Sofia Della Sala debunks the myths of one “Italian” cuisine.
Italians: they are always late, they are loud, and they move their hands incessantly. My parents are Italian, so growing up with this culture, I can confirm that there is some truth to these stereotypes (they do all stem from somewhere after all!). But there is one stereotype that I think doesn’t do Italians justice: and that is food.
Italy’s food is world-renowned, the upholder of nonna’s traditional recipes, so much so that it was voted the most popular cuisine in the world in a YouGov survey. Everyone can name items on an Italian menu off the top of their head: pizza, pasta, lasagne, risotto…the list goes on. This is what people understandably think of when they imagine “Italian food”. However, I would argue that “Italian food” as many know it doesn’t exist. Italy is a relatively new country – a combination of regions, once completely autonomous. Whilst the people came together (more or less), the food did not. Every region has its own “Italian” menu, all you have to do is hop on a train from Milan to Rome to experience a whole different culinary experience.
Of course, I would be lying if I said that you couldn’t find pizza all over the country. But the type of pizza you find is different. Rome serves a thin, sometimes crispy-based pizza with somewhat experimental toppings and usually served by the slice – big rectangular slices of heaven. In Naples, a mere two and a half hours away, and we are in the birthplace of pizza and it becomes a whole other story. The pizza becomes round, fluffier, probably what you would imagine a pizza to be. Though the pizzas may differ, Italians are united on one thing: pineapples are fruit, not a pizza topping.
Every region in Italy is known for something. On my year abroad in Bologna, one of my friends often made pesto pasta when she couldn’t be bothered to cook. The middle-aged Italian woman she lived with kept teasing her to visit Genova because it’s famous for its pesto. Trofie al pesto is a staple in every trattoria across Liguria (of which Genova is the capital) but it slowly dwindles as we travel away from the Italian Riviera. Comparably but also peculiarly, items of food that are similar – let’s take fried dough for example – not only vary in composition from region to region, but their name changes too, sometimes as soon as you leave a city. You have crescentine in Bologna but 40 minutes away in Ferrara, the name of these airy puffs of deliciousness becomes pinzini. They are called sgabei in Lunigiana, frittelle in Puglia and cozzule in Sicily. Regardless of similarities between these bits of fried dough, locals will still debate whether crescentine are better than pinzini, with everyone fiercely defending their view.
Italians are obsessed with food. Food to Italians is what weather is to the Brits – it consumes conversations and warrants unnecessarily detailed descriptions. Though, this can actually be a good thing when it comes to food, as it means the vast majority of people truly appreciate it. They have sophisticated palates and understand nuanced flavours. Everyone is brought up eating home-cooked meals prepared from scratch and usually with only a few ingredients. Few but good, usually fresh, somewhat local produce. Italian cuisine is only as good as its ingredients because every dish really lets them shine. Italians are proud of their food and they want you to love it too, which I think is arguably one of the best things about Italians’ relationship with food. You enjoy eating because they enjoy making it for you. They want you to tell them that yes, that melanzane alla parmigiana was fantastic: What did I love about it? The sugo. Oh, the sugo, that is my speciality! The tomatoes are grown in my cousin’s brother-in-law’s garden, they are the best. Wow, well tell him his tomatoes are divine. Thank you, I shall! You must try the pasta alla norma next time. OK! You MUST! (laughs nervously). I will. (Smiles, knowingly). It is passion and admiration, sprinkled with a bit of smugness and show-and-tell. People have their local vendors, and restaurants will have their local suppliers, and everyone thinks their products are the best. Food is an event: there is no scoffing a sandwich at your computer in your office cubicle. Lunch breaks are ritual and most have a semblance to a proper sit-down meal. Every day our lab group in Bologna would take a generous hour, go to the canteen and have a two, sometimes three, course meal together. People would purposely not start a task so they could join for lunch, or they would interrupt whatever they were doing to make it along. Food trumped all. Taking your time with food and its preparation is paramount – something that in the productivity age in the UK we forget sometimes. Italians will even factor in a light stroll after dinner, to help “digest”. In fact, Italy is the founder of the so-called “slow food” revolution, which began in 1986 after demonstrations in Rome against the opening of a McDonald’s. The movement strives to defend local recipes and a tranquil pace of life.
A stereotype that Italian food abroad doesn’t carry as much as it should is purity. Italians are purists when it comes to food. Everything has its rules and mio dio (my god) if you dare break them. Cheese doesn’t go on seafood linguine, cappuccinos are not drunk after 11am and cream does not go in a carbonara – at all. It can so far as to become a matter of pride. One chef, at a restaurant my family and I were eating at, unceremoniously sent away two Swedish ladies for asking for some lemon to put over their fritti misto – how dare they cover up the delicate taste of his fried seafood with lemon? Now, I’ll admit it, I quite like some lemon on my fritto misto and a dash of cream when I make carbonara – sue me. As great as it is that traditional recipes are upheld with such rigor and that everyone thinks their nonna makes the best tiramisù, there can be a rigidness that can sometimes be exhausting, but Italians just can’t help themselves. Only last week my dad told the poor girl working at Eusebi Deli that serving an arancino cold was, and I quote, “a cardinal sin” (and whilst I do agree, there is such a thing as reading the room…).
Stereotypes will always be just that: a stereotype. A somewhat exaggerated, over-simplified version of the truth. As much as they are fun and sometimes useful, they can mask the complexity and intricacies of the matter at hand. “Italian food” is a simplification, it doesn’t really exist. In Italy food is different, it is joy, it is life – she says in a non-exaggerated, not over-simplified way, with a loud voice and arms waving incessantly.