If there’s one thing Italians won’t stomach, it’s dishing the dirt on their cuisine

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Calanni/AP</span>
Photograph: Antonio Calanni/AP

Food in Italy is an emotive, even metaphysical, subject. It’s through food (and wine) that Italians understand who they are and where they are from. Food is the central sacrament of family and of companionship, its simplicity providing an unbroken link to ancestors and soil. Its excellence proves that Italians really do have the best taste in the world.

That connection between Italians and their food has been cemented in popular culture. Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) in Goodfellas slices prison garlic with a razor blade; Joey Tribbiani in Friends loves nosh so much that he “doesn’t share food”. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” is one of the most famous lines in 20th-century cinema (from The Godfather) and TV schedules are full of presenters such as Stanley Tucci drooling over Italian food.

But the last week has shaken such certainties. On 23 March, the Financial Times published an interview with the Italian food historian Alberto Grandi, in which he claimed that many of the most cherished dishes in Italy aren’t what they seem: carbonara, he said, is an American recipe; Italian classics such as panettone and tiramisu are late 20th-century inventions and the most authentic parmesan cheese is now found in Wisconsin.

The wry interview, by Marianna Giusti, lovingly teased about “Italy’s often ludicrous attitude towards culinary purity”. There was nothing particularly outrageous in the claims. After all, “the pizza effect” is a well-known sociological phenomenon whereby, as with pizza, an export is then reimported into a country in a different guise.

What was more interesting was the outcry in Italy. In Parma, where both Grandi and I live, there was much clutching of pearls: with its ham and parmesan cheese, the city rightly considers itself the capital of Italy’s “food valley” and the idea that one of its leading academics had called “bluff” made many Parmigiani choke on their tortelli.

Italians shop in a food market in Tuscany.
Italians shop in a food market in Tuscany. Photograph: Alamy

The outcry was partly economic self-interest. The food and drink industry in Italy represents an estimated 25% of Italian GDP, worth €538bn (£473bn). It’s a rare ray of hope in a tanking economy, which is why Italy is fiercely protectionist of its food and drink products: the country has recognised a staggering 4,820 “traditional foods” and assiduously defends those products from what it considers counterfeits, such as Croatian Prošek or German parmesan. Italy has more protected wines than any country in Europe and the DOC attribution (designation of controlled origin) is so common it has now entered the Italian language as a word in itself, meaning “real”.

But the article touched a raw nerve for much subtler reasons. Italians believe that they, more than any other nation, have maintained culinary authenticity: the fact that the country has 545 indigenous grape varieties (more than a third of the world’s total of about 1,368) demonstrates Italians’ ability to defy homogenisation and vinous miscegenation. Italians’ rootedness and proud provincialism means that every village considers itself caput mundi, complete with its own speciality dish and dialect. You can tell precisely where somebody comes from by whether their cappelletti (buttons of stuffed pasta) have serrated or smooth edges or whether they call the fried pillowcases of dough torta fritta, gnocco fritto, chisulén or crescentina.

In Italy, what you eat, and what you call it, is about identity and territory and that makes life reassuringly predictable; I know what will be on offer in any Parma restaurant without having to open the menu. So food becomes, in this extraordinarily conservative country, an integral part of traditionalism. Foodstuffs are sold through being backward-looking: adverts invariably have an aproned nonna (grandmother) with floury fingers rolling out the pasta. Slogans tend to be along the lines of “still doing it the way we always have”. Innovative or industrialised food is sneered at, so this idea that many Italian staples might actually be 20th-century novelties or intercontinental fusions is alarming. Next they’ll be saying that tomatoes and coffee aren’t originally from Italy either.

There’s also something about self-esteem going on. Italians often have an inferiority complex, fretting that theirs is a failing country, prone to decadence, corruption and chaos. There are, however, two places where that sense of inadequacy is replaced by superiority: football and food. Having not qualified for the last two World Cups, even football isn’t a certainty any more. So food is the last refuge of Italian pride and, with a far-right government, that can quickly bleed into “gastro-nationalism”: the defence of the native, and the derision of outsiders, finds echoes in culinary xenophobia.

All countries invent their own traditions. But in Italy they’re particularly skilled at crafting myths to live by

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, acts as a tubby mascot for Italian produce, constantly posting photos of himself munching and quaffing. Last week, the Italian MEP Alessandra Mussolini posed for a photo swigging from the neck of an Italian wine bottle to protest against alcohol health warnings proposed by the EU.

The government also announced last week that it would ban the import or sale of synthetic meat, imposing a €60,000 fine on offenders. This sort of foodie jingoism obviously appeals to the red-meat right, but is nothing new: the most simple pizza – a margherita – is allegedly named after an Italian queen, with the colours of mozzarella, tomato and basil recreating the Italian flag.

All countries invent their own traditions. But in Italy, where creativity is instinctive and incessant, they’re skilled at crafting myths to live by: not just the lives of the saints, but also the stories of national heroes such as Alberto da Giussano, Pietro Micca or “Balilla”, all of whose identities are merely educated guesses. But the central story the country tells itself is that unless you slavishly follow culinary rules you’ll never be considered “DOC”.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His latest book is The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River