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Italy’s Greatest Food Debates

The Heart Rate-Raising, Blood-Pumping Gastronomic Controversies That Italians Will Never Agree On

“Talking about food over food is basically a national pastime and just an expression of our conviviality.”

There are a lot of things Italians love to debate about. Soccer, of course. Politics (quite the touchy subject, especially these days). Where to find the best deals for anything from groceries to light bulbs. 

The greatest debate of all, though, is undoubtedly about food. Sit at any lunch or dinner table across the Bel Paese with more than two people, and you’ll likely witness heated discussions concerning what we eat. These might include: face-offs on the best way of making almost any dish; polls on which restaurant has the best pizza in a certain neighbourhood; pontifications about why a specific recipe is better in one region than another; and lengthy disputes on who invented what where. 

Whatever the topic, nobody ever seems to reach an agreement. But that doesn’t really matter: talking about food over food is basically a national pastime and just an expression of our conviviality

To help you offer your two cents next time you’re at a culinary roundtable all’Italiana, we’ve rounded up some pretty divisive gastronomic controversies you should be aware of. Take note, and pick a side if you dare.

The Pastry Name: Brioche vs Cornetto

The Milanese call it brioche. Neapolitans call it cornetto. Enter the great divide on the proper name for Italy’s most beloved breakfast staple: the crescent moon-shaped pastry everyone and their mums order with caffe or cappuccino al bar to start their mornings across the country. 

First things first: from a technical baking standpoint, calling it brioche is just an improper use of the term, which, however, is widespread in northern Italy (this statement might cause some complaints, but we’re ready for them). 

Real brioche is different from the cornetto, and neither of them is a croissant. 

Brioche is a round leavened cake prepared with butter, flour, sugar, eggs, yeast, water and lard. It can be filled with jam or chocolate, and should feature a ball of dough on its top (like the Sicilian brioche that’s served with granita). 

A cornetto is a variation of the Austrian dessert kipferl that arrived in Italy in 1683 and was widely adopted around the Bel Paese thanks to Venetian pastry chefs (the Republic of Venice had close commercial relations with Vienna at the time, which explains the arrival of kipferl in Italy by way of La Serenissima). The croissant is a later adaptation of the kipferl–it first appeared in Paris’s Boulangerie Viennoise in 1838–that doesn’t include eggs, unlike the cornetto.

But you don’t really need to remember any of this. All you need to know is that asking for a brioche in any northern Italian city is the right protocol to get you a cornetto.

One more difference to note: while Milan and the rest of the north tend to eat brioche only early in the morning and it’s rare to find bakeries selling the pastry past 6pm, in the south a cornetto is a very acceptable “snack” to have at midnight (or later), after a night out–best if eaten straight out of the oven.

The Vowel Rivalry: Arancino vs Arancina 

Pretty much every city in Sicily will say it invented the arancin*–a classic street food of rice balls filled with a variety of ingredients and fried. But it’s on its name (again) that the dispute is particularly heated. 

The western side of the island–Palermo and the surrounding region–tends to use the term “arancina” (feminine) and prefers the classic fried snack in the form of a pretty pudgy ball. In the eastern part–Catania and its surroundings–it’s “arancino” (masculine) and features a pointed shape some say is inspired by the volcano Etna.

The Accademia della Crusca–one of the most important research institutions of the Italian language–tried to solve the diatribe once and for all in 2016, stating that, as the food resembles an orange in its shape, its correct name would be arancina. But, critics argued, in Sicilian dialect, the orange fruit is called “aranciu” (masculine), so the most correct name would be arancino, as arancin* is most probably named for its resemblance to the fruit.

And so the controversy continues: both names are correct, and the split vowel continues to be a point of pride for both sides of the island.

A Dish of Two Cities: Tortellini in Modena vs Bologna

One of the biggest “who invented what” questions of our time, the origins of tortellini is a highly contentious topic in Italy, especially in Emilia-Romagna. Both Bologna and Modena claim to be the birthplace of the fresh stuffed pasta–which first appeared in the 12th century–and firmly believe their respective versions to be the best.

Modena asserts that tortellini were created after a local innkeeper sneaked a peek through her door’s keyhole and spotted the navel of Renaissance beauty and noblewoman Lucrezia Borgia. The Bolognesi, wanting to outdo their nearby town–with which they’ve had a rivalry since ancient times–touts that tortellini are their local invention, modelled after the navel of Venus, the goddess of love.

But the differences go beyond the genesis: deriving etymologically from the diminutive form of tortello, itself a diminutive of torta (which, depending on how the “o” is pronounced, could either mean “cake”/”pie” or “wrapped around itself”), the pasta is called turtléin in the local Modenese dialect, while in Bologna it is referred to as turtlén

And that’s just the beginning. Filling-wise, the tortellino Modenese allows the use of veal, while the Bolognese one admits nothing but pork loin. While the former can be browned in butter to remove any residual blood, the latter is traditionally raw and should not be made any other way. Even how they are made and shaped varies: in Bologna, tortellini are folded around the pinky, while in Modena they are folded around the tip of the index finger. 

Had enough already? Count yourself lucky we didn’t mention the diverging opinions on the broth.

The Big Carbs Discussion: Piadina vs Crescia 

Piadina and crescia–flatbreads stuffed with anything from cold cuts to cheese–are like two siblings who grew up together but whose lives couldn’t have turned out more differently. The first is basically an A-lister–a celebrity known throughout the world and one of Emilia-Romagna’s most typical products. The second, from Marche, is an indie kid who never really cared for fame. Yet, essentially, the two share the same goal: to fill you up in the most mouth-watering, satisfying of ways. 

The debate around the flatbreads isn’t so much about which one is more authentic or popular around Italy (in the latter category, piadina has no competition), but on which one tastes better.

The ingredients for piadina are lard, flour, salt and water (in some cases even milk), while the crescia is enriched with pepper and eggs, although the “crescia sfogliata di Urbino” (also called “crostolo”) is actually closer to Rimini’s “piadina sfogliata” as it forgoes these enhancements. While piadina is very thin, crescia is usually more puffed up.

Most gastronomes from the Marche region consider the Urbino crescia to be the most ancient recipe among the two, though both actually seem to have originated around the same period (the 14th-15th century), which of course further compounds the discussion around Italy’s big flatbread face-offs. 

Regardless, they’re both absolutely delicious. You can be the judge of which you prefer.

The Style Split: Roman Pizza vs Neapolitan Pizza

Favouring thin crust Roman pizza over the round edge pie that is Neapolitan pizza–or the other way round–isn’t just a matter of preference in Italy. It’s a stance, a personal statement, a way of living. 

The differences in the two styles stem mainly from their ingredients and preparation method: in Naples, the dough is made with flour, yeast, water and salt; in Rome, olive oil is added into the mix, which means pizzaioli can stretch the dough to be thinner. If the Roman pizza needs slow cooking in the wood oven, the Neapolitan one is ready in mere minutes. 

As a result, the first one is thin and crunchy; the second soft and fluffy.

Stating which one is better is an impossible feat for most except Italians: from North to South, everyone has a strong opinion on which one is the pizza to go for (never invite two friends from opposing sides to a pizza dinner) and will defend that preference until the bitter end. 

 

A disclaimer for the future: similar debates extend, but are not limited to, panettone and pandoro (there’s always a team for each), cassata napoletana and siciliana, focaccia genovese and focaccia barese.