My granny always said that the hardest dishes to prepare are those which are the most simple. Savory spaghetti with fresh (not canned) tomato sauce, basil (from your garden) and extra-virgin olive oil (from the producer). Or a plateful of Roman artichokes fried in mint leaves and lemon sauce until crispy and golden.
When it comes to real Italian cuisine, innovation and tradition are often at odds. Experimenting within the boundaries of Italy’s diverse and centuries-old food heritage can be tricky and often leads to cooking up queer concoctions that raise purists’ eyebrows – and mine.
The saying ‘don’t play with your food’ takes on a totally different meaning in this context.
Creativity in cuisine is very important – like sprinkling dried mint to enhance the taste of baked aubergines or mixing pasta tomato sauce with melted buffalo mozzarella – but it shouldn’t lead to contamination.
There are certain recipes which are sacrosanct, handed down across time and untouchable. If you make one variation, then you need to come up with a different name for your ‘little frankenstein’.
Take Tiramisù – it’s Italy’s iconic dessert, loved and known by everyone in the world.Its recipe – with the precise list of ingredients – invented in the northern town of Treviso over a century ago, is registered with the Tiramisù Academy and Italy’s Cuisine Academy.
The one and only real Tiramisù is made with layers of Savoiardi ladyfinger biscuits dipped in a whipped mixture of mascarpone cream cheese and coffee powder. Bitter cocoa powder can also be sprinkled on top but there is no added alcohol.
Italians are dead serious when it comes to protecting authentic recipes: many old ones have been registered with the local chamber of commerce, as for Bologna’s Tortellini and Milan’s Panettone. It’s a matter of culinary pride and supremacy.
Nonetheless, lately new twists have been ‘contaminating’ and debasing historical recipes.
Strawberry tiramisù, Nutella tiramisù, Pistacchio tiramisù and Lemon tiramisù are wacky versions invented by Italian pastry chefs to play around with ingredients, but in my view they’re no-nos.
Even though they all use Italian products, they should be called something else, like Italian strawberry pudding, for it’s not the real Tiramisù.
And these ‘variants’ confuse people, undermine and insult food traditions.
Another newer fad which is taking hold is so-called sushi all’Italiana – aka ‘sushi made the Italian way’ (and even Italianized as ‘su-sci’) – which is made with Italian ingredients but looks like Japanese sushi. Think Mediterranean fish wrapped in mozzarella, for instance.
It might be rather tasty, but it’s a ‘hybrid’ and as such it shouldn’t be called sushi, for it’s a lack of respect not just to top Italian delicacies but also to the real Japanese tradition. It’s like if the Japanese started making pizza with seaweed paste instead of flour dough and called it ‘Japanese pizza’.
Of course, if there are such things as strawberry tiramisù (even at supermarkets) and Italian su-sci it’s because there’s demand, even if niche. Most Italian families would still order the original Tiramisù and, if they feel like sushi, hop over to a Japanese restaurant.
But I think such crazy eating fads kicked-off when transgressive chefs ‘imposed’ these experimental twists to shock and lure eaters. The fact that the food is being warped by Italian and not foreign cooks makes it all the more baffling.
Hybrids are also often created as a nod to the tastes of foreign tourists. Other ‘creations’ that blur the lines with traditional Italian recipes and have created a lot of fuss – merely because they’re ‘not Italian’ – include penne with vodka and spaghetti with salmon sauce to lure Scandinavian and northern diners, weird carbonara recipes with cream, pizza with pineapple and kiwi, lasagne with chicken bits, and bucatini pasta with orange peel.
I have personally tried them all and must admit I found them quite revolting – but that’s the opinion of my taste buds.
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There are however many other Italian chefs who brilliantly cook within the lines to make modern twists that balance innovation and tradition while sticking to Italian ingredients.
Chef Cesare Battisti of Milan’s top Ratanà restaurant serves ‘Puttanesca’ Risotto with capers, anchovies and olives, alongside raw Piedmont Fassone beef with toasted local hazelnut mayonnaise.
Pasqualino Rossi at Pizzeria éLite Rossi near Caserta has turned Italian iconic dishes into pizzas. His hybrid Pizza Amatriciana is made with the same ingredients of Rome’s staple pasta dish.
Regional cuisine has found a great compromise between creativity and tradition in many dishes.
I adore slight ‘adaptations’, such as pasta with tomato sauce mixed with pesto (like they have in Piedmont), ‘green’ lasagne with spinach (in Emilia Romagna), pizza with melted ricotta instead of mozzarella cheese, or pizza with Nutella (served in Rome), done without crossing any red lines and in respect of tradition.
Never try to contaminate Italian food with ingredients that either are not Italian, or with ‘hybrid’ recipes that destroy authentic Italian dishes. A bit of innovation in cuisine is fine, but it should always stay close to tradition.
It’s a matter of good sense – and good taste.