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Food culture

Italian Food on Foreign Shores

“What does it mean to go for an ‘Italian’ meal? What is the archetypal criteria? Pizza? Pasta? Mounds of shaved Parmesan?”

My earliest encounter with Italian food was, as for so many foreigners, Spaghetti Bolognese, or as much of the UK calls it, Spag Bol. My mother, despairing about the inevitable question of “what’s for dinner?!” the second she picked me up from school, would all too often revert to her tried and tested dish. The recipe was one she had amalgamated from various recipes torn out from food magazines that she kept in an ever growing pile on the kitchen table. Sometimes carrots would make an appearance. More often than not marmite was added in as a replacement for the intensity of flavour that should come from a long simmering time, and on my end, there was a tendency to add orange juice at the table to turn it into a pie (this was a childhood phase I quickly grew out of, I hasten to add). The recipe was not authentic, by any stretch of the imagination, nor was the dish even a genuinely Italian one. Instead, it was a misnomer: how many times have I heard over the years that the greatest catastrophe of all is that in Bologna, the dish is not served with spaghetti and that the sauce is simply called ragù?

Having missed out on the Italian upbringing that I so often wish I had, the way in which I started to engage with Italian food was a mishmash lost somewhere in cultural and culinary translation. And I know that this will be familiar for many: going out to eat an “Italian meal” meant either pasta or pizza, or dinner at the local chains (in England, Pizza Express or Bella Italia) with dishes like garlic bread, minestrone soup or the requisite quattro formaggi pizza with lashings of gorgonzola. The network of chains that stretched across England meant that there was an abundance of options all offering a similar version of the same dishes and all competing for business. All had adopted the successful method of putting dishes on the menu not for their cultural accuracy, but simply because they sold a vision of Italian food adapted for foreign tastes.

But the homogeneity of these chains’ menus hides a big, underlying question. What does it mean to go for an “Italian” meal? What is the archetypal criteria? Pizza? Pasta? Mounds of shaved Parmesan? The country was only unified in 1861, and the regions of Italy have always developed their own distinct local dishes based on respective heritage, climates and trade links. This feeds (pun intended) into the concept of campanilismo, to which a sense of cultural and culinary pride is intrinsic to an appreciation of an individual’s birthplace and heritage. From the predilection for rice in the wetlands of Emilia-Romagna to the use of soft wheat flour and egg for pasta in Northern Italy (versus the durum wheat and water for pasta further south) to the preference for spices in Sicily (due to its proximity to North Africa and historical Islamic traditions), there is a diversity that cannot simply be translated into “an Italian meal”. Flattening the geography and blurring the boundaries might be likened to boiling everything down into an ultrarich stew in which the sauce is dominated by tomato passata yet there are underlying hints of so many different herbs that it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Understanding this regionalism required, at least for me, time spent eating the local dishes and frequenting the markets to see what is on offer as the seasons change. I remember the first time that this distinction became apparent–on a trip to Emilia Romagna on a freezing cold February morning as part of my Master’s in the Italian Renaissance. My professor, unsurprisingly, was Italian (Roman, to be more exact) and food was king of the field trip, even if art was the name of the game. On the day that we spent in Parma, lunch was requisite for gnocco fritto prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, while in Mantua he fairly marched across the city in order to nab a table at the best place in town for the celebrated dish of tortelli with zucca (pumpkin) and amaretti biscuits for dessert. In the mere hours it took to travel between the two cities by train, it quickly became apparent that these dishes were not so much regional, but tied to a specific city and the environs in which these culinary traditions developed. Over the years, travels all over Italy have made this even more striking. I now understand that it is in Umbria in autumn that I will find the hearty spezzattino di cinghiale (wild boar stew), that in Rome I can have the best carciofi fritti (fried artichokes) and that I must go to Le Marche for my favourite snack Olive Ascolane (fried stuffed olives).

I had a similar conversation recently with my boyfriend who happens to run restaurants and write cookbooks on the regional cuisine of Italy–more specifically Venice and Florence. When we often find ourselves in Venice, we accept that we will live off a diet of carpaccio, baccalà mantecato (creamed salt cod) and sarde in saor (marinated sardines), and make sure we get our quota of these archetypally Venetian recipes. His most recent opening in London, Trattoria Brutto, is Florentine with an American touch, which calls for bistecca alla fiorentina, peposo and penne alla vodka. Yet diners are often surprised that fish dishes are not on the menu, despite the fact that Florence’s 75-mile distance from the sea means that fish was never traditionally part of its cuisine. That being said, perspectives and tastes are thankfully changing across the London scene. There are now restaurants that specialise in food from Puglia or from Sicily, and at Bocca di Lupo, although the menu does not focus on one territory, they list the region of Italy that the dish comes from.

Despite this increasing realisation of the importance of regional authenticity, Italian food seems to always undergo an overseas translation and take on a life of its own within its host’s culture. Nowhere, perhaps, is this best demonstrated than in NYC. The influx of migrants in the late 19th to early 20th century saw Italians establish their own communities in areas from the Seaport to NoLita to the Bronx. And where there is community there is conviviality and a collective search for home through the comfort foods of childhood memory. As the vast majority of immigrants arrived from southern Italy (Calabria, Campana, Sicily), these cultures came to shape the bare bones of the dishes that immigrants used in their new country. Red tomato sauce, meatballs and eggplant were just a few of the ingredients that formed and continue to form the dishes that they would cook and share with their family and friends, to sit down “a tavola” in the deepest areas of Brooklyn or in the heart of Little Italy. As generations passed and Italians became more integrated with “la vita Americana”, so too did the recipes morph to accommodate changing tastes and other cultural traditions, eventually becoming ingrained in American food tradition.

Migration patterns have driven the formation of taste as much as it has culture: the desire for communal dinners in the Sicilian way might be said to have influenced the desire for the shared dinners and large portions that typify Italian restaurants in New York. Take for instance, chicken marsala, the name of which comes from the Sicilian town of Marsala, that evolved from Italian scaloppine. Or the American lasagna which uses ricotta rather than the traditional bechamel sauce.

(A note must be said here on pronunciation and language. It’s wrong in Italian, though fine in English, to say we are going to have a singular panini instead of panino; we want a lasagna, not lasagne; we eat al fresco rather than all’aperto. Perhaps it’s just the fact that grammar gets lost in translation, but it seems an appropriate side note to this reflection on what it is to view the food of the Italian regions from the outside.)

Courtesy by Trattoria Brutto

During the time that I lived in NYC, I drifted from one Italian restaurant to another, partly because my friends were mostly Italian expats and partly because I had a longing to taste the flavours that transported me back to my years spent in Italy. My knowledge of the subway system was founded on a mental map of which Italian spot fitted the evening’s agenda. A lively, Tuscan-inspired meal called for plotting a route to the 4th St. subway stop for I Sodi or Via Carota; a large pizza with friends meant off to Bushwick for Robertas; a craving for superlative pastas required the ride to Williamsburg for Lilia or Misi; and a more subdued affair when my parents were in town was straight to Il Buco via Bleecker St. I can say that I have never learnt a transport system more efficiently. More often than not, I was to be found working my commute around a pitstop in Eataly just off Union Square, either for my morning espresso “al banco” or a post-work spritz. NYC was for me as much about Italy as it was for finding my place as a Brit in the Big Apple.

A note or two on Eataly. A global megabrand that brought Italian food and its nuances to a much wider audience and even more firmly established the peninsula’s palate at the heart of global tastes. Who hasn’t stood in the cheese section overwhelmed by the variety on offer, or perused the pasta aisle(s) simply in awe of the sheer variety available. Spaghetti alla chitarra, capellini, cavatelli… a plethora of pasta options of which I have no idea where they come from or sometimes even how to pronounce them. On more occasions than I can count in my nomadic lifestyle, Eataly has been a haven whenever I feel a pang of desire to return to Italy: whether in Munich, NYC or Paris, I simply drop in to see the food that I am missing and to stock up on the groceries that remind me of the boot.

Even as an expat, I still feel a pang of not-home-homesickness that can only be satisfied by a mouthful of zabaglione or the perfectly unctuous combination of burrata, basil and beef tomatoes. I am not Italian by birth and so my engagement with Italian food is not tied to a family heritage. Yet the regionalism of Italian cuisine provides for particularly location-coded memories. Lemon granita is breakfast taken at Caffe Sicilia in Noto on a languid summer holiday back in 2018. Tuna, radicchio and horseradish sandwiches transport me back to a romantic trip to Venice where they were devoured outside Al Mercà in the heart of the Rialto. Food is a memory not just of taste, but of feeling.

I believe there is something about the conviviality of eating in Italy that we always seek to replicate abroad. This is as much true for the present day as it is for those Italian immigrants to the U.S. who searched for the means to recreate the feelings of their homeland. How can we copy, or rival, that ability to walk in somewhere and instantly leave feeling like part of a larger family? With invites for a NYE party or Ferragosto celebrations or to return years later and be greeted like an old friend? To frequent restaurants in Italy is to leave with a smile on one’s face and warmth in the soul. The search when abroad is to find places that have a comparable atmosphere, though putting a finger on what exactly and tangibly creates it is quite hard. Sometimes this feeling arrives completely unexpectedly, as for me in Munich where Bar Centrale became a home away from home for a morning tiramisu. Or in London at Ciao Bella where I have spent more raucous evenings with Italian friends than I care to remember.

Getting a handle on the diversity of Italian culinary traditions, especially abroad, is no mean feat, but with a little bit of exploration–whether in Italy, London or NYC–you can start to uncover the iceberg. I am under no illusion that I will ever be able to name the top three dishes of Piedmont nor know where cacciucco comes from without having to ask an Italian friend. But when the plates are cleaned and the napkins thrown onto the table in satisfaction, all that matters is that the food is true to its roots and its tradition. To eat Italian food abroad, from whichever part of Italy the dish comes from, is to be transported to that specific place. It’s a feeling you simply cannot beat.

Courtesy of Via Carota

Courtesy of I Sodi