Last summer, I went on vacation to Capri. I kind of got dragged in there. I have an aversion to hyper-touristy places where the restaurants are mainly aimed at tourist palates. I was there with my boyfriend and his family. I remember asking waiters and front desk staff for recommendations on traditional Caprese cuisine – anything beyond the infamous “salad”. We were seated at an upscale restaurant and I was advised to try the torta caprese. Little did I know that my decision to try the rich hazelnut cake was about to spark a cultural feud for the rest of the evening.
Right after the waiter suggested I try it, he clarified that people in Capri didn’t particularly like it themselves: “It’s heavy, it’s more popular in Naples.” It is always the Neapolitans who command it. My boyfriend’s stepdad stepped in, better avoid him and order the rum baba, another Neapolitan delicacy. Here’s the thing: rum baba – Where rum baba – and I have a loaded history. I am French. I grew up on a Southern and Mediterranean diet which may be different from the expected classic foods (pancakes, butter, steak, etc.). rum baba is certainly not Neapolitan, he is originally from Lorraine, in the south-east of France. Legend has it that the exiled Polish king was actually the one who imported it – hence the name, baba a diminutive of Babka, grandmother.
When my palate in the south of France first tried it, I was in for a shock. I wasn’t culturally connected to it, it was completely foreign. Still, it was part of my extended legacy. Years later, I discovered that my Neapolitan relatives also claimed it in their cultural and gastronomic landscape, the Proustian madeleine of their childhood. Baba was introduced to southern Italy in the 19th century by the monsu — chefs trained in France and having worked in the kitchens of wealthy families in Naples. Here we are. A dessert, a recipe that everyone claims as their own. Isn’t that how it often happens?
I started wondering what makes a dish truly Italian? When I told my boyfriend’s family they were wrong, they were shocked too. Something they believed to have been part of their southern Italian heritage all along had just been stolen from them. My boyfriend’s father-in-law ended up ordering a “French baba‘ very bitterly. “Italian food is still the best in the world, I’m sure of that,” he added, giving me a dark look. To date, they are not above the baba incident. As ingredients, recipes and products are fluid entities, through historical changes or political decisions, one can wonder if a kitchen really exceeds these parameters. Tomatoes are an integral part of Italian culture, but they are not indigenous to the country. Ultimately, Italian identity and the cuisine attached to it might be more about heritage than anything else. Legacy goes beyond culture, traditions and family. It can also be acquired or taught. It’s the delicate balance between education and culture. All our humanity is present between these two ideas.
Popularity rooted in history and immigration
As a Frenchman, I never eat French food outside of France. French cuisine is associated with high-end restaurants around the world and popular dishes on menus: escargots, steak and fries are dishes we have never eaten or tried. Italian cuisine, for Italians, is similar. Spaghetti and meatballs, which are considered classic Italian cuisine and found in Alaska or Bamako, are not eaten together by Italians. Pizza is next on the list – no offense to Chicagoans, but deep crust pizza is where we have to draw the line. If you’ve been lucky enough to travel to Italy or have lived in the country, chances are you’d think twice before ordering a $27 cacio and pepe in New York or eat Pizza Hut. It’s just not the same thing. You could say it’s just fine dining in general, after all that also applies to sushi or jerk chicken.
However, according to a study by an economist from the University of Minnesota, the most exported cuisine in the world is Italian cuisine. China and Japan are in second place. Depending on the restaurant, the products may or may not be imported, thus potentially contributing directly to the Italian economy. What may surprise some people is that Italy is not even in the top 5 countries with the most Michelin star restaurants. When we think of the world famous chef, we think of French names like Alain Ducasse or British names like Jamie Oliver. Because the quality of Italian cuisine is irrelevant to restaurant trends, marketing and fame.
Anywhere in the country, chances are you’re eating well. Due to the different waves of Italian immigration around the world, a small percentage of dishes (pizza, lasagna, pasta and some pastries) have become known to almost everyone on the planet. They then mutated and adapted to subcultures such as Italian-American palaces. The reason is that the recipes are easy to pass down from generation to generation. The pizza is over 200 years old. It may be done differently from region to region in Italy and internationally, but it is a global symbol.
When I lived in Bamako, Mali, I used to go out of my way to visit my friend’s pizzeria. At that time it was the only one in the capital. It is also scientifically proven that carbohydrates help our brain to release serotonin, in other words contribute to our happiness. You might not eat the most authentic pizza all the time, but chances are you’ll still be pretty satisfied afterwards. This coupled with simple flavors and some of the best products on the planet, we have a winning combination.
Italian cuisine is one of the best in the world because it is self-sufficient on many levels: over time it continues to be good. It is very difficult to ruin a pasta dish. Italian cuisine can be both elaborate and simple. When you dig deeper and focus on regional gastronomy, a whole new world opens up. It’s also the best in the world because of that – there really is an endless amount of possibilities. Mozzarella from Lazio or Campania are worlds apart.
A well-preserved ritual
An Italian meal is a ritual. Forget the pizza and a huge plate of pasta, let’s focus on the mechanics of everyday life: first, second, outline, sparkling or mineral water. No cappuccino after 11am. Something sweet like a pastry for breakfast. There are so many rules. I thought we had rules in France: an aperitif (mandatory daily ritual if you come from the south), baguette, a main course with a minimum of carbohydrates and a little protein, a simple green salad with vinaigrette (the dressing should be in a little bowl on the side, very important), cheese and something sweet like fruit (must be done in that order or you risk getting sick instantly).
But Italian meals are on another level, nobody talks about the rules. Rules are part of everyone’s identity. They actually make sense and are rooted in either an intent to preserve flavor (like adding pasta water to your sauce) or health benefits (after-lunch cappuccino ruins your digestion). People all over the world are confused by the fact that Italians have low cholesterol, risk of obesity, etc. in addition to eating carbs daily.
Portion control is part of the ritual: a first maybe pasta but only 250 grams, and a second could be fish (proteins and healthy fats). In these unspoken rules lies the greatest satisfaction. There’s no better feeling than eating a plate of fresh pasta and vongola then bathe in the sea (although you have to wait an hour before bathing to digest or also risk falling ill instantly – something the French also respect).
There are many cuisines around the world that are just as ritualistic, after all, the Japanese tea ceremony is ancestral and has no equivalent in the world. However, dishes centered on these rituals may take longer to prepare. Personally, I love Persian cuisine and find that it follows the same pattern as Italian cuisine, although the flavors are very different. Take ghormeh sabzia delicious herbal stew considered Iran’s national dish, it takes an average of six hours to prepare.
While it’s true that making homemade pasta can take a while, at the end of the day just about everyone has time to make a quick lasagna. This is another reason why Italian cuisine has exported so well – forget the rules, even with minimal culinary experience, it’s easily accessible.
Learn Italian traditions
For us to say yes, Italian food is perhaps the best in the world, is definitely Western-centric and there is plenty of room for debate. Popularity is rooted in privilege, and like anything that has been exported or is simply known globally, colonization and oppression could be behind it. However, some elements relate to Italy’s unique culinary profile. Agriculture, unlike other nations, is very present and allows Italians to regularly consume fresh local products, cheeses or wine. This may not be the case for other cultures and countries.
Italians can certainly be proud of their culinary heritage and its prestige. Old traditions deserved to be fought and preserved (perhaps you have already heard of the olive oil scandal). We need Protected Designations of Origin and other institutions to protect Parmigiano or San Marzano tomatoes and to expand Italian cuisine internationally. However, it should not be forgotten that within traditions and ancestral knowledge, there is room for innovation and diversity of voices. Italian society is changing, for the better, and its heritage must change with it.