My mother called me last week, saying she had urgent news: “There’s an Italian man in the Financial Times claiming carbonara is American, that panettone is new – and that no one in Italy had heard of pizza before the 1950s,” she said.
The FT article, which was provocatively headlined Everything I, an Italian, thought I knew about Italian food is wrong, includes an interview with Alberto Grandi, a professor of food history at the University of Parma. He says: “Italian cuisine really is more American than it is Italian.” Grandi claims that carbonara was first made for American soldiers, and describes parmesan made in Wisconsin, United States, as “an exact modern-day match” for the original parmesan, unlike that of cheesemakers in Parma. Ouch.
Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmers’ association, called Grandi’s comments a “surreal attack” on Italian cuisine and even Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was moved to comment. “Experts and newspapers are envious of our tastes and beauty,” he rebuffed on social media.
Those FT editors, however, knew what they were doing and that Italians are fiercely proud of their food. There was a similar reaction when the New York Times published a recipe for a “Smoky Tomato Carbonara” in 2021. Dodgy interpretations of Italian food frequently provoke uproar on the part of natives, and subsequent amusement on social media usually follows. There is even a popular Twitter account called @italians_mad_at_food that retweets angry comments about people calling pasta noodles, and restaurants serving chicken lasagne (don’t even get me started on why chicken and lasagne don’t go together).
I have always known that tensions can flare up over the correctness of Italian recipes. My grandparents on my mum’s side were Italian – from Campania, in the south of Italy, and Sardinia. They are dogmatic about food and the way dishes should be prepared, speaking less from the standpoint of the nation, but more from the traditions of their region and sometimes even their individual village. Indeed, when Grandi talks of how pizzerias were rare in the south of Italy before the Second World War, he undermines his own point: regionality is everything in Italian cooking – my nonna from the south, for example, ate lots of pizza but never made carbonara.
I tend to dislike a lot of Italian food in the UK, as I feel that it’s not really “proper” and that my mum could make it better. Some might call bad British and American takes on classic Italian dishes cultural appropriation. But generally, Italians are not against adopting and adapting: I have encountered many Italian chefs who are more flexible when it comes to tweaking traditional recipes. My nonna, who moved to the UK after the Second World War, would call sponge and custard a “beautiful English pudding” and frequently fry eggs and bacon (in lots of olive oil) for breakfast for her grandkids.
What really annoys Italians, however, is the sloppy language used to describe dishes. Instead of calling your mushroom and ham spaghetti carbonara – as I have been dismayed to see friends and restaurants do – why not just call it something new?
In my experience, what Italians care about above all else is that you eat good food and enjoy it. That, in essence, is why pineapple on pizza, or cream in carbonara, causes such expressive protests. Italians truly believe the original (or their original) is the best – and they sincerely want you to have the pleasure of eating it. Buon appetito, tutti.
[See also: The struggle for Italy]