Italian Food – What is It?
Ask the question, “What is Italian food” and you’re bound to illicit numerous responses. A provincial Italian from southern Italy who hasn’t left his or her region would probably argue it’s regional food that is cooked at home with minimal yet high quality ingredients. Ask the same question to a savvy New York restaurant and food type and you’re bound to hear a more complicated answer centered on using regional, US based, ingredients with an eye towards experimentation. When you pose the question to folks outside of Italy and the major food cities in the United States you’ll most likely hear responses such as: pasta with meatballs, pizza, chicken cutlets, lasagna, etc. Are all these answers correct?
When I ask myself the same question, my head goes spinning and I ultimately give up on trying to provide an adequate answer. For example, food types like pasta and pizza were unheard of in Italy until the early 20th century. Specifically, pizza, as we understand it, didn’t make its appearance in Italy until the late 1890’s (in Naples) and thereafter it took years to spread outside of Campania. Pasta has the same history in Italy, served first as street food in and around Naples and then becoming gourmet food reserved for the elite, only to finally become a mass market food with the introduction of dried pasta and factory production.
Italians, for most of their history, looked outside of their small peninsula and, for example, gravitated towards French inspired foods in the 19th century and shunned regional cooking as the literal cucina povera not worthy of noble and elite tongues. Move the calendar up a 100 years or so and Italian food is respected throughout the world and the basic, and most important factor of Italian cooking, is generally being accepted and understood; namely, Italian food is centered on regional dishes comprised of simple, yet high quality, ingredients. In Calabria, Italian food is baby goat, expertly butchered, and pan simmered with tomatoes, parsley, onions, and a few potatoes or a piece of swordfish cooked with lemon zest, red onions, and vinegar. In a fine New York City Italian restaurant, a typical dish may be a risotto made with chicken stock, exotic mushrooms, a bit of saffron, butter, Parmigiano Reggiano, and whipped cream (with an emphasis on gilding the lily). In the home kitchen of a 2nd or 3rd generation Italian American, a typical dish may be lasagna made with many meats and various cheeses sourced from a large supermarket.
In turn, Italian food varies greatly and this is especially true in Italy where regional cooking is truly unique. For example, in Calabria, you’ll find recipes for fresh anchovies varying from village to village with great pride taken in which preparation is proper for the main ingredients (this idea is highlighted in the many food festivals <or sagre> found in the South where each village highlights their special way of making eggplant, potatoes, swordfish, etc.). In the United States (and both in restaurant and home kitchens) we see a more standardized approach to preparing Italian food and most likely a result of lack of ingredients and knowledge. There are exceptions, such as the home kitchens of immigrant Italians and the very best Italian restaurants with unlimited budgets for ingredients and brainy head chefs with deep knowledge of Italian cooking as prepared on the Continent.
For our purposes, as home cooks, Italian food should always be about the ingredients and the process of minimally manipulating the ingredients found in a given dish. Preparing tomato sauce, for example should always be about good tomatoes (period). We shouldn’t, if we can help it, add butter, carrots, chicken stock, red wine, or any other unnecessary ingredient to a tomato sauce recipe. We shouldn’t because when we cook Italian food we ought to gently close our eyes and imagine how Nonna, back in the mid 20th century was preparing a simple pan tomato sauce. Namely, she most likely had some red onions, tomatoes, and olive oil from her small plot of land (either sharecropped from a wealthy land owner or owned outright if she was lucky). She most likely had dried oregano and sea salt and cooked the tomatoes and onions quickly in a pan and tossed a small amount of dried pasta in the same pan cooking the sauce. The process was simple and a byproduct of the region and environment around her. We should aim to emulate Nonna’s cooking in our own home kitchens because the traditions surrounding regional Italian food should be honored and preserved because there’s something to be said when the people of a particular spot on the planet do the same thing with their food for long periods of time (this idea centers not only on preservation and understanding food history, but on the beauty of Italian culture).
So, we won’t yell at you for adding whipped cream to your risotto or wanting to experiment with ingredients found in your region of the United States when preparing Italian food, but we ask you to always keep in mind a fundamental question: What is, and ought to be, Italian food? And, yes, we’ll always give you a hug for cooking, from scratch, food in your kitchen (you are to be applauded for that)!