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Does Italy lack culinary relevance?

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Given that most gourmets would cite Italy as one of the top food destinations on Earth -- there are even many who prefer dining in Italy to dining in France -- why is it that Italy hardly seems relevant to the world of modern gastronomy?

Is it a simple question of the heavily regional orientation of Italian cuisine combined with the lack of identifiable Italian chef-personalities? Or is there something more to it?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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-- why is it that Italy hardly seems relevant to the world of modern gastronomy?

What is your definition of modern gastronomy?

If this depends on technical innovation & cult-of-personality then that was simultaneously created and exposed as absurd by Marinetti in the 20's.

I think some of the difficulties of establishing a 'moderne' style of Italian gastronomy were discussed

here, particularly by kikujiro

Wilma squawks no more

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But they don't cite it based on their modern cooking techniques or philosophies. They cite it based on simple and traditional cuisine using local ingredients. Personally I believe that the pasta course kills any possibility of Italy ever creating a modern cuisine. To think that there *has to* be a course in the middle of the meal that is entirely devoted to starch makes no sense in the world of modern gastronomy. I mean the trend is away from starches in the first place as people want to eat lighter. Did you ever see Dr. Atkins recommend pasta? If you impose either pasta, rice or polenta on every meal, let alone as it's own course, when would you serve things like an egg with maple syrup or "perfect" food? Oh that's right, the guy who serves the perfect food also serves pasta. Gee Sandra was right about those circular arguments :biggrin:.

Gavin - The easiest definition of modern gastronomy in this context is the restaurants and cuisine(s) that foodies and chefs talk about. You don't hear much chatter on this website about Al Sorriso, Don Alfonso, Enotecha Pincchiori, San Vicenzo or other restaurants in Italy that have 2 or 3 Michelin stars. You hear some, but they aren't really destination restaurants other than for Italophiles who are travelling in Italy anyway. Not much talk about "I'm dying to go to San Vicenzo." You also don't have the same demand from chefs for cookbooks and recipes from Italian chefs as you have with French and Spanish chefs.

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why is it that Italy hardly seems relevant to the world of modern gastronomy?

Well it's not the 'regional' aspect. Too many people on this site are obsessed by this for some reason (maybe it's a big thing in New York!). I've eaten in most regions of Italy (including Elba, Sardinia and Sicilia) and, whilst there are definitely great local specialities, I have found that, on the whole, the food to be universally great and have the same 'balance'. (The one exception would be an alpine type of spot where they serve 'mountain food' - the fact that Polenta is so popular in London and New York tickles the hell out of the Italians as Polenta is, usually, only served in rustic places and is certainly NOT on the menu in 'ristorante rafinatte' - alright, I know I'll get Tom, Dick and Harry telling me that they disagree and had Polenta last week in a restaurant in Venice. I'm sure they did!).

No, I think that cooking in Italy is not 'art' as it would be in a Michelin in France. The priority is very fresh ingredients and lots of hearty food cooked well.

I think this is the reason that most Italians don't like the food in France (yet the same people like the food in London!). In Italy if you want a really good Sunday lunch you drive out-of-town to a wonderful restaurant 'alla buona' (lit. 'to the good' meaning local i.e. not fancy) and have a wonderful home-style meal. This goes for everybody in Italy including the very rich and the poor as these meals are not expensive (it's quite common to go to one of these Trattorias or Osterias 'nella campagna' and see Ferraris or Mercedes' together with the cheapest Fiats parked outside).

When they go to France, instead of going to Michelin-type restaurants, they do the same as they would in Italy and fall flat on their faces!

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Steve P's take on this might be useful in keeping us from returning to the morass of the "superiority of French cuisine" thread. Is there something in the nature of Italian menus that robs them of variety or gastronomic interest? That would be a new topic worthy of debate.

I personally have experienced no lack of subtlety or complexity in the best Italian restaurants, and especially at the homes of some very experienced and passionate cooks in Italy. Nor have I felt pressured to eat pasta, polenta or risotto at every meal, though at least one of these is invariably on offer. Friends on the Atkins diet (a strange idea, to my view, but then I'm no doctor) do struggle in Italy. But is that not more a matter of weight control than gastronomy?

I have found that individual Italians, in general, seem to have somewhat stronger ideas than the French about what constitutes a "proper" meal, especially in the ordering of dishes and tastes. So perhaps they have embraced innovation less warmly than have the French.

Or perhaps Rebecca Spang's analysis is correct (long after Wilfrid's prompting, I am finally reading The Invention of the Restaurant): the French, in the form of Grimod de la Reynière) "invented" the idea of gourmandise and educated, classified taste -- a fairly late invention, by the way. Hence what some are experiencing is not some inherent inferiority of Italian cuisine but rather the lack of a developed language for talking about that cuisine.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Well after Peter's last post let me ask the question this way. Why hasn't the Italian public developed their palates in the same way that the French, British, Spanish, Germans and others have? Is it because their cuisine is so delicious? Or is it because there is some other lack of social or economic progress? The food in Italy is very good. But not good enough to warrant the type of isolationism you have described.

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Hence what some are experiencing is not some inherent inferiority of Italian cuisine but rather the lack of a developed language for talking about that cuisine.

A failure on the part of the Connoisseuriat? Surely not.

So Italian: The best ingredients, the most appropriately cooked.

French: The most appropriate ingredients, the best cooked.

British: The best ingredients, the most inappropriately cooked?

I'm not sure why starch should be disallowed - are we disallowing Japanese food from modern gastronomy?

Wilma squawks no more

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It's not a matter of disallowing pasta, it's a matter of it being injected into every meal as it's own course. And what do you mean that the Japanese use starch. Are you speaking of the rice in sushi? Real connoisseurs of Japanese food only eat sashimi. The rice is for tourists.

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So speaks the gluten intolerant. Has a very broad generalisation, Italians tend to be less catholic in the food preferences then the French, even in major cities such as Florence. If a large section of the community won't bother to eat food from the next region, how do you develop dining in a way analogous to the way the French did? (See Wilfrid's " The Invention of the Restaurant" for this).

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Minestre, Riso i polenta, sensa gluten di farina bianco.

But you raised another good point. Not only are they provincial as a nation, they are provincial by region. Do they have cars there? And as long as you brought up religion, has the church had anything to do with it?

I know that one of the reasons that Italians flourished in various fields of design like furniture, clothing, etc., was that there wasn't the GNP to build great buildings and public structures. So many people who would have gone into architecture ended up working in a smaller motif. You're a smart guy Balic. Why don't you go out to the library now and read a couple of thousand books on the topic and report back to us about whether Italy's inferior economic position hampered the growth of their cuisine.

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Steve - sorry I shouldn't have used the word "catholic" as it adds confusion (I ment "catholic" as in "Universal", not as in religious group).

I don't think there cuisine has been "hampered", it just developed differently. The development of restaurants in France was a French specific phenomena, so to ask the question "Why didn't Italy develop in the same way" misses the point.

It should also be remembered that Italy has been "Italy" for less time then Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom. The development of French restuarant cuisine in Paris couldn't have happened in Rome. It may have occured on a local scale in Italy (Florence, Venice), but they lack of a real centre of power over an extended period of time prevented the take off of the phenomena occuring in Italy.

Remember, it was these guys who kick started the develpment of French cuisine. It's not that it couldn't have developed, it just didn't.

To answer: Why is it that Italy hardly seems relevant to the world of modern gastronomy?

Because modern gastronomy is Francocentric.

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To answer: Why is it that Italy hardly seems relevant to the world of modern gastronomy?

Because modern gastronomy is Francocentric.

And in the eGullet spirit of circular arguments, isn't that because the Italians dropped the ball?

You actually have made a great point about the unification of Italy. It was in what year, 1874? That means a unified, singly codified Italian cuisine is only 130 years old. That gives the French quite a head start. But the point about the Church should not be discarded as their desire to be the real center of power in Italy has prevented a singular and civil seat of power from emerging.

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Italian cuisine was born of poverty and frugality but fierce pride. Hence simple preparation but use of the very best ingredients. This also explains the provincial nature of the cuisine, to get the very best ingredients you must get them at the source. The poverty and frugality also explains the pasta course. A meatball is a luxury item, so you eat a plate of pasta dressed with the meatball cooking sauce in order to fill you up before you receive your one precious meatball.

French cuisine was born of opulence and conspicuous consumption. The cuisine is about gilding the lilly.

It does not surprise me in the least that Mr. Plotnicki is on the side of the French in this discussion.

As for the "rice is for tourists" comment, you can't be serious.

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Italian cuisine was born of poverty and frugality but fierce pride.

Well of course it was born of poverty, but it wasn't born of fierce pride. It was a necessity. The church wanted to make sure that people put their extra money in their pishka. Not on their dinner plates. That's why Catherine diMedici and the Tuscans were important figures. They weren't dominated by the church and they built a cuisine for the bourgoise. Escaping the shadow of the church or the monarchy is at the heart of the issue of conspicuous consumption. And I can spin it the exact opposite way that you did. That the Italians inability to advance the ball on their cuisine is a metaphor for their inability to distance themselves from the power of the Church. It's the same for orthodox Jews who keep kosher. Their inability to distance themselves from their religion has kept their cuisine at a very low standard when viewing it through a gastronomic lens.

Of course this has nothing to do with how the food tastes. Italians while having a simple cuisine, have a delicious one. But I'm not sure how that is a defense to the question of culinary relevency when the definition of relevency seems to be, does it mean very much on the worldwide dining scene? To say that it is so delicious that they don't need to update it is nonsensical. There are dozens of chefs in Italy who have been trying to update the cuisine for the past three decades. They have pretty much all failed at it. That is why they aren't relevent. It has nothing to do with good terroir and the delicious food that comes from it..

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Ron you may want to look up "Scappi", "Latino" and "Catherine de Medici" before you get to carried away with Italian Poverty food.

I am cognizant of the fact that there is wealth in Italy, but I do not think that it shaped the cuisine the way wealth in France did.

However, I will try my very hardest not to get "to carried away" [sic].

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Is it relevant to bring Spain into the discussion? I've never eaten (nor visited) Spain or Italy, but would we have said the same of Spain, say, 20 years ago, or pre-Arzak? If so, under what conditions has haute cuisine developed there? Is its emergence unique in nature, or simply built upon the French model?

Apologies if this is a weak comparison...

Michael Laiskonis

Pastry Chef

New York


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Gastronomy has always been francocentric, for better or worse. Most of the top tables worldwide are French (outside of Italy, of course). In fact, I would venture a guess that an honest poll of top restaurants outside of France and Italy would find, historically, that nearly 90% were French and that the percentage hasn't dropped much over time.

French technique has always been superior and the French willingness to expand their flavors and incorporate techniques from other cuisines has set them apart from the field. Perhaps this is why France is more "relevant" in modern gastronomy -- the superiority of technique. This is, perhaps, why Italian chefs fail at updating their cuisines. If the touchstone of your cuisine rests on simplicity, how complex does your technique need to be?

But Italian chef's shouldn't have to apologize for not being French. And as for being relevant, I really could care less. I love eating in Italy and for me, that's what counts.

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Well, being Italian, I couldn't really resist adding my 2 cents worth to this discussion.

I think I would agree with the notion of culinary irrelevance (or minor importance) if the metric used to measure this was the attractiveness of top restaurants. There are a few reasons for this:

Economics has something to do with it for sure: the south is much poorer than the north and just a brief perusal of italy's map on the red michelin guide will tell you immediately that the concentration of stars in the south is nowhere near that in the north. But even in the north, Italy only became an industrialized and fully developed nation in the 60s and culinary habits had been quite settled by then.

Just as a small example, a restaurant in Leivi, called Ca' Peo, which I know quite well, gives a refined take on regional specialties with very few more standard haute cuisine dishes. It has a Michelin star and is always very good, sometimes mindblowingly good and yet the patronage is mostly foreign or from Milan: if you ask local well educated people whether they'd like to go to the restaurant, most of the times the answer you get is "but isn't it a french type restaurant which does nouvelle cuisine?". This only because the restaurant has a slightly more sophisticated ambiance than usual and the food is presented in a slightly more sophisticated matter and they miss what I believe is the best take on Ligurian cuisine there is.

This isn't just an Italian feeling and some foreigners fall into this sort of frame of mind as well: when Peterpumkino says that anything which is not of a trattoria-type is not Italian, he says something that indeed many Italians agree with, although I believe it to be wrong. When high end restaurants are blamed by locals and sometimes by visitors that they are not enough trattoria-like, how can you expect a large number of them to flourish? The Passards, Gagnaires, Veyrats, Bras can only be produced in a context where high end cuisine is patronized by the locals as well as the tourists because this generates the large number of high end restaurants necessary to build a school, to make people want to become a creative chef. Unless, of course, you get a very special case like Ferran Adria who is able singlehandedly to inspire a new generation of chefs in his native land. Persoannyl I wish this wasn't true because I really do eblieve the cuisine to have the same potential as French cuisine, but I feel sometimes both Italians and non-Italians see it as "ethnic".

Anyone familiar with the history of high gastronomic quality restaurants in Italy knows that until the 60s only 2 or 3 pioneers existed such as Cantarelli in Samboseto, and Bergese at "La Santa" in Genoa. These few restaurants where the only ones who aspired to provide a similar level of cuisine than that found in very good restaurants in France. By the way, food apart, they remained quite close to the trattoria "type" and service or ambiance had nothing to do with the restaurants across the alps. These restaurants then spawned a "second" generation: for example Ezio Santin (of the Antica Osteria) and the Santinis (of Il Pescatore) decided to become restaurateurs after meals at Cantarelli, Lidia Alciati (of Guido) and Valentino Mercattillii (of San Domenico), learned a lot from Nino Bergese. I could go on, but the point is that Italian "haute cuisine" (for lack of a better word) has developed from the enthusiasm of a few amateurs who decided to get into the business after experiencing the great restaurants of France, there never was a native movement. Let me stress this: there was no demand for these restaurants and as a few came about due to the passions of some, the demand has never really increased because none of these passionate amateurs had the ability to go beyond extremely well crafted versions of traditional regional cuisine. If you think about it, when you go into a top class French restaurant you mostly get dishes that have always been rooted in haute cuine: in Italy you get refined versions of peasant dishes.

I don't think it is a coincidence that even today almost all the top Italian chefs are self taught (Vissani, Marchesi and Pierangelini being the exceptions) and that the "creativity" level within high-end Italian restaurants is limited. A restaurant like Il Pescatore is great at what it does but I don't believe Nadia Santini could go very far from a refined take on Mantuan cuisine and still be able to do it at her current levels.

When comparing Italy to Spain, however, a few things have to be kept in mind: the first is that Spanish haute cuisine is really catalan and basque, if you look at the other regions there is much less than in Italy. The second thing to remember is that the current, mostly catalan phenomenom is really due to a single individual. Without Ferran Adria, I really doubt that the culinary fervor in Catalonia would be what it is. So while I accept the distinction between France and Italy to be a fundamental one, I believe what is going on in Spain to be more of a happy accident than anything else.

A couple more things: I thing that "prejudice" (in the literal sense) has not helped those italian chefs who indeed are creative and don't get enough international recognition. For example, for me Vissani is at the very top and could hold his own with any chef in the globe.

To Steve P. I would say that the presence of pasta as an unavoidable dish is definitively not something that has to be part of Italian cuisine and could be avoided easily: a few decades ago pasta (fresh or otherwise) was not a fundamental ingredient at all in Italian cuisine. I suspect it being everywhere is due to demand, not the cuisine itself.


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Here we are, with more solutions chasing problems, more answers seeking appropriate questions to justify their existence :laugh:

Given that most gourmets would cite Italy as one of the top food destinations on Earth -- there are even many who prefer dining in Italy to dining in France --  ....

...and that's an observable, demonstrable fact. Unfortunately, that fact doesn't match some people's preconceptions of "what makes a cuisine great" so they try to undermine the fact.

If Italian cuisine is so popular amongst the cognoscenti then it palpably is not despite their insistence on serving a pasta course or the starch content of some of their food or because it is based on "simple home cooking" or their unique political history, it is because there is something about their cuisine that the cognoscenti enjoy and respect and admire.

Now that may challenge many of the preconceptions that some people hold about what makes a cuisine great, and why one national cuisine (OK, OK, French cuisine) is better than all the others. It may even challenge some of the principles which people hold dear as to what fine dining really is, but nevertheless people must face up to that challenge.

You see, FatGuy's question does not only address the analytical question of what it is about Italian cuisine that gives rise to its practical popularity despite it's theoretical anonymity, it also addresses the philosophical question of why the "experts" have assigned to Italian cuisine a lower status than French cuisine.

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Amazing how those starving contadini managed to develop a delicious cuisine while those silly French peasants left it all to the toffs. Well I've aways said that the case of French peasant cuisine was overstated. Must have been their lack of fierce pride.

Gee Adam, that was constructive. I already figured out from your first post that you did not agree with me. However, the sarcasm was a nice addition.

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Francesco - Thanks for some fantastic posts. Your knowledge of the history and tradition of fine dining in Italy is most welcome and a huge addition to this site. But if I can cull a single thing from your last post, unlike aspiring chefs from the U.S., Britain, Germany etc., what you have basically said is that Italians weren't interested in attending cooking schools in France. Why is that? Where is their sense of curiosity? Or where is their desire to leave the old traditions behind, which is certainly one of the things that is driving young people from the countries I mentioned to go to France to study cooking. I should add to this that in my experience, Italy, while having ethnic restaurants, seems to have fewer of them in the major cities then other countries have.

Unfortunately, that fact doesn't match some people's preconceptions of "what makes a cuisine great" so they try to undermine the fact.

It's not a matter of preconceptions. Go to either Books for Cooks or Kitchen Arts and Letters and ask them what types of books garner the most interest. You will see that with professionals and people who are interested in the latest trends of food, Italy doesn't hold that much interest for them. It is books from France, Spain and Australia that hold the most interest with British and American books right behind them. Now books for consumers are very different. No doubt the latest Lorenzo di Medici or Marcella Hazan can sell loads of copies. But chefs aren't rushing out to buy those books in order to learn something about technique or how to use ingredients. But they are with most of the books coming out of France and Spain.

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