Why does the Italian culture almost have a monopoly on the mediterranean ambient?

I admit, those are not the first food cultures I think of, but definitely Mediterranean. It’s to the point that I find “Mediterranean” to be a way of saying “Arabic” or “Middle Eastern” food without saying “Arabic” or “Middle Eastern.” (Or “Israeli.”)

Olives. Gyropitas. Kabobs. Falafels. Sardines. Octopus. Feta. Hummus.


When I think of Mediterranean, I think of, well, the Mediterranean. I went for a swim in it on Saturday. The water was great.

But when I think of Mediterranean culture and food, I think of the Eastern Med, specifically the crescent from Greece though Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In other words, the heart of the former Ottoman Empire - which is why these countries share a lot in terms of culture, music and especially food.

For that matter, what most Northern Europeans and Americans think of as “Italian food” is not really anything like Italian cuisine; certainly not spaghetti and meatballs, nor shreded mozzarella cheese and red sauce pizza with toppings, and certainly not cioppino, which is not at all Italian even though there are many fish stews that can be found in the southern and Sicilian regions.

Spain is definitely Mediterranean but not what most Americans identify as ‘Mediterranean’, largely because it just it hasn’t been promoted that way. As others have noted, WWII kind of cemented Italy and Greece as being the Mediterranean countries Spain and South of France have very Mediterranean coastlines and relaxed culture. As others have said, this in part has to do with US soldiers coming back from the European theater with tales of the beauty of Italy and Greece, as well as US military installations and forces in these countries resulting in a vigorous tourist trade to what were then ‘exotic’ locations (ditto for Hawaii, the military occupation disguised as a tourist destination).

There is also a huge influence of a romanticized history of the Roman Empire throughout European and American culture to the point that we use their dead language and numbering system, many titles and institutions, and the names of gods and places as legal and medical terms, government and cultural institutions, and cultural affectations despite the fact that the Western Roman Empire died over a thousand years before modern Western civilization was truly born, and the West was in deep cultural conflict with the Eastern Roman Empire to the point of pejoratively referring to it as the ‘Byzantine’ Empire, a term nobody in Constantinople ever used during its existence.

This history of Spain mostly gets relegated to side discussions about the Angevin Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and of course the Spanish Empire in the Americas (and elsewhere around the global) that is almost as distant a memory as that of the Dutch. Spain failed to become a major industrial power on the international stage, has not been a primary tourist destination (although has become far more popular since the end of the Franco regime), and just generally isn’t as prominent in history our cuisine despite its long history and rich, multivariate culture, so it doesn’t get thought of as “Mediterranean” by many even though the culture and food of the eastern part ticks every box of what one thinks of as ‘Mediterranean’.


Echoing others I don’t have this Mediterranean=Italian association in my mind. I will admit that I often forget about Spain’s and France’s Mediterranean coastal cultures, when I think Mediterranean culture, cuisine, tourism, places to visit, historical events etc I’m as likely to think food and culture of the Levant, Greece, Turkey (and the long history there from the Ottomans back through the Byzantines and early Christendom), etc as I am Italy.

You get narrow streets in lots of European (and north African) towns and cities, but your immediate thoughts might turn towards those in Italy because we don’t think of the whole when confronted with a complex idea. If people think of America it’ll often be New York, Detroit, or Hollywood; not all of the other hundreds of cities. If someone asked you what movies you like, you wouldn’t list your top 250 - likely the US-based ones foreigners would remember would be in NY, Detroit, the Valley, or DC, and not Greece, Slovenia, or Tunisia. It’s simply a quick association of two very complex (the Mediterranean and food) subjects.

The first thing that pops into my head is a map of the Mediterranean Sea. Or, more actually, the general shape. It’s the same for all larger geographical places. You have to get down to the county level before I don’t think that way.

For Mediterranean food, I tend to think of the Middle Eastern and Greek stuff, but primarily the stuff not part of the classic American diet. I definitely don’t think of Italian food, as too much of that is a staple.

This largely is because people always talk about how healthy the Mediterranean diet is, though. Thus it can’t be the stuff we eat here.

I think this may be a US perspective. As a Brit, I think ‘mediterranean food’ is basically olives, lemons, olive oil, fish, vegetables like peppers and tomatoes, herbs like oregano, with little dairy or meat - and that applies to pretty much all the countries that spread across the Med. Italian food is 100% included in that.

I think it’s worth adding that if I was invited (by an American, presumably) to a ‘mediterranean restaurant’, I wouldn’t know what to expect. What kind of mediterranean? Maybe it’s because I holiday in mediterranean countries a couple of times a year, so they don’t merge together in my mind.

^ This is what I think of when I hear “Mediterranean”. I think of the south-east shore of the sea, not the north.

Since demobilization was fairly slow (and became a political issue in the lead up to the 1946 election) one of the perks that the US Army offered its now idle and bored to tears soldiers in Europe was:

Occupation troops in Europe were offered a 17-day European tour for the nominal price of between 25 and 35 dollars (roughly $350 to $490 in 2021).

Probably many developed the views you said as a result.

This is what I think of too - although it’s probably related to the fact that when I think ‘Italian food’ my mind doesn’t automatically go to pizza and pasta.

I wonder. Does this look more Italy or more Greece?

Sausalito, CA on the shore of San Francisco Bay.

Without any other context, I would picture a “Mediterranean restaurant” as having hummus, falafel, feta cheese, olives, lamb, kebabs, schwarma.

I wouldn’t actually think at all of Italian cuisine.

Mine doesn’t either. I’ve been enjoying the “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” TV series on CNN, and finding out about all kinds of Italian foods I never knew about before. But I’ve also been to Italy, and while Stanley turns up some surprises (to me), I knew that there was a lot more than just pizza and pasta.

I’ve also been to southern Spain, Greece, and Morocco. Their cultures are different, as are their cuisines, but the latter have many commonalities, as SanVito points out. There’s a lot more to “Mediterranean” than just “Italian.”

When I hear “Mediterranean food,” I think “cooked with olive oil made locally, or at least imported from not very far away.” So that includes these:

With the addition of Croatia and coastal North Africa like Tunisia (where I will be next week).

The Mediterranean coast, all the way around, probably has the best food, the most flavorful and varied, in the world, with the possible exception of India.

I somewhat dispute the premise: “Mediterranean” largely conjures up images of Italy and Greece for me, other places nosomuch, even though I know they also have coastline on the same sea.

I think part of the answer is whether countries can also be said to belong to other regions. Italy and Greece project right into the middle of the Mediterranean and so clearly belong to that region. Whereas places like Israel…sure, but I probably think of it as belonging to the Arabian penninsula more.

It’s like if someone asks you to name a fruit, you’re going to think of banana before tomato. You reach for a clear-cut example.

The first thing I think of is, how the hell do you spell “mediterranean”?

After that, it’s a generic sun-drenched coast with old-style architecture and nice dry climate gardens.

I live in the north of Italy, near Venice. Most locals would not consider themselves Mediterranean.

This is close to my image, too. Although when i hear the specific phrase “Mediterranean diet” i associate that with Greek peasants (not Italian ones, fwiw).