The ingredients are farm-to-table fresh, the traditions strong, the kitchen skills unequalled. But that’s only the beginning. The Italians’ respect for great food borders on worship.
This past holiday season, I noticed one of those quirky little cultural differences that separates the United States, my native home, from Italy, my adopted one. At the height of the Christmas season, the television networks in both countries broadcast segments on the foods and wines of the season. But the U.S. segments were quick, statistics-driven and light; the Italian segments, many of them during prime time, were elaborately researched and offered wide-ranging, thoughtful recommendations of regional specialties and wines, with recipes and quick cooking tips.
That got me thinking about the primetime billing wine and food enjoy in Italian culture and consequently why Italy excels so effortlessly when it comes to all things related to gastronomy. It reminded me of the question that is often asked, but rarely answered to anyone’s satisfaction: why does food taste so good in Italy and why can’t you reproduce the intensity of Italian flavors abroad? I have a few thoughts.
The marvels of freshness and simplicity are of course key; sourcing from small-scale, local producers makes Italy a case study in the farm-to-table food philosophy. For example, one of the best dishes I’ve had recently was prepared by the matronly Signora Lucia at the neighborhood trattoria just a few doors down from where I live in Rome. Her five-Euro cacio e pepe consists of pasta (she opted for rigatoni), freshly ground black pepper and pecorino romano cheese (colloquially known as “cacio” because of the salting process the whey undergoes).
The symphony of flavor created by these ingredients was due to the quality and selection of each, of course: pecorino romano, a sheep’s milk cheese that ages up to eight months and sports a black vegetable ash protective crust, is a proud local tradition not found outside central Italy. Ironically, you’d probably spot it in a boutique New York grocer before you see it in Venice or Milan. But it was also technique: the Signora knew that too much cheese makes the dish salty and draining the pasta of all its moisture makes the sauce lumpy and dry.
Seasonality is just as important. Signora Lucia’s contorno, or side dish menu, now features carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes that are steamed and stuffed with mint and garlic) and puntarelle (a variety of chicory that is served with an anchovy paste vinaigrette). Both are winter vegetables specific to the Italian capital. But, we all know that Italy excels when it comes to seasonal foods, simplicity and local sourcing. So do many other countries, including the Unites States. Those factors still don’t explain the “magic,” for lack of a better term, of why food tastes so good over here.
One theory I have points to religion. That’s not to suggest that God or faith has any influence on how good food tastes. Over many years spent here, I have come to suspect that shadows of Italy’s ancient roots in paganism still exist under a thick primer of Catholicism and other faiths. This is a country that makes a deity out of a head of radicchio salad, a swordfish steak, a subspecies of hot chili, or a porcino wild mushroom. Each is venerated with its own special festivity, or sagra in Italian, in which the food is celebrated with music, dance and lavish banqueting.
I recently went to a sagra dedicated to chestnuts in the small town of Canepina in the upper Lazio. The three-day street party complete with flag-wavers in medieval costume, fireworks and enough roasted chestnuts to fill the central square must have, I am quite sure, represented most of the town’s annual budget. Not even Santa Corona, the town’s patron saint whose gilded statue is carried through the streets by the local priests, gets as much time on the calendar. Look to a higher authority in Canepina and your divine apparition will come in the form of a chestnut.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of small Italian towns spanning the peninsula celebrate a sagra dedicated to the local crop with the same fervor they dedicate to the patron saint. Young children, families and the elderly are all involved in the festivities and each develops an acute sense of respect for the food product that brought prosperity and employment to their area as well as unity and well being.
That deeply entrenched respect is another factor that, I believe, makes food taste so good in Italy. For example, Italians rarely over-order at restaurants and portions are naturally small. It’s not just a question of quality over quantity; it comes from a lingering post-war sense of austerity in which wasting precious food is frowned upon. Appreciation of food and wine is taught in schools and practiced at home with grandchildren learning to knead pasta or roll gnocchi from their grandparents. You’ll also see respect in the way food is handled physically. Notice how the barman keeps your espresso cup warm by placing it on top of the machine. Or, how your ham and cheese sandwich is toasted to perfection on demand even at the Autogrill. It’s then carefully swathed in a thick napkin and handed over as if it were a newborn baby.
Italy’s economy relies heavily on food and wine and its gastronomic exports enjoy the same recognition as luxury, fashion and design goods. In a sense, the whole country celebrates a nationwide sagra to its agricultural products that evokes veneration and respect.