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An Italian looking for taste of home

Editor’s Note: To celebrate 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture,” Davide Arminio, an Italian journalist studying in Albuquerque, is finding stories with an Italian connection in New Mexico.

During my experience in New Mexico, I became interested in how the Italian cuisine is “exported” abroad, and curious about the way it is seen and perceived by non-Italians. Since I’m not a food critic, nor a gourmet, I decided against trying to rate Albuquerque restaurants or give them “stars” or “awards”. But I would like to speak generally about what, in Italian American cuisine, is really Italian, and what is not.

Let’s start by saying that “Italian cuisine” simply doesn’t exist. I mean there is no single Italian cuisine. Italy has 20 regions, and each region – often each province or even each area – has its own culinary tradition: from north to south you will find the German-style foods in South Tyrol, the African-like couscous dishes in Sicily,  Tuscany’s entrails recipes and spicy Calabrian courses.
Italy’s eclectic culinary tradition dates back to the Roman Empire with influences from Greeks, Etruscans and Byzantines, and it further developed through two thousand years. What’s now on foreign market is a sort of “international standard” modified according to local tastes. Therefore, what is known in the U.S. as Italian cuisine is really Italian American cuisine.
And this is why some of the “Italian” dishes served in America don’t exist in Italy. If you went to a restaurant in Rome, Florence or Palermo and ordered, for instance, ‘fettuccine Alfredo,’ the waiter would likely shake his head and ask you “Who is Alfredo?”. Generally speaking, in Italy chicken is rarely served with pasta so it’s not a customary filling for ravioli. Ravioli are filled with beef, and beef is the basis, as well, for ragù alla bolognese. And, when dining in Italy, don’t look for that side of oil and balsamic served with bread for dipping. That’s a totally American tradition. What Italians do is put fresh oil on a bruschetta or, more commonly, use a piece of bread as a scarpetta (literally, a little shoe for cleaning the sauce or juices from the plate after eating pasta or meat).

A view of the vineyards on the Arnaldo Caprai estate in Montefalco, Umbria. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Alessandro Penso/OnOff Picture for The Washington Post.)

A view of the vineyards on the Arnaldo Caprai estate in Montefalco, Umbria. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Alessandro Penso/OnOff Picture for The Washington Post.)

In America there are different traditions and ways to make pizza. So it is in Italy, where the thin dough is traditional in southern Italy, especially in Naples (which claims to make the “real” pizza), while thick crust pizza is customarily found in the North.

But Italian American restaurants tend to serve elaborate dishes, even when it comes to pizza.  Honestly, sometimes the best recipes are the simplest ones. Pizza Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil and oil) is the most commonly requested pizza in Italy. And did you know that it was named after 19th century Queen Margherita and that its colors represent the Italian national flag? The most “Italian” pasta recipes are very simple, too, with few ingredients – pasta col sugo (pasta with fresh tomato sauce and parmigiano) or pasta col pesto.

Italy’s cuisine has America to thank for some of its more stereotypical features. The tomato, for example, was brought from the New World and introduced into use in Italy only in the 18th century – and it actually is not used as much as people think in Italian recipes. America also introduced Italy to potatoes (now widely used for puree, or purea, and for gnocchi), to corn (used in northern-tradition “polenta”) and to cocoa, the key ingredient in tiramisu and other popular desserts.

An important difference between Italian food and Italian American food is the way dishes are served. In Italy the single plate with everything on it is infrequent. The golden rule is “one course at a time”: antipasti (appetizers), then primo (pasta, rice or soup), then secondo (meat or fish with sides), followed by fruit, dessert, and coffee, of course.

One last consideration – that actually should be the first. Traditional Italian cuisine is based essentially on the quality of its ingredients, grown in the Mediterranean climate and, in some cases, with centuries-old techniques. I’m concerned that it’s really hard to duplicate that freshness abroad, without a wide reconsideration of the importance of tradition and local productions. If ingredients are carried on trucks for hundreds of miles, they won’t be as fresh as the local ones that go directly from farm to table.

So, if you really want to savor and appreciate authentic Italian cuisine – I’ll be waiting for you in Italy!

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