Even better than you expect
First time visitors to Italy are often at best confused, at worst disappointed, by the lack of similarity of the food to what they have experienced as Italian cuisine abroad. All Italians nod their heads sagely at my proposition that real Italian cuisine is sconosciuta all’estero—unknown abroad. They too have experienced the same kind of bemusement and disappointment when eating in Italian restaurants outside Italy.
If you’ve never been to Italy, don’t worry: real Italian food is even better than you expect. But if you are expecting to find all your favourite dishes—spaghetti alla carbonara, fettucine Alfredo, pasta alla Norma, spaghetti Bolognese, pizza boscaiola, topped off with cannoli and limoncello—all on one menu, then you’ll be disappointed, or if you do find them, you’ll probably be in a tourist trap and you should run for your life.
You will find all your favourite dishes—with the exception of spaghetti alla Bolognese, which as we will see later, is not Italian. However, you won’t find them all over Italy because, first and foremost, Italian food is regional. Very regional.
Modern Italy is made up of twenty regions. Until 1871, Italy was not a unified country, but was made up of different city states, kingdoms, and republics, each with their own cultures, traditions, and linguistic variations. Italy was a geographic concept, the name of the peninsula on which all of these different countries lived, in often less than harmonious co-existence. The modern regions follow, roughly, the borders of these states and each has, to this day, retained a large measure of its culture. Particularly when it comes to food.
Different Italian food products and ingredients belong therefore, to the different regions and, with very few exceptions, are not mixed. This is why spaghetti alla Bolognese is impossible: spaghetti, comes from Campania, the region around the southern city of Naples, whereas Bologna is situated in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. It is, however, an approximation of a real dish from Emilia-Romagna, tagliatelle al ragù, which uses a different type of pasta with a similar, meat-based sauce.
‘I’ve never heard of it!’
Italians themselves love indulging in a bit of food tourism when moving round their own country. If they go to a different town, city, or region, they will always try the local speciality which, unless they are from there, they have seldom heard of. As an example, the other day I was in the north-eastern city of Trieste, at a friend’s house for dinner. She lives in Trieste, but is in fact from the Veneto region (Trieste is in Friuli-Venezia Giulia). The other guests were from Trieste, and Ancona (in Le Marche) and foodies every one. However, none of them had heard of, let alone tried, the dish which she prepared, as her grandmother had taught her, probably the most typical dish from her city of Verona.
‘Not as good as my grandmother’s!’
This brings us to another important point, grandmothers. When I lived in France, I noticed that French cuisine is the cuisine of the chef. People spend hours at home trying to recreate the signature dishes and recipes of France’s top chefs, all of whom have celebrity status, and usually failing. Italian cuisine, on the other hand, is the cuisine of the grandmother (nonna). Chefs spend hours in the kitchen trying to recreate the dishes and recipes of their grandmothers, and usually failing. Italians, will often say: ‘this dish is delicious, but obviously not as good as my grandmother’s!’ And the problem is that everybody’s grandmother’s version was the best.
There is a restaurant I’ve been to in Emilia-Romagna, which is rightly famous in the local area for the quality of its pasta. In the middle of the restaurant, in full view as you enter, is a work-station, where an old lady does nothing but make pasta all day, not in the kitchen but in the restaurant. It’s like the restaurant is saying, ‘You see! Our pasta is made by a real nonna!’
The purpose of this blog is to introduce you to real Italian cuisine, as found in Italy and eaten by Italians, often as I discover it. It’s the result of research and investigation, often by asking and interviewing locals as well as passing on the recipes of my own and my friends’ nonnas. All the recipes have been tried and tested personally and adapted for an international audience so that you too can have the real taste of Italy at home.