The Myths Of Italian Cuisine
How do you say “old wives’ tales” in Italian? There are lots, and myMEGusta looked into a few of them, some simply misunderstandings, and other, just plain odd ideas.
We scratched the surface of the subject in looking at that wonderful Italian dish, Salad Caprese, at its best in the summer time with bursting ripe tomatoes and freshly made mozzarella. Readers may recall that a fellow traveler insisted that it was not Italian, and no Italian person would eat it. Balderdash! It comes from the Isle of Capri, quite Italian, thank you.
And this is representative of a lot of confusion about what is and is not Italian. United as a nation only in the 19th Century, Italy was a collection of city states with different cultures, climates, crops, and cuisines. The authentic cooking style in seaside Sicily, in the shadow of Mt. Etna, bore no relation to that of an alpine village abutting Switzerland.
So, myMEGusta rolls her eyes when advised that certain things are NOT Italian, or when specialties from one area are dismissively put down as unquestionably inferior to comparable foods and practices from another. They are, or can be, all wonderful.
Let’s talk about pizza. No, the heavily laden, gloppy pizzas of Papa Johns and its ilk are not Italian. “Hawaiian” pizza with pineapple is not Italian. The gentleman overheard on one Metro North train bemoaning that “there is no good pizza in Italy” after a disappointing trip there, was wrong; he just had a very American, un-Italian idea of what constitutes pizza.
Naples is considered the mecca of thin crust pizza, but it can be found just about everywhere in the country, with local variations. We have fond memories of eating a fantastic eggplant pizza at the unfortunately named “Bar Domino” (no relation to the chain) on the Lake Lugano shore, in the Italian sector of Switzerland. And the giant oblong and rectangular pizzas of Rome are crispy and delicious, meant to be sold by the piece.
Sicilian pizza is another very real and authentic treat, essentially focaccia bread, as opposed to a thin crust, with toppings. Chicago deep dish pizza is an attempt to replicate this, and can be quite good, but only if the bread base is crispy and delish, and if the toppings are modest and top quality.
We recently saw a delightful picture of a very young friend eating pizza with her “nonni,” grandparents, on a trip to visit them in Milano.
And what about the concept that fresh pasta is, by definition, better than dried pasta? Wrong, again.
They are just different: Fresh pasta, found largely in the North, is made with eggs, hence the yellow tinge, and the best versions will use a softer flour. Yes, you can make this at home. Dried pasta, more Southern, is made with durum wheat, harder, with a higher gluten content and too stiff to work by hand, so it is factory made and sold dried.
The best of both are equally fine, and will go with different dishes, fresh skewing to the North and dried skewing to the South. For example, you’ll probably see fettuccine served with a creamy sauce (no tomatoes) and spaghetti with a red sauce.
A recent issue of Saveur Magazine quoted a good-eating Ligurian talking about Genovese white sauce (celery, carrots, garlic, pine nuts, veal, olive oil) and their wonderful pestos, “And no tomatoes with your food in Liguria!”
Not all fresh pasta is great, and not all dried pasta is, either. Pay attention to the brand, and be willing to pay a little extra when you find one you like.
And, forget about the prohibition on twirling spaghetti with a spoon. No, it’s not correct everywhere in Italy, but it’s what’s done in Sicily, and we have confirmation on this from a friend who learned it from his Sicilian grandmother.
What about tiramisu? Italian ancestors from some regions will tell you that it’s an imposter. But, not so fast. Tiramisu is as Italian as can be, with several regions claiming its origin, from Renaissance Venice to 16th Century Tuscany. Whether it goes back that far in some form (probably) or not, tiramisu never really became widely known and loved until it was “invented” in 1971 in a restaurant in Treviso.
Now, it’s time to plan a trip to Italy to do more research!