Five authoritative voices have come together to address the issue of Italian cuisine in the US and how much has remained authentic. They explain their views on what it means to preserve the value of authentic Italian cuisine and if it still exists in the States. Italian Table Talks focuses on precisely this theme. A series of seminars organized by Gruppo Italiano with prominent ambassadors of the culinary industry are invited to talk about a specific subject or issues January 27, 2020 at the Sva Theatre (“Is Italian Cuisine lost in translation?“).
Gianfranco Sorrentino, Mitchell Davis, Fabio Parasecoli, Lisa Sasson and Jordan Frosolone are on board to answer these tasteful questions.
Food plays an important role in Italian everyday life. It is also an expression of traditions, habits and taste. What lies behind the history of Italian cuisine?
GIANFRANCO SORRENTINO: We need to understand that when we talk about Italian Cuisine in Italy, we should talk about regional— incredibly fresh, delicious and healthy products mainly from that region. In the US, the meaning of Italian Cuisine is more associated with the country represented, and often authentic involves a few concepts such as, real dishes from that country, real ingredients from that country and a chef preferably from that country.
MITCHELL DAVIS: The history of Italian cuisine—like the history of all long-standing culinary traditions—is rooted in geography and agriculture. It is influenced by social and political forces that have brought new ingredients and technologies to the kitchen over time. Everyone has to eat, more than once a day, if fortunate enough to have regular access to wholesome food. This is not unique to Italy or Italians, though they have certainly put a lot of focus on this daily act. But as climates change, as politics change, one wonders about the impact on how we eat, and how we use food to shape our identities.
FABIO PARASECOLI: The variety of food in Italy depends very much on the history of the Mediterranean. Waves after waves of peoples passed through or settled in Italy: Phoenicians, Greeks, Germanic tribes, Arabs, French, Spaniards, Austrians… Food traditions in Italy were globalized from time immemorial. The very idea of Italian food is recent since Italy as a country only dates back to the second half of the 19th century. The first cookbook that embraced the idea of Italian food (and made an effort to push back against French influences) was “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene”(Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) by Pellegrino Artusi, published in 1891. That is the reason why the subtitle of my book “Al Dente” is “A history of food in Italy” rather than “A history of Italian food.” Also, many foods that Italians now consider as theirs were local or regional until the beginning of the economic boom in the late 1950s, when they become industrial products that could be distributed nationally: panettone is a good example.
LISA SASSON: Although most people associate Italian food with pasta and pizza, Italian cuisine has a rich history. Many of the foods associated with Italian cuisine come from eggplant, tomato, corn—ingredients that came from the New World. The landscape (sea, mountains) and the peoples who conquered the land from antiquity—Etruscans, Romans, and Greeks etc.—influenced the diet. The concept of Italian cuisine is recent.
JORDAN FROSOLONE: Given the scope, magnitude and diversity of Italian cooking it is hard for me to pinpoint one particular that lies behind the history of the cuisine of Italy. With such rich cultural histories in all provinces and all regions; these unique cultures have ultimately had a profound influence on what we now call Italian cuisine.
Italian cuisine shines triumphant among Westerners, so much so that it has seeped into culinary traditions throughout the world. What makes it so different from the others? And from a social point of view, what differentiates it?
GIANFRANCO SORRENTINO: First of all the simplicity of ingredients, and the pure quality of Italian products that are safe, healthy, nutritious, and sustainable. Then certainly the distinct variety of regional dishes, and the history behind the recipes, passed down from generation to generation. At the same time, the tables—a community feeling—makes eating Italian food an experience beyond food… a unique social occasion.
MITCHELL DAVIS: I’m not sure I support such breast-beating. But certainly, Italian cuisine has mass appeal—as do hamburgers. For the most part, Italian food is relatively simple, approachable, frugal, and to some extent, domestic in nature—meaning that you can eat as well at home as you can in restaurants (often better). That makes it easy to pass along. Of course, as is often the case, the nuances and subtleties of the cuisine are lost in the transmission and translation into other cultures. Some things spread while others don’t. Everything evolves. But for number of years the essence of Italian cuisine has remained broadly appealing.
FABIO PARASECOLI: I do not think that Italy’s cuisines have some intrinsic quality that makes them inherently better than others. As a matter of fact, until World War II those cuisines did not enjoy much prestige. They were associated with immigrant communities that were often not at the top of the social pyramid. However, it is precisely the presence of migrants from Italy that made their food visible worldwide. When jets facilitated easier travel, Italy became a tourist mecca, opening the doors to many foreigners to experience its culinary traditions in their places of origin. Then in the 1980s, the Mediterranean Diet buzz also helped make Italy’s cuisines popular. Many of those traditions reflected the principles of the Mediterranean Diet (unfortunately now this way of eating is in crisis due to the shift towards increased meat, dairy, and sugar consumption). Last but not least, it is the variety of cuisines in Italy, ingredients, recipes, and traditions that makes them very interesting.
LISA SASSON: Many factors contribute to the popularity of Italian cuisine. It started to gain popularity when Italians (mainly from southern Italy) migrated to the US. Immigrants exposed Americans to pizza, pasta dishes, soups, etc. Everything was cheaper and more abundant in US, so the traditional dishes such as pasta con ragu were translated to meatballs and spaghetti. The ingredients, for the most part were not expensive—pasta, dough, cheese, sauce, etc. The quality of the ingredients (at least in the US during the 1900s) was not same as what was used in Italy—for example—olive oil, cheese, and pasta. Nonetheless, it appealed to the American palate. The Italian cuisine is highly palatable, and based on simple recipes. It was also, in general inexperience. In the 1980’s when the Mediterranean Diet became focus of research as it related to health, decreased heart disease longevity there was even more focus on the Italian cuisine. Now the focus was more on quality of products—olive oil, purported health benefits of red wine. Unlike the French cuisine, the Italian cuisine focuses on a few ingredients- no need for fatty sauces, deep frying etc. The abundance of vegetables, olive oil, few animal products, beans, etc., also made the Italian Mediterranean cuisine a very healthy diet. There are many healthy cuisines surrounding the Mediterranean but no one marketed the Italian cuisine better than Italy! For most consumers, so-called Made in Italy—from fashion to cars—is synonymous with quality! Lastly, with the popularity of travel to Italy, even culinary tourism has made Italian cuisine one of the main reasons to travel to Italy.
JORDAN FROSOLONE: Italian food is different in the sense that it is quite approachable, recognizable and simple in its preparation. From a social point of view, the food is a food for all people of all classes…humble and enriching.
On the way to America, Italian cuisine was the subject of reinventions that resulted in dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, and pepperoni pizza. Is it a return to the dishes or an adaptation due to the lack of proper Italian ingredients?
GIANFRANCO SORRENTINO: Italian-American cuisine was created by immigrants, using local products. Therefore, it was an adaptation according to their knowledge of regional cuisine and the products they could find here. This is quite natural for Italian cuisine that is dynamic and not static, but the new dishes or reinterpretation of classic recipes have to respect tradition, culture, History and products. I feel that in US there is an innate inclination to experiment with recipes. American chefs that cook Italian do not try to return to traditional dishes, but they want to take their personal and cultural perspectives and create new, deliciously entertaining dishes, also because restaurants and menus are very competitive, especially in New York. My suggestion to American chefs is to always choose Italian products.
MITCHELL DAVIS: Despite how hard some folks wish it were so, there are no underpinning rules of cooking—or of any cultural art form. History is an act of creation of the present, not the past. Like language, cultural norms change with time, with context, with environment. As much as I love to eat what are considered to be traditional Italian foods in Italy at this moment in time, I think the game “spot the inauthenticity” of Italian food outside of Italy is a frivolous entertainment, a waste of time. It’s stifling to try to keep anything frozen in a place. And it does little to recognize the ever-changing realities of politics, social norms, even climates. More important, I believe the spirit of Italian cooking can be applied wherever and with whatever is available to cook. I think more of a focus on an Italian way of cooking versus copying traditional Italian dishes will guarantee that Italian “cuisine” survives.
FABIO PARASECOLI: It is very difficult for migrant communities to maintain food traditions in a new land: the context is different, the available ingredients are different, their communities’ own priorities change. For many Italians who were used to a very meager, almost meatless diet, being in places like the US, Brazil or Argentina meant having much greater access to affordable meat. Why not add it to their dishes? Also, communities from different parts of Italy happened to live in the same neighborhood, creating hybridizations among different local traditions. When Italians started opening restaurants, they had to create a culinary language that was understandable to their clients, wherever they were, and that brought about more changes. Festive dishes became part of everyday menus.
LISA SASSON: These dishes became more Americanized—again due to the abundance of food, cheaper prices for food in US—everything in America is bigger. Even meatballs.
The historical Mediterranean diet was a peasant diet—simplicity and availability. Italians were also influenced by the other communities in America.
JORDAN FROSOLONE: I think this was the result of the ingredients available and also to the changed tastes, as well as the existing culture in the United States.
Has culinary memory survived throughout the change from Italian cuisine to Italian-American? Was it the emigrants’ determination to restore tradition?
GIANFRANCO SORRENTINO: Yes, I believe culinary memory—as you call it—has survived, but those dedicated to passing along to the next generation are shrinking. There are fewer and fewer Italian chefs and owners instructing, training new chefs to authentic Italian food. That is why education is so important and along with the activity of groups like Gruppo Italiano (GI) who are devoted to educating professionals about food preparation and hospitality, and to educating the general public about quality Italian products. Italian cuisine’s survival depends on these dedicated educational efforts specifically focused on Italian cuisine. Culinary schools nowadays teach chefs to be generalists who know a little about all different kinds of cuisine while we need Italian specific chefs.
MITCHELL DAVIS: My understanding is that many of the immigrants who came to the US had more memories of hunger than they had of food. So whether the foods they were able to cook here in America were intended to invoke culinary antecedents back home or create new traditions for new lives lived here with access to new ingredients and exposure to new culinary traditions of neighbors we may never know. Regardless, Italian American food has certainly evolved into an essential part of American food culture. (Just as Japanese Italian food has become an essential part of Japanese food culture.) I do not believe that you need to have a memory of something delicious to appreciate it. Our tastes change throughout our lives, not just when we are small, and we can be open to new and delicious things, or we can be closed.
FABIO PARASECOLI: I doubt that migrants’ priority was to restore tradition. Especially in the first decades of migration, the goal was to survive, period. At the same time, food constituted a space of comfort in an unfamiliar environment. For that reason, migrants from Italy stuck to their guns when it came to the use of vegetables, herbs, and spices in their dishes (that were quite strange for their host communities). They also spent money on imported foods from Italy such as cheese, extra-virgin 0live oil, or anchovies, which during the last years of Fascism and World War II were progressively replaced by local-made products from industries often started by the Italian migrants themselves. Over time, Italian-American cuisine asserted itself as its own strong, lively, and evolving tradition.
LISA SASSON: I am not sure if it was a priority for immigrants to restore tradition- as with any new immigrant—it is survival—new language, new land. With that being said for immigrants in a new land sometimes the link to their culture is through foods—it is what they know, are familiar with and identifies who they are. Our senses- smell and taste are some of the strongest links to our past- they can be both positive and negative! However, for many their foods was linked to their identity in a strange, new land. Many immigrants relied on imported products from Italy. The Americanized version of some products such as oils spices, pasta were unfamiliar to them and not the quality they were accustomed to.
JORDAN FROSOLONE: I am not convinced that the initial wave of Italian immigrants set out to restore tradition, instead I am of the understanding that they took the foundation of Italian cooking and applied it to what products were available in their new country. Further, the idea that one most likely had more disposable income to spend on food likely impacted the traditional ideas of Italian cooking in the U.S. I believe that today the understanding of Italian cuisine and tradition throughout all of America has never been better.
What is the role of Italian restaurants abroad in promoting Italian cuisine?
GIANFRANCO SORRENTINO: The authentic Italian restaurants need to be ambassadors of the cuisine and show their adopted cultures how things are really done in Italy. I am proud of the Il Gattopardo Group that our restaurants live up to this ambassador role as we try to show true Italian culture in the New York City dining scene. Many of our restaurant members of Gruppo Italiano do it, as well. It is critical for the survival and expansion of the Italian dining experience.
MITCHELL DAVIS: I think they would be better off promoting the Italian esprit of cooking than the cuisine itself. Those restaurants that import every ingredient from Italy are, in my mind, missing the point of the connection between geography, agriculture, and cuisine that are so essential to the food. They are missing the soul. Also, for sustainability reasons, it doesn’t make any sense to be flying ingredients around the world, especially in the US, where we now have quality producers, farmers, cheese makers, bakers, and others. But some of the best “Italian” cooking I’ve had has been made with local ingredients approached how an Italian might. To me this is the future of these restaurants, of Italian cuisine. As I said, I think more of a focus on an Italian way of cooking versus the reconstruction of traditional Italian dishes, will enable Italian cuisine to survive.
FABIO PARASECOLI: Italian restaurants definitely play a huge role in making Italian cuisines visible and successful in foreign countries, especially as more entrepreneurs, chefs, cooks, sommeliers, and culinary professionals from Italy bring contemporary aspects of food, rather than highlighting the local cuisines originating from migrant communities, which have undergone their own separate evolutions over decades. Moreover, Italian restaurants allow local customers to get introduced to dishes and ingredients they may not be familiar with. This is also important for the Italian food industry.
LISA SASSON: Role for restaurants is the authenticity of Italian cuisine- using quality ingredients (which are more expensive but because of the depth of flavor, need less) Italian cuisine is actually growing in popularity—mainly because of the purported health benefits associated with the cuisine, the simplicity of cuisine and quality. Undoubtedly, itis heavily marketed by Italian government, and NGO’s promoting Mediterranean diet. Some of the finest and most popular chefs own some of the best restaurants in US and are “celebrity chefs” featured on television. The romanticized Italian lifestyle- long leisurely meals, bottles of wines, family sitting together in the Tuscan hills—is the association many American have with Italian cuisine. Even the commercials for Italian products in US play on this romanticism of Italian lifestyle.
JORDAN FROSOLONE: In my view Italian restaurants should try to embody the hospitality and warmth that has become synonymous with Italian culture. This, as well as, working to source the best Italian products available in order to support and to advocate for the artisanal producers to ensure that the food traditions of Italy are not lost.
What will the future of Italian cuisine look like?
GIANFRANCO SORRENTINO: I am very optimistic about the future of Italian cuisine in the US. Italian cuisine is perceived as the classic cuisine. Before the most famous recipes were spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmigiana or pizza, whereas now they are puntarelle, burrata, bottarga, white truffle, ‘nduja and all the incredible products that we only have in Italy. This is the kind of innovation I would like to see. We can leave all those other so-called innovations to all the young American chefs that cook Italian, have an incredible knowledge of different cooking techniques and by nature can mix and experiment with different ingredients from all over the world. They do, what I like to call, an American interpretation of Italian cuisine. But I believe that during this time of intense globalization, of nouvelle cuisine, fusion, molecular cuisine—in the time of star-chefs and of food as entertainment—I think that we need to slow down a bit. Perhaps we should return to simplicity in preparation, simplicity and cleanness in the taste of the dish. Food should represent a moment of coming together again, conviviality with incredible fresh, delicious, healthy and safe products.
MITCHELL DAVIS: I’m not sure. I don’t think our love for Italian food will wane, but I do think the way we eat, where we eat, how we cook, will definitely change drastically. It already has. The rise of delivery in the US has changed where, how, and what people eat in a very short time. My hope is that an emphasis on flavor, on sustainability, on inclusion and diversity, on breaking bread around a table that looks more like the changing demographics of our communities, will sustain a sort of authenticity that may be different from what and how Italians eat today, but that informs a broader swath of humanity for the future.
FABIO PARASECOLI: I think Italian cuisine now has acquired worldwide prestige, reflected by its growing presence in the fine dining sector. I doubt that is going to change. There is a more conscious effort by stakeholders in the food business to maintain visibility and relevance, prompting them to work associatively and get organized to maintain their market positions. Consumers are definitely increasingly interested, even when they do not fully understand the complexity and varieties of Italian cuisines. The Italian government is more active in promoting products from Italy and defending them from counterfeiting, but political tensions and trade wars could have a negative impact.
LISA SASSON: Ironically, the past cuisine may be the future—part of the sustainability movement—consuming the entire animal, focusing on wild herbs, ancient grains and legumes. Eating less animal products and more plants-based products (peasant cuisine aligns more today with both health and environmental issues). Also, focus on local cuisines (regional) to familiarize consumers with regional cuisines.
JORDAN FROSOLONE: My hope is that the future of Italian cooking is found in past traditions and the rediscovery of historical recipes, techniques and points of view.
Paolo Del Panta