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OPINION: Why claims Italian cuisine is a 'modern invention' have angered Italy

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected] • 1 Apr, 2023 Updated Sat 1 Apr 2023 05:57 CEST
OPINION: Why claims Italian cuisine is a 'modern invention' have angered Italy
Neapolitan pizza. Is there any truth to claims that pizza was unknown in most of Italy until the 1970s? Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

An article featuring the claim that tiramisù, carbonara and other iconic Italian dishes were “invented” in the postwar period has gone viral online and caused uproar in Italy. Silvia Marchetti explains why the debate has touched a nerve for so many Italians.

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If there's one thing Italians do not accept, it’s messing around with the culinary traditions which reflect our identity.

So it’s no surprise that food historian Alberto Grandi's theories on the origins of several iconic Italian foods, which in his view aren't really Italian but made-in-the-USA, have caused such a stir in Italy and made the national headlines after they were shared in a Financial Times article published this weekend.

READ ALSO: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Television talk shows have debated his controversial theories. Farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti and trade union Unimpresa issued statements slamming Grandi’s words as an “attack” against Italian products, saying they risk favouring counterfeit "Italian-sounding" goods made abroad.

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Grandi’s claims that tiramisù, panettone, pizza, and carbonara pasta are either recent products born after the second world war or inventions made by Italian emigrants to the US have also triggered mayhem on social media. Readers of online news outlets condemned his views as "preposterous", "based on ignorance", the "product of envy" and an attempt to “start the third world war”. 

Tiramisu: not 'traditionally' Italian? Photo. Kasturi Roy/Unsplash

The idea of Italian food today comes both from experience (people taste and remember it) and from globalization, which hails all the way back to the Ancient Romans’ conquests. Cicero in one of his works writes about laganae, the ancestors of lasagne and pasta, while another Roman writer about savillum cake made with cheese, very much like the US-style cheesecake with which it likely shares a common gene.

READ ALSO: Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

As for panettone, christmas cakes with raisins and candied fruits were made during the middle ages and in the Renaissance, when many recipes were exported by the Medici family to European courts. Pilgrims, travellers and monks also did their share as ‘food ambassadors’.

And Grandi’s argument that pizza didn't exist beyond the streets of “a few small southern cities” because there weren't any pizzerias until the post-war period misses a key point: Pizza was born as a street food and take-away meal, and has been made in bakeries or sold by vendors in town squares since at least the 1600s. As is still the case nowadays, pizza al taglio (sliced pizza) was savored al forno.

Pizza al taglio in Rome. Photo: sarahcreates/Unsplash

Pizzerias as actual establishments became popular in Naples from the early 1800s and later spread to the rest of Italy, only reaching Sicily and Piedmont at a much later stage - because pizza is neither Sicilian nor Piedmontese. Surely, the reason why those American soldiers who according to Grandi were amazed to find no pizzerias in the land of pizza was probably because most shops and bakeries had been shut, raided or bombed during the war.

Traditional food has always existed in family homes in Italy. Just because in the 1950s Romans did not eat carbonara every single day doesn't mean they hardly ever ate it at all. Farmers’ simple, traditional dishes have also always been around, and even after the postwar economic boom Italian families kept eating these even though they were wealthier and could afford to raid the supermarket shelves. 

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My mother for example kept indulging in home-made gorgonzola blue cheese with crawling maggots at her granny’s farm in Cuneo, even when her father was a top-ranking military general. Money or newly acquired social status doesn't change eating habits if one is anchored to them by a long-standing family tradition handed down across generations.

READ ALSO: Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?

Also, the idea of grandmas serving frozen lasagne back in the old days in Italy is pure fiction. There were no freezers, and my granny still recalls when ‘ice men’ roamed the countryside selling blocks of ice from the mountains.

Emigrants indeed played a great role in exporting and advertising Italian dishes abroad, but they adapted these to local tastes and ingredients, thus paving the way for alternative, non purist versions of a dish. Take Mac ‘n’ Cheese, a twist on 'maccheroni con formaggio' with Cheddar - a dish you will never find in Italy.

It is a product of emigration, as decades flew by many emigrés forgot their ancestors’ real recipes. Original Italian gelato brought to America and the UK by Italian ice-cream makers who later built an empire has little to do with artisan Italian gelato made today in Italy. In the same way, the iconic Philly Roll born in Philadelphia, invented by a migrated Japanese chef, is an American product rather than a pure sushi dish.

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Grandi's words have uncanny timing. The Italian government is planning to propose Italian food for UNESCO world heritage status, which will boost the fight against Italian-sounding products such as parmesan made abroad. His view is seen by many in Italy as an attempt to sabotage this candidature by suggesting that Italian food is the end-result of a contamination or mix of several different cultures, that it is not entirely the merit of Italy. 

With no real proof, arguing that Italian cuisine is not traditional is to fight a losing battle.

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