Thin-crusted, chewy pizza is one of New York’s signature foods, just as deep-dish pizzas define Chicago, and eclectic, gourmet pizza toppings are emblematic of Californian cuisine. In Buenos Aires, ñoquis (gnocchi) and milanesas (breaded veal cutlets) are considered comfort foods, while deep-fried polenta is a fast-food favourite in Sao Paolo. And everyone knows how seriously Seattle takes its lattes.
The question is, do any of the above represent “Italian food?” What makes these more Italian than, say, SpaghettiOs, the Big Mac and filter coffee, all of which were invented by Italians or their descendants?
Italy’s greatest export, following its people, has always been its phenomenal cuisine. Consider that almost every city around the world has at least one pizzeria, a restaurant serving pasta, and increasingly, an espresso bar – often in the absence of any owners or patrons of Italian origin.
But very few of these places or their menu items would be recognizable to actual Italians. Every
Montrealer knows that an all-dressed pizza is topped with tomato sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella, green bell peppers and sliced mushrooms.
The same order would look completely different in, say, Hamilton, but asking for a “tutto guarnito” would only draw blank stares in Naples or Rome, where pepperoni means bell peppers. Ditto for other “classics” that are actually unknown in Italy, including spaghetti and meatballs, chicken
Parmesan and fettuccine primavera, besides many other, more inventive bastardizations. Take Italian poutine, please: a marriage of French fries, fresh cheese curds and ragu Bolognese that would be better off divorced.
“I hate to sound like a purist, but Americanization of Italian food is really just that – an American dish with a more appealing Italian name!” says Elena Benelli, a professor of Italian literature at Montreal’s Concordia University, who knows a thing or two about food (and who happened to be visiting the country of her birth at the time of this interview).
For her, any discourse over culinary purity – Is it really Italian? – takes a back seat to Is it healthy? “The Italian diet is a Mediterranean diet, built on simple, but extremely healthful ingredients. Deep dish pizza is not,” says Benelli, noting that Italian communities abroad and the wider populations they belong to should take this into consideration when devising Italian- inspired recipes.
Roberto Loggia, chef-owner of Primo Secondo, in Montreal, feels that Italian-Canadians are too set in old, and in some cases, outdated dietary ways. “There’s more willingness to try exotic foods like tuna sushi than tuna carpaccio,” he says, referring to the Italian preparation for raw fish. “We almost need to rediscover our own cuisine.”
His restaurant is just one of many Italian restaurants near the Jean- Talon market – the city’s largest, and once an Italian-dominated centre for fresh produce – but it is the only one that bases its daily menu on market-fresh ingredients. The concept seems avant-garde, but it is as traditional as they come. Still, his patrons – only about five to 10 percent of whom are Italian-Canadian – consider Primo Secondo a modern restaurant. “The clients who really ‘get it’ are usually non-Italians who have travelled around Italy and have eaten at the better restaurants,” he says.
Unlike the average Italian restaurant, Primo Secondo serves root and winter vegetable dishes – mostly northern Italian fare – in cold weather months, switching to southern dishes as the temperature, and the local harvest, increases.
“Fruits and vegetables here can be very good, but they’re nothing like what you find in Italy. You need to adapt recipes to make them work,” says Loggia, although he argues that North American meat is actually superior to what you find in Europe. “We import things like olive oil and balsamic vinegar that you can’t find here. But a lot, maybe the majority, of Italian pasta uses Canadian flour, which is what we use for fresh pasta. To me, that makes it just as good or better than what you’d find in Europe,” he says.
Nonetheless, Loggia considers the food prepared and consumed in Italy as the “authentic” ideal, though he concedes that there are plenty of lousy eateries littering Italy’s tourist overrun landscape. In fact, he figures that some of the best Italian dishes he’s ever had were at places like Mario Batali’s Babbo, in New York.
“All the Italian visitors that I’ve hosted have loved the [Italian] food here,” says Stefano Faita, a restaurateur, TV chef and owner of kitchen and gourmet food supply shop Quincaillerie Dante, in Montreal’s Little Italy. “I’ve eaten better Italian food in Montreal than in some cities in Italy!”
Deciding where the mantle of authenticity should ultimately rest is complicated by the new culinary influences that are being felt in Italy proper. The country is notorious for having the lowest birth rate in the industrialized world, so accepting outsiders – and, like it or not, their dietary preferences – will be key to keeping population growth stable. If enough Italians began eating shawarma pizza or ravioli vindaloo, would these be considered Italian foods?
“I would say definitely not real, authentic Italian foods, but you have to keep an open mind to change,”
says Faita, adding that “Food must evolve sometimes.” Chef Loggia agrees that preserving traditional recipes is important, but for Italian food to avoid becoming a caricature of itself, he urges Italians and italophiles alike to try new things. “I don’t want to be cooking the same veal scaloppini pizzaiola until I retire. If I decide to do a ‘lamb tongue in cheek’ dish, I hope clients will give it a try, at least to humour me,” he says.
On a long enough time line, Italians have always managed to appropriate foreign ingredients and preparations as their own (see next page), so the change may be more subtle. But even if the gastronomic impact is somehow mitigated, there’s also the issue of the impending loss of a larger, more rural and diverse babyboomer generation to a smaller, more urban and homogenized young generation of Italians. This will likely spell the end of certain traditions, from regional dialects to regional dishes. It will also likely mean the beginning of new traditions we can scarcely imagine.
Giancarlo La Giorgia is the author of the bestselling book Canadian War Heroes: Ten Profiles in Courage (2005). He has written on a variety of topics, including architecture, design, food, travel, health, science and popular culture.