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.

Michelin Food - Washington DC
A sous-chef works on an eggplant tart in the kitchen of the Pineapple and Pearls restaurant, Washington, DC. Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP

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.

Member comments

  1. I question if Silvia has actually been to a starred restaurant. Asian street food has received stars, so this vision of French cuisine and 20 courses is so lame and just an excuse to not be better. Silvia, the lack of italian starred restaurants has nothing to do with the food in Italy, its a lack of creativity and excellent execution. Be better

  2. As a retired gastronomy journalist, I would like to add to this that the great Ilario Mosconi has- in Luxembourg- successfully given an Italian interpretation to the Michelin star world.
    He has actually been the only one in my small home country to ever have had – and defended – two Michelin stars.
    Nevertheless, I now live happily for 14 years in Lombardia and clearly prefer the Taverne, Osterias and Locande with real local food!

  3. I don’t think Michelin cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition. There is a place for all levels and styles of cuisine given the sheer number of restaurants where one can dine. But the thing is, I don’t think they stand out like a Michelin place in Paris or NYC might amongst all the other places. You can get just as good, if not better, food at many local trattorias or osterias. It’s hard to top the experience that so many great places already offer, purely because as a whole, Italian food is a cultural gem in itself. You don’t generally need to fancy it up.

    I appreciate a lot of the cuisine found in Michelin restaurants, but I over the last decade of returning to Italy year after year, I find Italian Michelin venues tend to be overpriced for what it is (often it’s not much different than a normal nice meal I might get in the States, it just costs 3-4x as much). Out of the many Michelin restaurants in Italy I’ve dined at, there are maybe only 2-3 that remain long in my memory. Over and over the local places with great regional cuisine, fresh food, and general attention to detail, or a kind/generous service, are the ones I think about long afterward, and that I recommend to others.

  4. Michelin star-chasing Nouvelle Cuisine mostly represents the triumph of style over substance. To approach food preparation as an art or chemistry class is an aberration. And the results, whether 1, 2 or 3 stars, have always left me unfulfilled ever since this food fashion started. The best approach is to apply the chef’s talents to prime ingredients and remove the ego. Italian chefs knows how to excel at this and should try to avoid being distracted by the pretentious pouting that is so often prized in the Michelin ratings.

  5. I would rather eat as the author describes on a regular basis but for me, to eat at a Michelin restaurant with one, two or even three stars is one of the great pleasures of life. Alas, these days it is not possible for reasons financial but I look back to some meals and can still fantasize about them – where I was, what I ate and drank and even where I sat. They are meals for very special occasions and are different in that they require many hands and processes: impossible in an ordinary kitchen. Wonderful and uplifting.
    But I could not eat Michelin quality every day as the call of simple fare wins out overall. But now and then when the stars are in allignment …

  6. I totally, totally agree. I have been saying the same thing for quite a few years. I would much rather eat in a trattoria than in a Michelin restaurant. Brava Silvia.

  7. Brava Silvia,
    My wife and I recently finished an epic journey through Sicily where we were treated to some of the best food I’ve eaten ANYWHERE. From a small salumeria in Marsala with a dining room in the back to a fromageria in Taormina where the owner was so proud of his products that he couldn’t stop bringing out cheese after cheese for us to sample to the incredible experience of the street markets of Palermo, great food in Italy is the product of what is locally grown and prepared in the traditions of the region.
    Viva Italia and viva la cucina Italiana!

  8. I agree with you Silvia. We use Michelin to identify restaurants for consideration. If you throw out the starred restaurants and concentrate on the ‘recommended’ and perhaps ‘one-toque’ establishments, you’re likely to find good ingredients and well-prepared food without all the fancy bells and whistles. I might add, at a much reduced price than the starred ones.

  9. Silvia Marchetti i love you. You have put into words EXACTLY what I have thought for years, and said it better than I could.
    Really made me smile, thank you. Linda Love

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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.

MAP: The ‘best’ Italian villages to visit this year

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.

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’.

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

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. 

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. 

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.