Italy’s food purists rage over America’s ‘white bolognese’

A recipe for a tomato-free bolognese published by the New York Times (NYT) has caused a stir in Italy, with scores of simmering Italians taking to the major newspaper's website message board to blast its recipe for ‘Rigatoni with white Bolognese’.

Italy's food purists rage over America's 'white bolognese'
In the traditional Italian dish, ragù alla Bolognese, tomatoes are very much an essential ingredient. Photo: Sharon Mollerus/Flickr

In the traditional Italian dish, ragù alla Bolognese, tomatoes are very much an essential ingredient and their exclusion has upset food purists, who are tired of seeing ‘Bolognese’ used as an adjective to describe any kind of pasta dish served with minced meat.

“White ragù sauces do exist, we even teach them in our cooking class in Venice,” food blogger and cookery instructor, Monica Cesarato, told The Local.

“What’s wrong is calling them ‘bolognese’ – it’s a simple as that.”

But Italian food purists were not so forgiving.

“Our suggestion is that you organize a trip to Bologna so you can understand the cuisine,” wrote Giovanna and Valentina underneath the offending recipe. “The ragù you describe is terrible, so please stop inventing recipes.”

“I can only suppose that this recipe is for people who are intolerant of tomato,” wrote Salvo from Sicily.

“If you are not allergic to tomato, please use the original recipe which is delicious and absolutely unique,” he urged.

“Call this recipe what you want not Bolognese,” wrote another user, who branded the dish a ‘sacrilege’.

The New York Times's recipe is made using ground beef and pork sausage meat; it excludes tomato but takes the unorthodox step of including porcini mushrooms.

Otherwise, it is fairly faithful to the original recipe.

It is by no means the first time a foreign interpretation of a traditional dish has upset Italian foodies, who tend to be highly protective of their cuisine.

Indeed, in a bid to protect the authentic ragù alla Bolognese, the Italian Academy of Cuisine archived the ’true’ recipe with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1982.

The original recipe is made by frying carrot, onion and celery before ground beef, pork and pancetta are added. After that, wine and, crucially, tomatoes, complete the ensemble.

Despite attempts to protect the dish from foreign corruption, ‘Bolognese’ is now used worldwide to describe any kind pasta served with ground meat, much to the chagrin of Bologna restaurateurs, who are tired of hearing tourists ask for a ‘spag bol’.

Bolognese, they say, is only ever served with Tagliatelle, and so ‘spaghetti Bolognese’ quite simply, doesn’t exist. 

The problem has become so bad that last month Bologna's airport felt compelled to send a tweet to the low-cost airline, Ryanair, telling them to stop using 'spaghetti Bolognese' when promoting flights to the city.

Although the tomato-free Bolognese recipe published by The New York Times might have offended some Italians, it currently has a five-star rating after being rated 590 times by readers, many of whom call the dish ‘delicious’ and ‘wonderful’.

“It might be good, but please do not call it Italian,” wrote one Italian.

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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.