Respect for Food in Italy
Who doesn’t love Italian food? Within the US, this cuisine has gained immense popularity, with the Italian restaurant industry being valued at 74 billion dollars in 2021 alone. But what is Italian food? Is it the chicken alfredo, pineapple pizza, and shrimp scampi that we often see on American-Italian restaurant menus? Or something else altogether?
Being a culinary student in Italy, I often hear shock and disgust at what many Americans call “Italian food”.
“Do not even mention ananas on pizza.”
“Chicken alfredo does not exist.”
“Chicken parmesan is yours, it’s not Italian.”
(these are all direct quotes from my Italian chefs.)
So, how did this disparity come about? How do we have two very different cuisines carrying the same name? To start, much of Italian-American cuisine was birthed by the large influx of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States in the early twentieth century. Their traditions, mixed with a new location, new ingredients, and years of passing down “Nonna’s recipe” have made for a unique diasporic cuisine, with only loose connections to Italy itself. This is furthered by the cultural disparity between these two locations, with Italy’s culture emphasizing slow food in response to America’s fast food society (read more about The Power of Slow Food here).
What’s the Catch?
Moving from the US to Italy for culinary school, I have spent much time discerning what makes the cuisine in Italy so different from its American namesake. In doing so, the primary word that comes to mind is respect. Italian cuisine is based on respect for ingredients, respect for the season, respect for tradition, respect for history, and respect for the family.
Respect for ingredients can be seen in many of Italy’s most famous dishes. Dishes such as Pasta Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, Tagliata, or Pappa al Pomodoro are quite simple on the surface. Yet, having only four or five ingredients, these plates are perfectly balanced. Not a single ingredient is added mindlessly but everything has a purpose in the final result. It is by having a true and intimate knowledge of each ingredient that Italian chefs create such humble masterpieces. Even with fewer ingredients, there is still all that is needed to satisfy the appetite and the palate.
Hand in hand with respect for ingredients is respect for season. Italy is central for the popular “Mediterranean diet” which is based in eating according to the season. Growing up in our modern and globalized world, this may be a foreign concept to many modern consumers. Many only know a world where any ingredient can be purchased at any time of year. Do you want blackberries in January? Or oranges in July? You can have it, no matter your location. While globalization has reached Italian grocery stores as well, many still shop mainly at open markets with produce, meat, and cheese that is fresh and local. This simple fact improves the quality and taste of the final product by immeasurable lengths.
Tradition and History
Respect for tradition and history is the characteristic of Italian cuisine that is perhaps most familiar to the world at large. While Italy has only been unified as the country we see today since the nineteenth century, the history of this region goes back far and deep. Italy is divided into twenty regions, each with unique dishes that characterize that area. This is why some Italians may tell you that “Italian cuisine” does not even exist! In Roma, you get Lazian carbonara. In Florence, you get Tuscan Schiacciata. In Liguria, you get Pesto alla Genovese. Similar to the locality of ingredients, Italian traditions are localized as well, promoting regional culinary pride.
Many of these regional dishes and techniques date back centuries and are have earned the respect they receive. We see this well in the Roman classic: Cacio e Pepe. This dish, like so many, is rooted not in the rich but in the poor. Shepherds in ancient Rome needed sustenance during the longer journeys between pastures. Pasta and Pecorino cheese are both dry ingredients and could last the journey without spoiling. Likewise, pasta is a highly caloric food, providing good nourishment for the journey. The pepper is added to the dish not only for flavor, but because pepper stimulates the body’s heat receptors, aiding the shepherds with the cold nights they might experience. By preserving these dishes and the stories that accompany them, history is kept alive from ancient times to new generations.
Italian food traditions are not only a thing of the past but are continued today in Italy’s respect for the family. Unlike the US, in Italian culture, eating dinner together as a family is a pivotal part of the day. Dinner is typically consumed at a later time (around 8 or 9pm) ensure the whole family can join after school and work. It is also long and drawn out, with full enjoyment of the food and the company. La Cena is sacred and an unchangeable pillar of society. Eating together is about spending time together, but this simple act allows traditions, recipes, memories, and flavors to be passed from grandparents to parents and parents to children, extending them for centuries.
“A tavola non s’invecchia”
“A tavola non s’invecchia!” At the table, one does not grow old!
We all can recall an instance where a meal around a table left time suspended. This Italian proverb captures the truth that time stops with good food and the presence of those we love. Food in Italy is important. Food is important anywhere; in shaping culture, society, and family. As I live and learn here in Italy, I hope to gain a more well-rounded perspective on what makes this cuisine so unique, beautiful, and delicious. And through gaining this perspective, I hope to grow in my own respect for ingredients, season, tradition, history, and the family.
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