Italians and Italian cuisine
We are all familiar with the videos plastered all over the Internet of Italians reacting badly to foreign versions of Italian cuisine and threatening to send a hired killer, or worse their grandmother, to track you down. Most of these videos are highly exaggerated, or staged, and say a lot about the Italian sense of humour. However, it is true that Italians, more than any other nation, seem to get genuinely upset when someone messes with their traditional food.
The other day, after reading the umpteenth comment on a food blog in which an Italian had lost it because the writer had dared to put peas in a carbonara, garlic in an Amatriciana sauce, or parmesan cheese on shellfish pasta, I began to ask myself how to explain this behaviour to outsiders. To foreign food bloggers and foodies in general, these reactions seem extreme. To Italians, they seem perfectly reasonable. Bringing the subject up at a dinner party in Rome will get you a chorus of ‘Oh yes!’ from round the table.
I think the reasons for this are complicated and not easily explained. However, here I’ll give it a go.
Italy has been through a huge amount of change in the last 150 years, more perhaps, than any other Western-European country. The one beacon of stability in all that time has been its food. If you pick up a copy of Scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene a cookbook first published in 1891 by Pellegrino Artusi, the recipes will come as no surprise. The same cannot be said for the British Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) which contains many recipes no modern British person has even heard of, let alone cooks.
For Italians, the thought that no-matter what is happening outside, you can return home and eat a plate of tagliatelle al ragù exactly as your grandmother, and her grandmother, and her grandmother prepared it, is a very comforting one.
As anyone who has visited Florence, Venice, or Rome will know, Italy has an incredibly rich cultural heritage. As anyone who has visited a small town in any part of the country will know, Italy has an incredibly rich cultural heritage. Art, history, architecture going back more than two thousand years are everywhere and are jealously guarded and protected. And Italian cuisine is seen by most Italians as very much a part of this cultural heritage to be protected and admired in the same way. It’s no surprise that in 1953, the Accademia Italiana della Cucina was set up with the goals of safeguarding ‘Italian culinary traditions and encourage their promotion in Italy and abroad’. You can read more about it here.
Even today Italian cuisine is highly regional, almost to the extent that you might argue that there is no ‘Italian cuisine’ just Sicilian cuisine, Campanian cuisine, Roman cuisine, Tuscan cuisine and so on. Until 1871, Italy was a patchwork of different independent states, each with their own language, traditions, and food. These old borders are reflected today in the system of 20 regions that make up unified Italy. Since unification, the Italian regions have fought very hard to maintain their own individual identity and one way of doing this has been to preserve their culinary traditions and fiercely protect their regional recipes even against each other. An example of this is when in 2015, Carlo Cracco, a well-respected chef from Verona and one of the judges on Italian Masterchef, dared to suggest in a TV interview, that you should add garlic to a traditional all’Amatriciana sauce. The people of Amatrice, the town that the dish is named for, went crazy. How dare a northern chef suggest a variation to our southern recipe! You can read more about it here.
These attitudes towards Italian cuisine might all sound very conservative. Cuisine is a living thing and will surely die if it is preserved in aspic, you might argue. This is true and Italians would be the first to agree with you. The restaurant which is currently considered the best in the world, L’Osteria Francescana in Modena, is run by a chef not afraid to innovate but who would also agree with everything I’ve said so far.
The point is that new dishes are being developed and added to Italian cuisine all the time, which often in their turn become classics. But the old dishes also remain, as they were, to be enjoyed by future generations. We wouldn’t modernize Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but we continue producing great art. In this way, we wouldn’t modernize Spaghetti alla carbonara, but we continue producing great new dishes. And when we do, we give them new names.
In 1971, a restaurant in Treviso, near Venice, produced a dessert very similar to Zuppa Inglese (sponge soaked in alcohol, with vanilla and chocolate cream). They kept the composition but changed all the flavours. They didn’t call it ‘Zuppa inglese with coffee, chocolate and mascarpone cream’ because changing the flavours made it a completely new dessert. They gave it a new name: Tiramisù.
Today, food blogs are full of dishes with misleading titles such as Pineapple Tiramisù, Veggie Carbonara, and other ‘Italian’ dishes which are not Italian, such as spaghetti with meatballs, spaghetti Bolognese, garlic bread, and Italian dressing. For Italians these are alien and are seen almost as a form of cultural appropriation. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery it’s true: but there’s imitation and imitation.
If you are a food blogger, developing ‘Italian’ dishes, beware. If you are going to add extraneous ingredients to your dishes, such as pineapple on your pizza or mushrooms in your ragù don’t call the dishes by their traditional name or at least add a paragraph acknowledging that this is not the traditional recipe but your version. Be very cautious with calling something Italian when it is not just to get clicks on your recipe. Otherwise, you may very well find yourself inundated with comments from irate Italians. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?
What do you think? Do Italians have a point or is their attitude over the top? Have you been on the sharp end of an Italian’s attitude towards a recipe you’ve written? I’d love to hear about it.