In Defense of Italian Food: Regional, Diverse, and Refined

Even as Italian cooking grows in popularity it still can't gain the respect that French food once had or that Nouvelle Spanish food has garnered


When I first started cooking professionally in America, restaurants had only recently discovered "Northern Italian" food as opposed to Italo American food, the standard since Italian immigration began but which people were beginning to dismiss as inauthentic and bastardized. In fact, the one thing I had going for me when I started out cooking professionally was a deep understanding of what Italians really ate in Italy based on years of living and eating there. Everyone else I worked with had been trained in French food, either in school or in a French restaurant. It didn't seem like anything else was really considered valid. Even though more attention was being paid to Northern Italian food at higher and more refined levels of restaurants, classic French food was still considered the apex of culinary civilization.

Shortly after I started cooking professionally in Boston, Julia Child was quoted in the local paper saying, "anyone can make a bowl of pasta but it takes a skilled chef to put out a fine French meal." That pretty much summed up the prevailing attitude with regards to Italian food.

As fascinated as I am by other cuisines of the Mediterranean, I keep coming back to Italian as the cuisine I most want to cook, the one I most want to eat, and the one I understand the most. Twenty years ago, when I first started out with a dim understanding of demi glace but a great understanding of pasta, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, I would not have been able to imagine Italian food conquering the American palate so thoroughly from the high end (Del Posto earning four stars from the New York Times) to the low (propagation of chain restaurants like the Olive Garden). Even though its popularity has gone farther than I would have ever thought and perhaps because of it, it still seems a cuisine people all too easily dismiss as easy and simple, lacking the sophistication of French, Japanese, or modern Spanish cuisine -- maybe because Italian food gets generalized as one style of food when it is not.

Italian food is intensely regional. It's hard to study it for very long before realizing that it varies as much as the traditional dialects of Italy. Before the use of Italian became common (dating to post World War II when children learned it in compulsory state school for the first time), a Sicilian and a Neapolitan could not understand each other. As a result, Sicilian food and Neapolitan food are two completely different cuisines with distinctive flavors that happen to share some ingredients and reference points. As a child, I loved the pasta carbonara I had in Rome and the potato gnocchi in meat ragu at my Tuscan neighbor's house, not understanding that they were reflective of two very different regions with wildly different cuisines even if they both ate pasta and olive oil. Lardo, for example, is cured in marble vats along the Tuscan coast in the Carrera marble-producing Apuan Alps: Delicate and pure white, it is traditionally shaved over freshly grilled bread, the heat wilting the pork fat and releasing its herbed scents. In my far inland eastern nook of Tuscany it was not an ingredient ever used or heard of. Yet when I started exploring over the border in Umbria I discovered another form of lardo, cured and aged like prosciutto and pancetta and used as a cooking fat, something that gives Umbrian food a completely different flavor from Tuscan food, even if they are both eating farro and cavolo nero.

Over the twenty years that I have been cooking and constantly studying Italian food and its regional variations, I have watched French food stagnate and wither both as an international star and -- I dare say -- in France itself. Italian food has become one of the most popular foods in the world. We eat better and more "authentic" Italian food in more and more places all over, at the same time as we have more and more cheap knockoffs everywhere.

And yet even as Italian cooking grows in popularity it still can't seem to gain the respect that French food once had or that Nouvelle Spanish food has garnered. Many chefs I respect -- as well as gastronomic journalists -- seem puzzled about what Italian food is, almost as if it's an easy cuisine, a cop out that doesn't require rigorous thought or skill to produce. I would argue just the opposite, in fact, that to understand the skill and the restraint that go into producing Italian food requires as much learned technique as the mother sauces of French cuisine (some of which are Italian anyway).

In fact, it is much harder to understand and master Italian food because it is so regionally diverse. I have yet to see two people in the same village make something as basic as meat ragu the same way. Each will make a delicious ragu, one that everyone would certainly consider Italian, but they will be different, perhaps radically and perhaps only subtly. To understand the differences, and to choose which one wishes to continue with, is indeed as involved as mastering fine French cuisine.

French food has always seemed to me to be highly compartmentalized. You had haute cuisine, which involved aspiring to three Michelin stars with a duck press in the dinning room; you had simpler, less rarefied cooking; and you had cuisine de bonne maman, which is what you eat at home. Maman was no less likely to cook terrine du foie gras than a three-star restaurant was to serve you coq au vin. But Italian cuisine was always less stratified by class; it changed from region to region and town to town, but at the highest level what you were most likely to find was cuisine that strived to be the same as what mamma cooked at home. Maybe that's why people can't take Italian food seriously. Yet I think any food that brings so much pleasure around the globe, that relies on acknowledged principles of technique and sourcing, and that requires a deep understanding of the land and the history of the land, deserves as much respect as any haute cuisine of old.

Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.