil in her cooking. Growing up, “pane, olio e menta” (bread with oil and mint) was our weekly Sunday supper after a large, multi-course “pranzo.” However, it’s one thing to stay true to your culinary roots; it’s quite another to entirely blackball an ingredient from your family’s life. My mother positively abhorred the use of butter other than for baking. At restaurants, she would instruct waiters to take back the butter dish and would return our pancakes and toast to the kitchen if they came out buttered. (She did the same with ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, coleslaw and pickles and, lo and behold, I still don’t eat any of those things). I’m not exaggerating when I say that I never ate a bagel with butter until I went away to college. Although I tend to lean toward my family’s Southern Italian cooking preferences, my travels throughout Italy and love of its regional cuisine have made a convert of me. I especially crave the rich comfort of a buttery pasta dish and glass of red wine when there’s a chill in the air. Even though olive oil is undeniably lighter and healthier, there are certain dishes that would altogether lose their integrity if butter was omitted or substituted. I’m happy to report that although it’s taken years, my mom has finally come around to the glory of butter and I’ll happily take credit for her conversion.