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FOOD & DRINK

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!
    http://www.mosconi.lu

  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. I wholeheartedly agree. Italian cuisine is an enigma. Food is not an expression of artistry, it is a bear hug from nonna. It can attain a high level of complex tastes and textures without being dainty in serving size nor eye candy. Some of their best tasting food is eaten by hand while walking! I have an obsession with arancini. In Italy you can eat very well for very reasonable cost, even in tourist areas.

  5. 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.

  6. I agree that the Michelin rating system does not work well in Sicily. Further, I don’t think it works well anywhere, even in France. Overly pretentious service, too many tiny courses, too much drama and stupidly expensive.

    I have had a lot of luck in Italy with some of the restaurants Michelin ‘recommends’. Restaurants that do not have any stars but are in their guidebook (online). In the Perugia area, near Spello, where I live, Michelin recommends Ristorante Serpillo in Torre del Colle, Ristorante Stella in Casaglia (in the outskirts of Perugia) and Perbacco in Cannara). All are exceellent, none are pretentious and none are too expensive.

    Here are a couple of recent articles about ridiculous experiences at a restaurant in Lecce.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/23/world/europe/bros-restaurant-review.html

    https://www.everywhereist.com/2021/12/bros-restaurant-lecce-we-eat-at-the-worst-michelin-starred-restaurant-ever/

  7. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always maintained that an essential difference between French and Italian cuisine is that the French need to cover perfectly bland ingredients in “exciting” sauces. Italians, on the other hand really go for the whole (ahem) enchilada — food gets cooked all together and as a result the tastes all come together. I also appreciate that here in Italy we go for the few, simple ingredients; it may be ‘cucina povera’ in terms of what goes into it, but in the melding of those ingredients you can find a richness that no amount of fancy sauce on a plain hamburger can ever aspire to.

  8. Brava! I’ve recently returned to Italy after a few years away, and I can’t believe how the restaurant offerings have changed. All artful prettiness and puffed up pretense. STOP!! Will the chefs please go back to the basics of Italian cuisine that has made it beloved throughout the world – before the grannies have passed and the art and tradition is lost.

  9. I couldn’t disagree more. I enjoy having tasters of fifferent food. A vast plate of pasta ,whilst very pleasant does not meet my adventurous taste buds at all indeed it becomes boring.
    I like traditional Italian food but does it have to be to the exclusion of anything else. I also love genuine Thai also Japanese Indian and Chinese food. English roast beef with roasties and yorkshire pudding is fabulous so is crispy fish and chips. Every country has its own specialities. Why limit your taste buds and appreciation of world foods instead of critcising.

  10. I laughed at the phrase “culinary pornography”- so, so true. I have enjoyed a couple restaurants (not in Italy but in the US) that serve smaller portions and several courses, but they don’t go as far with it as the kind of Michelin-starred restaurants you described- nor did they cost that much. I think restaurants can take some inspiration from the concept of food as art, and exploring nontraditional flavor combinations, without taking it to such ridiculous extremes. But yes the abundance of luscious dishes at an Italian table is something to celebrate!!!

  11. 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 …

  12. 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.

  13. There’s nothing wrong, and a lot that’s good about local pasta dishes (I like lasagna, and it’s not my favorite, just personal taste). But I think you may be going to the wrong Michelin starred restaurants…are you referring to three stars?…two stars?… one star? It makes a difference.

    After the French *** chefs (Bocuse, Chapel, Bise, etc.) took the world by storm, we ate at many of them in the late 70s, and 80s. It was food like I had never tasted before. Whatever they wanted to charge was worth it … and of course we didn’t go there every week. Overkill.

    But then many of them started to change, trading on their fame, attracting many people from all around the world … and the food didn’t measure up. As we left one, Nancy said “Am I getting jaded, or is this not as good as it used to be?”

    “Yes…and yes! You’ve eaten at some of the best in the world, and this isn’t that.”

    That’s when we determined to find little one-star restaurants, often in the country, who earned their star by serving excellent, usually local cuisine. They weren’t striving to get another star, just doing their best, often as their family had done for years.

    And you’re right Silvia, maybe that style works better with French food … and I’ve found some gems in Italy, where they’ve done miraculous things with local stuff … and no frills. I’m certainly not giving up on cacio e pepe, but am always thrilled when someone does something extraordinary with fish.

    I’ll keep looking. 😉

  14. 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!

  15. I couldn’t agree more! We often remark on the ridiculous nature of cuisine that is presented as a tower of unknown and unrecognizable ingredients. Having travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and South America, Italian food is still our favorite. We had the most memorable meals in the most unknown of places in Italy in the early 90’s living near Napoli. Alas in more recent trips, it’s become a challenge to find places not catering to the mass of foreign tourist palates. In my opinion, the strength of Italian cuisine is the exceptional quality of ingredients and the skill in combining only a few of them in one dish to get that exquisite pleasure from first to last bite.

  16. It was never in me to be a food snob, or a snob of any kind, really. Feed my belly and soul, not my pretensions, such as they are. Good food, well served, preferably in good company rates all the stars in the cosmos.

  17. 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.

  18. 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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Northern cities may consistently top the 'quality of life' rankings, but the true pleasures of life in Italy can’t always be measured, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Italy has a persistent dichotomy that strikes anyone who has travelled it extensively or lived here for a while.

There’s a huge gap between the quality of life as in efficient services, roads, good internet, and the ‘pleasures of life’, which come down to more immaterial and intangible aspects such as the hospitality and friendliness of locals, the beauty of surroundings, and overall cost of living.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns with the best (and worst) quality of life

All quality of life surveys usually rank more efficient, cleaner northern cities at the top, with sunny but less functional southern ones at the bottom – though on the other hand these have stunning beaches and cheaper services.

While it’s obviously not always so simple, there are differences which are clear to see.

To take two examples: in northern Bolzano you have punctuality, shiny roads, higher income levels, but also a bit of the stereotypical Teutonic cold, distant attitude. In Syracuse, Sicily, local food is more varied and most people are warm, open to strangers, but trains take ages to connect places, and the roads aren’t great either.

This makes it hard to say which towns are ‘best’ to live in because you just can’t have it all. It depends on what your expectations and lifestyle already are, or if you long for radical change.

READ ALSO: Why north-south stereotypes aren’t offensive to most Italians

I could never live in Turin, Milan or Venice – because of the weather, the crowds and the prices.

Were I to choose, I’ve always dreamt of relocating to a southern location to telework, either in Sicily (picturesque Palermo) or Puglia (gorgeous, Baroque Lecce). Even a tiny Sicilian island fascinates me, like Salina or Filicudi, but I might find too much isolation there as winters can get really solitary when the ferry boats don’t travel. 

I’ve always envied Sicilians who get to enjoy beach days and warm temperatures eight months a year, have a succulent cuisine and can eat the real ricotta-filled cannoli whenever they feel like it. 

Last time I visited Trapani and stayed there for a while the next door neighbor gave me a tray of pastries on the day of my departure. People welcome you in their homes and say ‘buongiorno’ when you meet them in the streets. 

Human warmth is almost tangible in the south whereas in the north, perhaps because there are bigger cities, you need to be in small towns or villages to find welcoming residents eager to help you or make you feel at home. 

READ ALSO: From coffee to haircuts: How the cost of living varies around Italy

The fact that the value of family is so important in the south, much more than in the north, explains why southerners are more open to outsiders and foreigners than in the north. 

Cities like Naples, Lecce and Palermo also have a more laid-back vibe, people are less frenetic than in Milan and seem to enjoy life more. This attitude affects the way visitors feel, too. 

People don’t just want clean roads, trains that run on time, efficient hospitals. A smile from a passer-by, a gift, or just a quick chat after a morning espresso can really make your day. Cities reflect the nature of their inhabitants. 

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

I remember once I was touring Sicily heading to Noto, we stopped for some water at a bar in the middle of the countryside and my friend tripped, falling down. In less than a second a bunch of elders who had seen the accident rushed to our side and helped my friend back on her feet, making sure I was okay too. 

Taxi rides can be quite enlightening. When you grab a taxi in Milan, Genoa or Trieste, don’t expect the driver to start talking to you unless it’s for specific information. But when I visited Naples and called a cabbie, he turned into my personal Virgil, sharing city secrets and taking me to see offbeat places along the coast. He sang and smiled, which he wasn’t required to do. It was a memorable ride. 

READ ALSO: Why are Italy’s disappearing dialects so important?

However, it’s hard to draw a line. I’m not saying that all northern cities have a poor ‘pleasure of life’ level and all southern ones rank low for life quality, but this is a general trend. 

And I believe Italy’s eternal north-south dilemma is here to stay. 

The European Union’s pandemic funds, partly aimed at reducing these regional gaps, might improve services in the south but they surely can’t turn a gloomy, stressed-out Milanese into a loud, cheerful Neapolitan.

The economic gap (which affects quality of life) between northern and southern cities will always persist. That’s what makes Italy such a rich, multifarious country.

Do you agree with the opinions expressed in this article? How did you choose between the north and south of Italy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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