OPINION: Kiwi pizza and mozzarella sushi – why Italian food ‘innovation’ needs to stop

Italian food is widely adapted in Italy and beyond, but Italians are known to get upset if culinary experiments are taken too far. So where exactly is the line? Silvia Marchetti explains.

Clever culinary adaptation or eyebrow-raising concoction? For Italian chefs, it's a fine line.
Clever culinary adaptation or eyebrow-raising concoction? For Italian chefs, it's a fine line. Photo: Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

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.

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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. 

When is a tiramisù not a tiramisù? Photo: Obi Onyeador/Unsplash 

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.

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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.

Photo: bckfwd/Unsplash

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.

Member comments

  1. While I do agree that the traditional should be left alone … there’s also so gotta be room for the ‘innovate or die’ school, too, I have to reckon…
    As a for instance, I like my Tiramisù made with espresso coffee, and not powder, and I’ve heard Italians argue that’s the way it should be…
    Although I do draw the line at pizza served with a ‘topping’ of patatina fritte … like I’ve seen here in Sicily, yeah? 🙂

  2. There are 2 conflicting stories about tiramisù both reported in The Local……

    1. Ado Campeol, dubbed “the father” of the world-famous tiramisu dessert, died over the weekend, the governor of the Veneto region has announced. He was 93.
    Campeol was the owner of Le Beccherie restaurant in the city of Treviso that began first offering the concoction of coffee-soaked biscuits and mascarpone in the 1970s.

    Apparently his wife invented it. Now for story number two ……

    2. 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.


    So, tiramisù lovers everywhere, which is it?

    Either way, it’s iconic and delicious and I love it!

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TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

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I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

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But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

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But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

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Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.