Obviously, Italian cooking has been around literally for centuries, and that's why today's delectable Italian dishes are so popular and so hard to turn down! It's hard to pin down just one or two origins of Italian cooking, but there are some dishes, like polenta, that we know have been around for centuries, and really aren't much different than they were way back then.
The Etruscans and Romans
The Etruscans lived in what we now know as Tuscany, and they were the first real people to develop what is now the history of Italian cooking, blended with some Roman and Greek influences. In fact, we know that Roman soldiers often ate polenta, just the way we eat it today, while they were away on military campaigns, so some dishes from the Italian table go way back in time to over 2000 years old.
Exploration Fed the Country
Italy was a country of explorers, and many of them brought home foods and culinary ideas to help boost their own home cooking. For example, it's said Marco Polo brought pasta back to the region from his travels throughout Asia, but that's been disputed. He did bring back discoveries like spices and such, though, and Christopher Columbus, who sailed for Spain but was actually Italian, brought back many items from the New World, like peppers, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes that have made themselves at home in Italian cuisine.
Climate, Climate, Climate
Think about Italy, and you probably think about the varied climates and regions of the country, and they have all had a big influence on the history of Italian cooking. The Northern area borders Austria, France, and Switzerland, and it shows influences from those countries. Northerners tend to eat more potatoes, cream sauces, and polenta, and truffle oil is produced in the Torino region, so it's often a part of their cuisine.
The Central area includes Tuscany, and the cuisine is rich in seafood, tomato-based sauces, soups, and olives and olive oil, along of course, with wine.
The Southern region is sunny and warm, typical of a Mediterranean climate, and it boasts groves of olive trees, citrus, and many other plants associated with the history of Italian cooking. Seafood is popular, and Napoli is the home of real, Italian pizza. Pasta, meat sauces, and lots of cheese are popular in the area, as well.
A Blending of Regions
It's easy to see that the regions of Italy produce some varied cuisines, but over the decades, they have all blended into what we call "Italian cooking." Many of the ingredients, like olive oil, pastas, and wine are common no matter what the region, and many of the general cooking techniques, such as sautéing many dishes, baking bread, creating hearty soups, and hand making pasta from wheat flour are common to all the regions. Italian cooking is diverse and unique, and that's one of the reasons it has become so popular throughout the world.
Historically, Italian cooking is really a blend of cultures, regions, and cuisines, including new ingredients from foreign lands, but today, it means good food, good wine, and good friends gathering together for hearty and delicious dishes that run the gamut from seafood to risotto and far beyond.