Pasta with ketchup horrifies Italian foodies

If you've ever dolloped ketchup on your pasta or drunk a cappuccino with your pizza, you've likely offended an Italian. The Local speaks to Gianluigi Zenti, president of food culture organization Academia Barilla, about how foreigners can learn to eat like an Italian.

Pasta with ketchup horrifies Italian foodies
Pasta making at Academia Barilla and the organization's president, Gianluigi Zenti. Photos: Academia Barilla

“When people ask, 'Where can I get pasta and ketchup?' we are horrified,” Zenti tells The Local.

“It has nothing to do with Italian cuisine.”

Pasta problems

Of the many sins committed by foreigners on holiday in Italy, or those who claim to love Italian cuisine from afar, Zenti says the main ones involve pasta.

Some Bolognese sauce with your spaghetti? A dash of oil to help the pasta cook? Think again. “Each of the 140 shapes of pasta in Italy goes with a specific sauce and comes from a specific region,” he says.

Spaghetti is from Naples, Zenti says, while Bolognese sauce is from Bologna. Someone putting the two together is geographically challenged to say the least.

Meanwhile, splashing oil into boiling water is a sign of poor quality pasta, which simply does not exist in Italy.

“In Italy, pasta can only be made with durum wheat – you go to jail if you use any other wheat,” Zenti says. The oil trick is used by foreigners who cook with poor quality pasta, made with different types of wheat which is only available abroad.

“Pasta was invented by the Romans and the Etruscans. There is a very established culture of how you cook it,” Zenti says with an air of pride.

Fake Italian food

What he terms “fake Italian recipes”, such as spaghetti Bolognese, are the fault of Italian émigrés.

“When they tried to open restaurants abroad they weren’t successful, so they adapted recipes to local tastes. Some spread the bad habits,” Zenti warns.

Thankfully, chefs in Italy are not willing to adapt their recipes to strange requests made by tourists.

According to Zenti there is no true Italian meal: “Everybody sees Italy as one country, but we have over 8,000 local authorities and each area has its own cuisine. We don’t have a national food.”

Coffee rules

Away from the restaurant, another temple of Italian gastronomy is the bar.

While pasta rules must be strictly adhered to, Zenti says baristas are more flexible when it comes to a visitor ordering a cappuccino at the ‘wrong’ time of day.

“After lunch or dinner they would never serve a cappuccino to a customer,” he says.

“But they are adaptable; they may be unhappy about doing it but they will. It’s more of a cultural than a nutritional issue.”

Such a regulated food culture may seem odd to outsiders, but Zenti says it is key to happiness.

“You don’t eat a sandwich in front of your computer…In Italy, you experience what you are eating and interact with people around you. It makes you happier.” 

View the gallery of Academia Barilla's 10 Italian cooking commandments.

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.