Italians are passionate about their food culture, but the ingredients we eat and how we eat them are constantly evolving and changing over time.
I pride myself on having a profound understanding of what Italian food is and what makes it authentic. I know the difference between carciofi alla giudea, twice-fried artichokes in the style of the Roman ghetto, and carciofi alla romana, braised artichokes with garlic and mint in the style of Rome. I know that acqua cotta, one of the classics of Tuscan cooking, comes in at least three radically different versions depending on what part of Tuscany you are in. I know that even if an Italian would never sprinkle grated Parmigiano over his shellfish pasta, he would happily eat crostini with melted mozzarella and anchovies. I know that asparagus and tomatoes are not cooked together, because wherever you are on the boot they are not in season together. I know that long cooking of vegetables is a hallmark of Italian food wherever you are: no barely blanched green beans or asparagus for Italians, please!
I believe that my understanding of the flavor combination of fresh mozzarella, sun-ripened tomatoes, basil, and olive oil is a foundation that can steer me to many plates beyond the simple classic insalata Caprese I first ate, still sticky with salt from a morning in the water, at a beach-side restaurant in Capri. I laugh to myself at the many ridiculous combinations I come across outside of Italy, knowing that nobody with any understanding of Italian food would ever combine nettle-ricotta ravioli with puttanesca sauce.
And yet, I ask myself, what is authenticity and does it really matter? Italians are, of course, passionate about their food culture and ready at all times to chastise a foreigner for not understanding that right combinations or sequences of flavors. Salad always comes after the entrée -- never before. Pasta and soup fill the same slot in the meal, so you eat one or the other and not both. Plum tomatoes are for pasta sauce, globe tomatoes are for salad. And so it goes, a dizzying array of rules and regulations for how you eat. But still I wonder, what is the importance of authenticity?
I cringe when Americans do strange things to classic Italian food: Spaghetti and meatballs has me running out the door with an excuse about my house burning.
Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables -- tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes -- that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today's version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn't we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn't that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?
Food is not static. What we eat is constantly evolving and changing. New things become available. When I was a child in Rome, cilantro, limes, and yams were unknown and unavailable; today, thanks to immigration and the global produce trade, you can probably find all three at the corner vegetable stand. When I first started paying attention to my neighbors' farm in Tuscany, they were extremely self-sufficient in terms of their food. They grew, raised, and foraged probably 90 percent of what they consumed. Their food and flavors were delicious and unvarying, and the dishes Mita cooked formed the basis of my understanding of Italian food.
And yet as the times changed and they began to watch television and shop for some food at the supermarket, variances drifted in. One year we had pasta with a canned truffle and cream sauce. Another Easter my mother was surprised by violets in the salad. "I saw it on TV," Mita said. Is it inauthentic to be inspired by new ingredients? Is it inauthentic to take the combination of insalata Caprese and manipulate the ingredients until they no longer resemble mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil but the flavor combination remains the same?