I sometimes feel sorry for Italians. While they are not generally a nationalistic people—Mussolini cured most of them of that affliction—they can be downright chauvinistic when it comes to their food. That’s perfectly understandable as far as I’m concerned, as Italians have given the world one of its great cuisines. And yet there may no be no other world cuisine—except, perhaps for the Chinese—that has been so victimized by careless and inauthentic imitation. And even if they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I have found that nothing upsets Italians quite as much as the theft and bastardization of their culinary heritage. Some of you may be wondering: what exactly do I mean when we talk about ‘authentic’ Italian cooking? The question would never even occur, I don’t think, to most native Italians. Notions of authenticity or, as the Italians are apt to call it, genuinità, have cult-like status in Italy. The notion may be hard to define precisely but, to paraphrase Justice Stewart, they know it when they taste it. Some people may find the concept hard to understand or even difficult to accept, so let me try to explain as best I can—and perhaps others will want to chime in.
A good place to start, it seems to me, is by identifying what we mean when we talk about Italian cooking. After some thought about the subject, I have identified a number of distinct types of cooking that, rightly or wrongly, go by the name ‘Italian’:
The cuisine of Italy
We start with the obvious: Italian food is the food they make in the country called Italy. But even this basic concept has its complications and nuance. The argument can even be made that there is no such thing as ‘Italian’ cuisine as such, but rather that the phenomenon that we call Italian cuisine is, in reality, a collection of regional cuisines. And if you compare, say, the cooking of Lombardy with the cooking of Puglia, you might wonder whether that isn’t right. Italian food is still, almost 150 years after the Risorgimento, highly regional.
But despite this undeniable fact, I think that one can talk today about a single Italian cuisine. Many dishes that used to be eaten only in a particular town or region are now enjoyed all over Italy, even if they are still at their best on their native turf. Think of pizza, a speciality of Naples, which is now eaten everywhere in Italy (and, of course, beyond—but we’ll get to that in a moment). The same can be said of pesto alla genovese or bistecca alla fiorentina, spaghetti alla carbonara or risotto alla milanese. All these dishes still strongly identified with their place of origin, but they have entered into the national and, in many cases, international culinary culture. And then there are a whole class of dishes that really do not have—or no longer have—strong regional connections. Take, for example, branzino al sale. The dish is Italian, and it surely has its origins somewhere in Italy, but today it can be convincingly called ‘Italian’ rather than Neapolitan or Ligurian or whatever.
Of course, Italian food has been evolving over time. The cuisine of the Peninsula that we know today has been heavily influenced, first by the barbaric tribes that invaded in late antiquity, bringing such previously snubbed foodstuff as game to the Italian table, then by the Saracens, who brought eggplant, couscous, ice cream and (probably) rice, and, then perhaps most importantly, by the discovery of the New World and its native foodstuffs. What would Italian cooking be today without the tomato, corn, beans and peppers, to name just a few of these New World imports?
Italian cuisine continues to evolve in modern times. Some of the most ‘classic’ Italian dishes, like carbonara, are actually relatively new. And even today we are seeing significant changes to the Italian diet. As elsewhere, but certainly to a lesser extent than in other developed countries, convenience foods like the Quattro salti in padella lineof frozen foods are making inroads into traditional ways of preparing food. Italians are eating lighter, shunning old cooking fats like lard in favor of the ever-present olive oil, even in regions where olive oil was not traditional. And although Italians are notoriously reticent when it comes to foreign foods, if take a look at the latest issues of La cucina italiana you will find dishes made with such formerly ‘exotic’ ingredients as tandoori pork and black beans. At the same time, you see today a reaction to modernity and a longing for a return to the rustic indigenous roots of Italian cooking. The Slow Food movement is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this atavistic longing. Through it all, however, I firmly believe that an ineffable quality, a common ‘feeling’, has maintained Italian cookery as recognizably ‘Italian’.
Italian Diaspora cooking
As we all know, in the 19th and early 20th century, there was massive emigration out of Italy, mostly to the Americas (in particular the US, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela) as well as to Australia. These immigrants took their culinary culture with them and, at least at first, they rather stubbornly stuck to their gastronomic ways. Of course, circumstances obliged them to make some changes and adaptations. Where native ingredients were not available, like the Chinese, they adapted their recipes to fit the ingredients they could find in their new homelands, finding substitutes for the ingredients they could not find. My grandmother, for example, would make aglio e olio—a pasta dish usually made olive oil, garlic and the small dried red pepper called peperoncino—with black pepper when she couldn’t find the red.
At the same time, these immigrants began to cook with ingredients—in particular, meat—that were rare treats back home. One of the hallmarks of Italian-American cooking is the pride of place given to meat, even using it in traditionally vegetarian dishes; the transformation of parmigiana di melanzane into ‘veal parmesan’ (nowadays increasingly supplanted by ‘Chicken Parm’) is a classic example.
Another interesting feature of Diaspora cooking is its mixing of influences from different regions of Italy. It was one of the original ‘fusion’ cuisines. Italian immigrants from different parts of Italy all lived in close quarters in Little Italy’s all over the world and shared their culinary heritages. A famous contemporary example here in the US is Lidia Bastianich, who is from Istria (now part of Croatia) but whose cooking—which features lots of hot pepper—is clearly influenced by the southern Italian majority among Italian-Americans.
Italian-American cooking has given us some excellent eating: think of San Francisco’s cioppino, New World cousin to zuppa di pesce, or New Orleans’ muffaletta sandwich, or the tasty Lobster Fra Diavolo. At its best, it is a cuisine that has an authenticity all its own. The spirit of this kind of Italian-American cooking does live on—for a taste, check out the lovely blog called Proud Italian Cook—but as the generations have passed, Diapora cooking (at least in the US but I suspect the same has happened elsewhere) has entered into a new phase. The descendants of the original immigrants began to abandon—or simply forget—their traditions and adopt the culinary habits of their new country, to the point where the cooking of many of today’s Italian-Americans has largely lost touch with its origins. Non-Italian ingredients like garlic powder show up regularly in so-called ‘Italian’ dishes. The traditions of Italian culinary culture, which were not just arbitrary ‘rules’ but reflections its core aesthetic, have been abandoned: grated cheese on fish, spaghetti served as a ‘side dish’, cappuccino served after dinner and a thousand other heresies are commonplace among today’s generation of Italian-Americans. All of which brings me to our next category…
The global popularity of Italian cuisine has inspired a lot of imitation, much of it awful. Third and fourth generation descendants of Italian immigrants, as well as people with no connection at all to Italy or its culinary culture, have invented a whole new category of dishes that call themselves Italian-style or just ‘Italian’ but have little or nothing to do with actual Italian culinary traditions. These are dishes that essentially belong to the traditions of the respective countries of origin. Add a bit of tomato or oregano to a dish, top it with some melted imitation mozzarella cheese, and voilà, it’s magically ‘Neapolitan’ or ‘Tuscan’ or ‘Italian’!
Imitation, or Just Plain Bad, Italian cooking
Similar but distinct from the last category, here we find recipes that ‘adapt’ real Italian dishes to local tastes, never (at least in my experience) for the better. Spaghetti alla carbonara, for example, made with cream, cooked ham and peas… You could also call this ‘Italian style’ cooking, but in this case we are talking about dishes that actually exist in original form that have been bastardized, sometimes beyond recognition.
A Return to Authenticity?
At the same time as Italian food has been beset internationally by the abandonment of traditions and poor imitations, a counter-trend—modest, perhaps, but noticeable—has been gathering steam. As in Italy itself, some of today’s descendants of the original Italian Diaspora are looking to recapture the tastes and sensibilities that their forbearers brought with them, to rediscover their ‘roots’ as the old saw goes. (This blog could even be seen as part of this nascent trend…) In many ways, it has never been easier to try to do that. More than ever, Italian foodstuffs are being exported around the world, at high-end stores like Eataly in places like New York and Tokyo, but also in countless more modest establishments. And information about what real Italian cooking is all about is available to just about anyone who cares to look for it. (More about that later.)
The bottom line
So which of these styles of cooking represent authentic Italian cuisine? When I talk about authentic Italian food, what I mean is the food that respects the essential aesthetic of Italian cooking. For the most part, that means the cooking of Italy itself. Italian-American and other Italian Diaspora cooking have their own merits and deserve respect on their own terms, but increasingly they have departed from that essential aesthetic. And as far as ‘Italian-style’ and imitation Italian cooking are concerned, the less said the better.
And yet, its worldwide popularity has made authentic Italian cooking easier than ever to replicate outside its native turf—and, yes, you can find authentic Italian cooking outside Italy. So how can you tell the real thing from imitations? Check out Part II of this series…
Post Scriptum: A reader has written in pointing out that the city of Palermo (in Sicily) is mislabeled as Messina in the map above. Please take note. But I still like this map, as it clearly outlines the various regions and Italy and groups them by color into northern, central and southern, which defines the three broad ‘schools’ of Italian cooking.