In Part I of this series, we explored the varieties of cooking styles that call themselves Italian, some rightly, some wrongly. As you will have realized from reading that post, there is a lot of fake Italian food out there, nowhere more so than right here on the internet.
Since so many recipes call themselves ‘Italian’ when they really are not, how do you tell if a dish is truly authentic? Well, of course, growing up in Italy is by far the best way to appreciate that hard to define but unmistakable essential aesthetic that lies at the core of genuine Italian cooking. Living in Italy is second best: the experience of living in the country, walking through the ubiquitous food markets, experiencing the cooking in its proper context, trying a classic dish over and over again in different variations, hearing and joining in the endless debates about the dishes you are eating—Italians, as you probably know, love to talk about food—these are the best ways of truly understanding the aesthetic.
Learning About Authentic Italian Food
Of course, most of us are not going to have that opportunity. But it is possible, I believe, to learn to recognize the Italian culinary aesthetic through study—if you are willing to dedicate a little time and effort. If you’re like most people and your only exposure to Italian food has been outside its native turf, the first thing to do is to forget about all your preconceived notions of what Italian food is. There are just too many bad versions of Italian food circulating around to make most of what people think they know about it very reliable. Then start over and learn the basics.
The good news is that, along with the dreck, there is a lot of good material available as well. We have the writings of wonderful authors like Elizabeth David and Waverly Root, who (with some inevitable inaccuracies) first described for English-speaking readers, in loving detail, the wonders of real Italian cuisine. And let’s not forget the great early ambassadors of authentic Italian cooking in English, people like Marcella Hazan, whose Essentials of Italian Cooking is still the best single Italian cookbook written in English, in my humble opinion, and the lesser known Giuliano Bugialli. (Bugialli deserves to be much better known than he is, by the way. His serious, scholarly approach to Italian cooking can be intimidating to some, I imagine, but he is an excellent teacher.)
Today, the intense interest in Italian cooking has brought an ever richer range of sources. Many of the classic Italian cookbooks, for example Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and Ada Boni’s Talisman Cookbook, have been translated into English. The official cookbook of the Italian Academy of Cuisine, entitled in English La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy, has been recently published in English, as has the Silver Spoon cookbook, another encyclopedic stand by in Italian kitchens. And you can even find books that specialize in the cooking of particular regions, like the wonderful series called “Italy’s Food Culture” edited by Marco Guaraneschelli Gotti for Oronzo Editions. (This development shows how far we’ve come. When Hazan and Bugialli were first writing, their books purported to be about ‘Italian’ food, even if Hazan’s cooking was heavily influenced by her romagnolo roots and Bugialli’s was Tuscan. It is said that Bugialli actually wanted to call his first book The Fine Art of Tuscan Cooking, but his publishers rejected the title, fearing that the title would be too esoteric for the American market.)
And if you really want to get behind the recipes and learn about the historical and cultural aspects of Italian cuisine, there are several books available today, such as Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History by Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari. And you can now buy such recondite historical works from Mastro Martino, Bartolomeo Scappi if you want.
The internet can be a great friend if you want to learn about authentic Italian food—but often a false one, so be wary. There are a number of wonderful Italian food bloggers who publish in English or in both English and Italian, as well as ‘bi-national’ bloggers who have lived here and there, straddling the cultural borders. For this foray, I might humbly suggest you check out the Links tab on the upper right hand corner of this blog. I have tried to be very careful in presenting you with some of the best and most authentic Italian food bloggers out there.
Perhaps the richest single online source of information on Italian food and Italian food culture I’ve found online is the website of the Accademia Barilla, sponsored by the pasta manufacturing giant. It has lots of recipes, searchable by keyword and browsable by region of origin, but my personally favorite section is the Gastronomic Library, which contains 8,500 virtual cookbooks dating back to the 16th century! I was even able to locate cookbooks by Ippolito Cavalcanti and Vincenzo Corrado, two giants of Neapolitan cookery but whose works I’ve been unable to locate Stateside for love or money.
On the other hand, avoid like the plague the so-called Italian recipes on sites like allrecipes.com—these sites are hot beds of ‘Italian-style’ or just plain fake Italian food, even if some authentic recipes can be found like diamonds cast in the mud.
Other sources are generally less reliable, even when they come in seemingly Italian packaging. Be wary, in particular, of TV personalities. While they surely know better, they often adapt their recipes to appeal to a mass audience, sometimes in highly inauthentic ways. One exception: the genial David Rocco, whose Dolce Vita TV series was a breath of fresh air for TV viewers looking for an authentic experience. When I first saw the show, I was amazed to see, for the first time on US television that I know of, Italian food as it is actually cooked at home in Italy. Of course, it helps that he is living and broadcasting from Italy. [NB:As of 2021, sadly, I’m not sure where you can access this gem of a show.] Still, most food TV shows these days are basically entertainment rather than a learning tool. The fast pacing that contemporary TV imposes doesn’t allow the host to teach or the view to absorb anything much. Gone are the days of Julia Child’s French Chef. At best, TV can only be a complement that helps illustrate for you what you will learn through other media.
But all is not lost. One great boon for Italian food lovers everywhere are the many Italian cooking YouTube channels that have appeared in recent years. One of the best things about this virtual age we’re living in is the ability to reconnect with Italian cooking shows without traveling to Italy which is, as we all known, sadly impossible at the moment. I was a big fan back of the Gambero Rosso channel when I was living in Rome, and missed their cooking shows a lot when I moved to the US. Now I can enjoy them once more! They’re always relaxing and entertaining. And even after forty plus years of studying Italian cookery, I’m still discovering new dishes.
The best of these YouTube channels are in Italian, presented by Italian professional cooks for the benefit of Italian home cooks. But even if you don’t understand Italian, I’d be you’d still learn something just by watching. My favorites include Gambero Rosso, as well as other major channels like the professionally produced Giallo Zafferano and Cookaround. But one rather less well known “homemade” channel that I really enjoy is Mollica’s Street Food, hosted by a feisty and charming Tuscan gal. Other Italian YouTube channels worth checking out include Mimmo Corcione, a musician by trade who presents Neapolitan dishes in the most charming manner imaginable, and Sfizi di Calabria, which as the name implies showcases the cuisine of Calabria.
There are a few English language YouTube channels worth checking out. The ones I really like include the fascinating and popular Pasta Grannies hosted by Vicky Bennison, who visits the homes of Italian nonne from all over Italy who prepare local pastas fatte in casa, and Vincenzo’s plate, hosted by the cheery Vincenzo Prosperi, born in Abruzzo and now based in Sydney.
And of course, for those who can read Italian, or just know how to navigate Google Translate, even broader vistas open up. In this virtual age, you can read countless Italian language food blogs, subscribe to the original language version of La cucina italiana and other food journals and e-cookbooks, as well as recipe sites such as Cucinare Meglio.
But for those who want to take the plunge into these Italian language sources, do bear in mind two things: First, you will need to have mastered the basics of Italian cooking techniques; Italian language recipes assume the reader is Italian who learned the basics at their mother’s knee, so they are often lack detailed instructions or measurements. And, second, when looking at the blogs, do remember that Italian food bloggers are like foodies everywhere; they do like to innovate culinarily with new and foreign cooking techniques, and present their own inventions, so make sure you read their posts carefully. They will usually tell you if the dish they are presenting is a traditional one or one of their own invention. And food magazines like La cucina italiana are also apt to present new dishes meant to make life interesting for their Italian readers who already know the classics by heart.
|Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!|
Some of the Tell-tale Signs of Fake Italian Food
For those who will not have the opportunity to live in Italy, and those who don’t have the time or inclination to study Italian cuisine extensively, there are still some rules of thumb that can help you to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff when choosing recipes or ordering out in restaurants or purchasing Italian food products:
- Name of the Dish or Ingredient. One of the surest ways of telling a fake is by the name. It may sound funny, but if a dish or an ingredient calls itself ‘Italian’, or ‘Italian’-style’ then you can be almost 100% certain that it’s actually not. The so-called Italian salad dressing that comes in a bottle, for example, is about as un-Italian a product as one can imagine. The same goes for ‘Italian-style’ stewed tomatoes and countless other travesties you will find on supermarket shelves. And recipes that call themselves ‘Italian’ immediately give themselves away as fakes, since traditional Italian dishes are regional, not national. And the word ‘authentic’, by the way, is not guarantee of anything. Unfortunately, people seem to have no compunction about using it.
- Number of ingredients: As a general rule, the fewer ingredients in a recipe, the more likely it is to be authentic. If a recipe contains more than, say six or seven ingredients (including salt and pepper) then start to doubt its authenticity; if it has more than ten, then turn the page. Italian food is about bringing out the best of the natural flavor of its main ingredient or ingredients. Normally, that means not piling on different ingredients on top of the other. One of the most common signs that a dish may be faux Italian, for example, is the tendency (very common in Italian-American cooking) to strafare, or over-do, at least in the eyes of Italians. Take, by way of illustration, the dish called Utica Greens from the Italian immigrant communities of upstate New York. This dish is probably a descendant of the ubiquitous southern Italian simply sautéed vegetable dishes like cicoria in padella. While the original is simply boiled greens sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and perhaps with a bit of peperoncino thrown in for heat, its New World cousin adds romano (aka pecorino) cheese, breadcrumbs, prosciutto, cherry peppers and chicken broth… A very American combination of flavors that, while it has its own kitch charms, most native Italians would find sort of gross.
- Use of non-Italian ingredients: There are any number of ingredients in common use in the US and elsewhere that are simply not part of the Italian culinary tradition—and yet you will see them pop up in supposedly ‘Italian’ recipes. Italians, too, are increasingly turning to convenience foods, but, perhaps more than in any other advanced country, they continue to rely heavily on ‘whole foods’ to cook with. If a recipe calls for ingredients like garlic powder or onion powder, you can be sure it’s not authentic. If it calls for any kind of dried herb (except for oregano), I would begin to have serious doubts; dried basil or parsley, for example, is a tell-tale sign of fake Italian cooking, as is so-called ‘Italian seasoning’… whatever that is! And, of course, a recipe that calls for non-Italian foodstuffs like cheddar cheese, jalapeños or cayenne pepper are obviously not Italian, either—even though I’ve seen any number of so-called ‘Italian’ recipes including all these ingredients. (One caveat here: Italians today are experimenting with ‘exotic’ ingredients, just like folks in other countries. But, of course, these are indeed experiments, not traditional cooking.) And, as mentioned above, distrust any recipe that calls for any ‘Italian-style’ canned or prepared product.
- Over-use of ‘trendy’ ingredients: Finally, a bit harder to spot but still important: many fake Italian recipes are characterized by the over-use of certain ‘trendy’ or popular Italian ingredients. No, Italians do not put dried tomatoes in or balsamic vinegar on everything, nor does tomato paste show up in every sauce, nor is every baked savory dish topped with mozzarella.
- Obsession with Chicken and Shrimp. For some reason, there is a surfeit of pseudo-Italian dishes using chicken breasts and shrimp. Don’t ask me why, but it seems to be so. Obviously, Italians do eat chicken breasts, but not as often as Americans seem to think they do. And chicken breast is not a typical substitution for veal. If an Italian wants scallopine but doesn’t want to spend a bundle on veal, s/he will usually use pork loin or turkey instead, not chicken. And I can tell you that I managed to live in Italy for ten years without a bowl of spaghetti and shrimp passing my lips.
- Simplicity and discretion: In general, Italian culinary tradition prizes simple, straight-forward cooking techniques. Long, complex, multi-stepped recipes are very much the exception, although they do exist. Similarly, although Italian food is often known for bold flavors, that is something of a misnomer. Yes, Italian food is tasty, but more often than not, its use of herbs and spices is discrete—and it never overpowers. If a dish calls for multiple cloves of garlic, or spoonfuls of dried oregano or a whole bunch of chopped parsley, beware! Ditto for dishes that call for multiple herbs, especially multiple dried herbs, like dried oregano and dried basil and thyme… (NB: Thyme is rarely used in Italian cooking anyway.)
- Violations of Basic ‘Food Rules’. Italians are notorious rule-breakers, but when it comes to food, they are as filled with civic virtue as any German or Swede. Check out my post on Italian Food Culture and note the various customs mentioned there. If a dish violates one or more of them (if, for example, it calls for mixing cheese with fish, or it pairs a meat or fish dish with pasta as a ‘side dish’) then you can be almost certain it is fake Italian. Of course, there will always be exceptions to every rule, so be open-minded…
- Technique: Italian cooking is grounded in a number of basic techniques that carry over from dish to dish. The preparation of a soffritto, for example, is the starting point for countless sauces, sautés and stews—very few, in fact, don’t start off that way—followed by browning of the main ingredient in the soffritto to take on the flavor of the aromatics, then typically, a splash of wine, which is allowed to evaporate. These techniques lend to Italian cooking it’s characteristic flavors and textures. Learn to execute them correctly and you will learn a lot about the essence of authentic Italian cooking.
Having gone over how to tell fake Italian food when you come across it, in the next and final post in this series, I will cover how to make authentic Italian food at home, even if you don’t live in Italy…