Keep it simple, stupido!
It’s odd to think back to how important “Italian” food was, historically. It had a golden era long before Escoffier put French cuisine on the map.
That was when there was money around. But in the early part of the last century Italian food went into free-fall - one figure has it that the average consumption of meat in the UK at the turn of the 20th century was 12 kilos. In Italy it was 2 kilos.
These were hard times, ones that encouraged mass emigration, but an emigration that took the basis of Italian food worldwide and also built the image many around the world have of Italian food today. It’s an image not many Italians would recognise.
Italian food in the US, for example, became a hybrid - Italian-American cuisine - Italian food but with loads of meat. That’s a long way from classic Italian cooking, which is more the cucina povera - the dishes of the poor, tasty but very basic. Indeed, it was through cucina povera that Italians recognised other “true” Italians wherever they were - food, after all, like clothes, is central to the Italian identity.
And it has been all the more importantly so, given how confused Italy has been when it comes to nationhood. Whether in times of monarchy, fascism or even during events in Italian politics recently, food has proven a reliable base.
And yet to speak of one style of Italian cooking is misleading. Its global success as a cuisine, much like Indian cuisine, lies precisely in the fact that it is so adaptable. You can play with it. And over time that has led to different Italian cuisines in different parts of the world, not least because Italians like to add their own spin to a dish. It has always been more regional - you could have an Italian in one part of the world questioning the cooking of those in another because they put parsley on their minestrone soup.
My dad still shouts at Jamie Oliver on the TV when he puts too many ingredients in
An Italian may look at a British-Italian dish like spaghetti Bolognese - which should really be with tagliatelle in my opinion - and be outraged by it. But another will say the way he wants to do it is just as incorrect. This means Italian cooking may start a few arguments among Italians.
But what keeps it alive more generally is that it is actually behind trends in cooking generally - Heston Blumenthal-type chefs are still surprised by how traditional it really is. That’s its strength - like Indian food it’s very direct; big plates for sharing, so very convivial.
It’s not like French cooking, with 25 chefs working on one plate. It’s more about the choice of ingredients than preparation - and even then just three or four ingredients, not dozens. My dad still shouts at Jamie Oliver on the TV when he puts too many ingredients in.
Yet if emigration has caused confusion as to what Italian cooking really is, then tourism means that the likes of spaghetti Bolognese are becoming less and less common. People used to come into my restaurant and say, “this isn’t an Italian restaurant - where’s the lasagne?”
But since more and more people have got to know Italy - and got to try “real” Italian cooking - and with Europe moving closer and closer together, so too expectations of Italian food back home have risen. Experience has changed perception.
When you’ve had a real pizza, it’s hard to order the takeaway kind again. Of course, you’ll always be able to get this take on Italian food because it’s a commodity - and you’ll always enjoy feeling a bit sick the next day too. But what’s important is that more people will understand that the commodity is not strictly speaking Italian. Every one has to start somewhere with their education.
Italian cooking is changing in Italy too. It’s not always for the good - we have a terrible childhood obesity problem, for example. But increasingly the styles of cooking of different regions are coming together and sharing ideas. And that makes me feel very positive about the future of Italian cuisine, even with deeppan pizza and spaghetti Bolognese still around. Remember that Italy is comparatively a very young nation.