There’s a television program — whose name I won’t mention because I don’t want to give it publicity – hosted by an Italian restaurateur that awards the title of best Italian restaurant in the world outside of Italy, and turning the search into a sort of competition. Not surprisingly, some of the episodes were shot in New York, and there seem to be others in the pipeline. Three contestants, living in a particular city, propose their favorite restaurant as the best and most authentically Italian, and the challenge is on. Then, together with the host, they go and eat in all three places, commenting on, and judging the various dishes.
The program’s concept is cute, even if not that original, and could work if it wasn’t for the host’s pompous tone as the custodian of the fundamental criteria of authenticity—of the Italian-ness of the dishes, and the ingredients that went into making them.
You can sense an underlying superiority complex on his part, towards both the contestants and the restaurateurs, because everything is judged in comparison to a mythical standard of Italian-ness of which only he seems to be the keeper.
Italian Americans, their adaptation of Italian dishes and their tastes are judged as being impure in a patronizing and condescending manner. Right from the first episode, one of the contestants is mocked and humiliated because she had the audacity to order a chicken marsala dish. A heresy for the host and the other contestants that thundered, “That’s not Italian!”. And to think that in my home, in Bozzolo, chicken cutlets in Marsala has always been one of the most popular dishes. But this mythical Italian-ness, put on pedestal as an ideal to which all other criteria must come second, is defined by whom? Do the newly arrived from Italy have more expertise to judge? But isn’t Italian cuisine extraordinary precisely because, in reality, it is a constellation of regional and small-town cuisines that over the centuries separated and then fused together?
I remember that about twenty years ago, an epic argument broke out in London between two of my friends from Mantua who, in Hyde Park, began discussing if pumpkin tortelli should be eaten only with butter and sage or with tomato sauce, and maybe even with bacon or sausage. The discussion soon degenerated into an argument that was so animated, that their screaming was being noticed by passers-by. No agreement could be reached and the two of them (one was from Bozzolo and the other from S. Martino, a distance of a little over a mile) did not speak to each other for a few days.
Why did I tell you this story? Because I believe it demonstrates the pointlessness, and actually, the racist prejudice of this TV program. A single concept of authenticity and Italian-ness does not exist with regard to cuisine. Ask serious scholars like Fabio Parasecoli or Simone Cinotto who are the experts, and who are very careful not to use these labels. That which is considered authentic in Bozzolo, may be considered fake in S. Martino. And if an agreement cannot be reached between two villages that are a little over a mile apart, how can you expect to have a universal standard to judge Italian cuisine in the various forms it has taken around the world, where it has adapted to the products available, to the palates of the host country, and to dozens of other factors that would need to be understood and studied, and not to be mocked?
The subtle idea that the program seems to pass on is that the Italians who emigrate become, to a certain degree, less Italian, second-class Italians, who constantly need to be re-taught by “Italians-Italians” what it means to be Italian, starting by eliminating spaghetti and meatballs. And I deliberately eat them and enjoy them because other Italian immigrants like me, and before me, combined the base element of their diet with those meats that here in America could be found at affordable prices. Paisans, don’t worry: we’re Italian– at least as much as those snobs that eat salt-crusted sea bass.
Translated by Emmelina De Feo