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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

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.

    Confused?

    So, tiramisù lovers everywhere, which is it?

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

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TRANSPORT

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

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Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.

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