What we eat and how we eat it…does the authenticity of Italian food really matter to the average person? You may have some understanding of what makes a certain recipe more “authentic” than other variations.=
Do you know the difference between twice-fried artichokes (called carciofi alla giudea) and braised artichokes with mint and garlic (called carciofi alla romana) from Rome? Do you know the different variations of Tuscany’s acqua cotta that change across the region, depending on where you prepare and eat it? Do you eat grated mozzarella on crostini but never on homemade shellfish pasta? Do you only cook tomatoes and artichokes separately because they come into season at different times of the year? Do you insist on long cooking all your vegetables when preparing Italian food to prevent bleaching asparagus and other greens? Do you balk at nettle-ricotta ravioli with puttanesca sauce? Do you have a deep, foundational understanding of the flavor pallet of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, and basil?
Or do these considerations never cross your mind?
Is There a Right or Wrong in Italian Cooking?
Italians love their food—and, rightfully so, are passionate about its flavor and preparation. But does authenticity really matter? Anyone intimately familiar with Italian food understands the temptation to scoff at wrongly made Italian dishes. Even the organization of dinner has a “right” and “wrong” schedule: Salad always follows the entrée, never serve pasta and soup in the same meal, globe tomatoes go in salad while plum tomatoes are used in pasta sauce. There are so many “rules” that it can intimidate newcomers to the preparation and enjoyment of authentic Italian cuisine.
A History of Changing Tastes
When New World vegetables were brought over to Italy (and beyond) after 1492, new food preparation, flavors and recipes started to emerge within the culture. Potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, corn, and beans had never (or rarely) been seen in this region before this point. Does this mean that to be truly “authentic” we shouldn’t use these foreign ingredients? Does that make tomatoes “inauthentic” in Italian cuisine?
Food—what we eat and how we eat it—is constantly in flux. Everything changes and shifts. Access to food grown overseas at the average supermarket has radically altered what ingredients are available, from vegetables to spices and herbs. When you are not reliant on what you can grow and harvest yourself, your recipes and meal preparation tends to change to reflect this, moving away from a “local” focus to a more liberal use of various foods.
Some people may turn their nose up at spaghetti and meatballs, an American recipe that often gets incorporated into what people think of as “Italian food.” While this recipe would never appear in a restaurant in Italy, Italian-based chefs coming to America may incorporate it into their offerings in order to best serve their intended crowd.
What is “Authentic” Italian Food, Anyway?
Television, cookbooks and magazines are another way that our exposure to different foods changes constantly. Just like the settlement of the Americas changed Italian food and the way that immigration and globalization continues to change food sources around the world today. As travel and migration gets easier, it’s impossible to be completely untouched by foreign influences on ingredients and recipes.
So what is “authentic”?
Instant cheese slices now appear in some Italian eggplant Parmesan. Tabasco and Worcestershire show up in some Italian tomato sauces. Corn can now be used in products that traditionally relied on faro, barley, and millet. What combinations might become standard – and even “authentic” – 50 years from now?
There is certainly value in knowing the rules of any particular cuisine before starting to break them. If you are a non-native Italian learning the cuisine, a good place to start is the basics – what might be considered “authentic.” But as you learn, there is nothing wrong with favouring styles and flavours that appeal to you. Food does not need to be static; it can change as we change – personally and globally. As things across the world change, what is unusual to us today may become the “traditions” of tomorrow.
Ready to get started experimenting? Here’s Pazzo Pazzo’s guide to getting creative with pizza toppings.
Want to see what authentic Italian cuisine looks and tastes like? Book a reservation at Pazzo Pazzo in beautiful downtown Edmonton today.