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What makes it Italian?

Editor’s Note: To celebrate 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture,” Davide Arminio, an Italian journalist studying in Albuquerque, found 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.

Because I’m not a food critic, nor a gourmet, I decided against trying to rate Albuquerque restaurants or give them stars. 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 rustic foods 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 2,000 years. What’s now known as Italian cuisine worldwide is a sort of an 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 so-called 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).

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. Did you know that it was named after 19th-century Queen Margherita and that its colors represent the Italian national flag?

Most authentic 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.

It’s very 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!

Here are two classic Italian recipes, pulled from two of the top-selling Italian cookbooks of 2013.

SPAGHETTI WITH GARLIC, OLIVE OIL AND RED PEPPER FLAKES

Serves 4

Salt

1 pound dried spaghetti

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 teaspoon dried, crushed red pepper flakes

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the spaghetti and cook, stirring often, until tender but still firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Do not rinse the spaghetti in water. You want to retain the natural starches that make the sauce adhere to the spaghetti.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add garlic and sauté until golden and fragrant, about 1 minute. It’s important to not overcook the garlic or else it will become bitter. Using a slotted spoon, remove and discard the garlic. Add the red pepper flakes and sauté for 1 minute. Carefully stir in the reserved cooking liquid and ½ teaspoon of salt. Immediately add the drained spaghetti and toss for 1 minute to coat well. Season with more salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley, basil and mint, and serve.

COOK’S NOTE: The secret is in reserving the cooking liquid to make the sauce. Fresh herbs are essential; dried herbs do not work well in this recipe.

– Adapted from “Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes,” by Giada de Laurentiis

ROASTED TOMATO BRUSCHETTE

60 or so cherry tomatoes, halved, stem ends trimmed

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

3 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves

5 garlic cloves, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Bruschette or crostini

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Arrange tomatoes cut side up on a parchment-lined 12 x 16 sheet pan. Drizzle the olive oil over them, scatter the herbs and garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 2 hours, turning the tomatoes once.

Coarsely chop the tomatoes for bruschette, or simply press a tomato onto each crostino.

Leftover tomatoes can be packed into jars, topped with olive oil, and stored in the fridge for a week.

COOK’S NOTE: You may substitute 25 medium tomatoes, quartered, or three 28-ounce cans of plum tomatoes, drained and quartered, for the cherry tomatoes. If you must substitute with dried herbs, cut the amount in half.

– Adapted from “The Tuscan Sun Cookbook,” by Frances Mayes and Edward Mayes

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