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Authentic Italian Cuisine: To Be or Not to Be

Italian cuisine is usually not what it is seen to be. But do you want it to be what it is? In either case, here is an eye-opener on fine Italian dining

I pride myself on having a profound understanding of what Italian food is and what makes it authentic. I know that the long cooking of vegetables is a hallmark of Italian food wherever you are: no barely blanched green beans or asparagus for Italians, please!

And yet, I ask myself, what is authenticity and does it really matter? Italians are, of course, passionate about their food culture and ready at all times to chastise a foreigner for not understanding the right combinations or sequences of flavors. Salad always comes after the entrée – never before. Pasta and soup fill the same slot in the meal, so you eat one or the other and not both. Plum tomatoes are for pasta sauce, globe tomatoes are for salad. And so it goes, a dizzying array of rules and regulations. But still I wonder, what is the importance of authenticity?

I lived in the United States for most of my life, primarily on the West Coast, but spent a few years in the tri-state area of New York-New Jersey-Connecticut. An area swamped with a few million Italian immigrants. I used to love the Italian food that I ate. But what did I know. I was a novice. After years of being in the hotel business, primarily in Food & Beverage, I have come to understand what really is ‘Italian’ in food. 

Food is not static. What we eat is constantly evolving and changing. New things become available. 

Is it inauthentic to be inspired by new ingredients? Is it inauthentic to take the combination of insalata Caprese and manipulate the ingredients until they no longer resemble mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil but the flavor combination remains the same?

When I opened the Italian fine dining restaurant Travertino at The Oberoi, New Delhi, the Chef who was brought in from the famed Hassler Hotel in Rome, requested Worcestershire and Tabasco to put in his tomato sauce. Is that inauthentic? Or is it simply adapting in the same way that people adapted new products like corn to their traditional dishes of grain gruel made with millet, barley, or farro? Do I really care if someone sprinkles mint over fried artichokes? It actually sounds good. I have found the combination of soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil to be delicious. Is that a bad thing? It's certainly inauthentic right now, but will it be considered a standard element in Italian cuisine 50 years from now?

I believe you have to really understand the classics in anything to start rearranging them. 

When I taste traditional French food with its flour-thickened, rich, long-cooked sauces, I don't enjoy it. It tastes old and stale and boring. I don't agree that innovation for the sake of innovation is necessarily a good thing, and I don't enjoy molecular gastronomy necessarily any more than I do classic haute cuisine French food of the 1950s. But for me a truly confident chef is able and eager to appropriate new ingredients and techniques. Things change, our palates change and what was new today may become the tradition of tomorrow – a tradition so ensconced that the minute you think of that cuisine you think of the dish, the way pasta is thought of. 

When travelers book their trips to Italy, there’s usually one aspect they’re particularly excited about: the food. Oh, to drown in dishes of fra diavolo and swim in pools of spaghetti and meatballs! To inhale the pungent, sweet smell of garlic bread and eat cheesecake by the pound! For anyone with a penchant for comfort food, it seems like a dream.

Shrimp with fra diavola

There’s just one problem: Unless you want to spend all your time in restaurants that cater exclusively to Americans, you'll have a tough time finding any of the dishes that have been marketed to you for years as Italian. That’s because so much of the food that we consider Italian, well, isn’t. It’s Italian-American. And, for the most part, that’s an entirely different cuisine. So different, in fact, that few Italians would recognize many of the dishes if served to them.

As anyone who has traveled from Florence to Rome can tell you, Italian food is extremely regional. Even today, traditional trattorie, catering to local clientele, tend to serve dishes so local, you wouldn’t find them in another city — the tortellini in brodo of Bologna, the carciofi alla romana of Rome, the sfogliatelle of Naples. 

The commercialization of Italian fare and myth busters is alive and kicking overseas. No need to be disappointed that your "Italian" favorites won’t, in fact, be on the menu abroad. Here are some of the most classic dishes you'll recognize from Italian menus ‘óutside’ of Italy — and what to look for in Italy instead.

1. Garlic bread
Turns out you don’t have to smell like a fresh garlic clove throughout your time in Italy. Italian dishes are much lighter on garlic than their Italian-American counterparts. (The same goes for onions.) And in the country of olive oil, rubbing bread in butter is generally a strange thing to do, regardless. For that reason, it’s thought that garlic bread was invented in U.S. in the 1940s.

Instead, try: bruschetta al pomodoro
This bread is toasted, too — and even rubbed with a (slight! slight!) amount of garlic. It’s then topped with lots of fresh tomatoes. Look for it in Rome, and remember two things: Not only can you get away with pronouncing it broo-SKEHT-tah here without sounding like a jerk (in fact, waiters who don’t speak English might not know what you’re ordering otherwise), but it's either an antipasto or a snack during aperitivo (a pre-dinner drink), not something to be served or consumed alongside a main course.


2. Spaghetti and meatballs
In his memoirs, a Sicilian named Niccolo’ de Quattrociocchi wrote that while eating at an Italian restaurant in New York in the early 20th century, he encountered two “very fine, traditional American specialties” for the first time. One of these? Spaghetti and meatballs.

Instead, try: polpette al sugo
You can find meatballs in tomato sauce in Rome and south of Rome, they're just not served on pasta. They’re often much smaller than those you’d see in the U.S. But there’s a bonus: If you choose your trattoria carefully, they should also be much fresher. While frozen everything is starting to encroach on food culture in Italy, the trend is still a few years behind the U.S. In other words, it’s the perfect place to try those meatballs without all that carbohydrate distraction.

Polpette al Sugo

3. Fettuccine Alfredo
It’s like macaroni and cheese … with an Italian twist. Or so I always thought. Turns out, there’s only one restaurant I ever heard of that served it: Alfredo’s, in Rome. It was created there in 1920 by the chef, Alfredo, to appeal to American clientele. No surprise there, really, since nothing about the dish appeals to traditional Italian palates; putting cream on pasta is so rarely done that in Rome, the home of pasta carbonara, the recipe calls for not a hint of cream. And, again, there’s the whole issue of using butter.

Instead, try: cacio e pepe
This traditional Roman pasta is simply cheese and pepper, just like the name says. Pasta gets swirled with a mixture of Pecorino Romano cheese, fresh black pepper, and a touch of olive oil, a mixture melted together by the pasta’s heat. And that’s it. No fuss, no muss, no antacids needed.

Cacio e Pepe

4. Chicken on pasta
An Italian colleague of mine at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, once told me that when she first heard that this was a thing in the U.S, her scorn needed no translation. Putting meatballs on pasta is something that Italians don’t usually do, but still, can see the merit of it (after all, many other pasta dishes incorporate meat into the sauce, like the famous ragu alla Bolognese – although it’s worth noting that the meat sauce is served in Bologna with just a touch of tomato). But that benefit of the doubt simply doesn't extend to chicken. It’s a separate dish. End of story.

Instead, try: fish on pasta
This, for some reason, is okay (although, like meat in a ragu, it almost always will be broken up into small pieces, not served whole on top of a pile of pasta). Specialties vary across Italy’s regions, but some of the most delicious seafood pastas can be found in Sicily, where dishes incorporate local catches ranging from pesce spada (swordfish) to sarde (sardines).

5. Penne alla vodka
Good luck getting to the bottom of this one. Like the other dishes on the list, I never saw this on my visit to Italy or even the books I’ve read on its cuisine. In any case, vodka isn’t, obviously, a traditionally Italian drink. And, again, a pasta sauce with cream — in Italy, penne alla vodka usually includes tomatoes, onions, cream, and vodka — is pretty tough to find in the old country.

Instead, try: anything else
No, really. Anything else. Please. Penne alla vodka doesn’t even make sense: What little flavor vodka has gets burned off in the cooking, leaving you with a sad tomato-onion-cream sauce. What did that vodka ever do to you? Instead, order any local specialty — anything — and if you really want to feel a little kick, follow up your dinner with an order of grappa or limoncello: alcohol you’ll actually be able to taste.

6. Cheesecake
It’s the go-to dessert of Little Italy restaurants everywhere, but good luck finding this delicious, decadent dessert on menus in Italy.

Instead, try: cassata siciliana
Sweetened ricotta mixes are common in Southern Italy, particularly in Naples and Sicily (although they’re not generally as heavy, or sweet, as anything you’d taste in a cheesecake). They fill cannoli, sfogliatelle, and a myriad of other pastries. The closest to a cheesecake in terms of sheer decadence, though, is the cassata siciliana, a liquor-soaked sponge cake that gets layered with sweetened ricotta, covered in green almond paste, and iced. 

Cassatta Siciliana

What's happening in Italy, the home of real Italian food? Its food concepts have been exported and adopted around the world, but global foods are also finding their way back into Italy and changing the landscape.

The term ‘pasta sauce’ is meaningless in Italian, because authentic Italian sauce is regional. 

In the US when you say pasta sauce people think only of spaghetti with tomato sauce, but you can't say or do that in Italian. There's no one pasta and there's no one sauce. And due to the regionality, you can't define or say for certain what Italian cuisine is, because there is no one idea of it. Indeed this regionality has been put back at the centre of the fight to retain the roots of Italian cooking.

According to Francine Segan, an Italian food historian, "Olive oil is one such part of the diet. The best example of how this tradition has been pushed back retroactively – it's definitely not an 'authentic' Italian food stuff. But today premium olive oil is widely loved as one of the cuisine's key ingredients.”

Massimo Bottura, the chef-patron of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, Modena, which ranks number five on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, the highest placed Italian restaurant, says, "Everyone talks about authenticity but I am not sure that is really what they are aiming for… it almost seems like copying from someone else's test and not thinking things through properly. If traditions are put under glass, they stagnate. People forget about them and they are lost forever. Traditional foods were once innovations, and they continue to evolve. By keeping them actual and contemporary, there is a chance that they will be passed onto future generations which ensures that culinary heritage continues to give people a sense of place and belonging," he explains. Apt indeed.

Italian food ingredients

William Drew is the editor of Restaurant magazine, and the chairing judge for the Birra Morretti Emerging Italian Restaurant Awards. He says Italian food is "far from losing its authenticity. It's difficult to define but some restaurants are very avant garde, yet are grounded in authenticity in a recipe – the ingredients, their seasonality… and what has been put together with traditional dish construction, sometimes is then used to deconstruct."

As a professional hotelier I’ve often said, what really makes an Italian restaurant 'authentic' is conviviality. Eating together being a communal, family process, so you want a welcoming maitre d'or chef patron – it's that combination of eating and experience that make it ‘authentic.’ But perhaps more importantly, authentic Italian food in its purest form is easiest to achieve with one simple lesson: Italian food is simple and should remain simple.

Italian cuisine has always been known for its garlic, its olive oil, its tomatoes, its weakness for wine, and for that uncanny way it had of defying the rules: the more you eat the healthier you are. Well, the real lesson Italian cuisine taught the world is a simple one: it’s all about what you eat and the quality of the ingredients you use. Olive oil is not just oil. Tomatoes must be fresh. Garlic is good for the heart and red wine is great as long as it’s good. This indicates how more and more people are coming to appreciate the unique versatility of Italian cuisine, as it promotes simple cooking, in the respect of each ingredient’s single flavor, appearance and texture. As a sign of further development, many are coming to understand how Italy doesn’t have only one Italian cuisine, but several regional gastronomic identities. The world has started to distinguish between Emilia Romagna’s freshly made egg tortellini and Puglia’s buckwheat spaghetti. 

I for one have always proclaimed that whether it’s wine or food, if it tastes good to you, then enjoy it. Critics be damned. Bon apetit! 

Raj Rao, Managing Director, NYC.PIERaj Rao has lived in the United States for 28 years and was educated in San Diego, California, completing his degree in Business Administration. His career spans over 30 years in the hotel industry in California, Chicago, The Caribbean and India. Passionate about Food & Beverage, he started his career with Doubletree Hotels and has worked for Four Seasons Hotels, Ritz Carlton Hotels and Oberoi Hotels in various roles. He was also deeply involved in pre-opening F&B outlets for Ritz Carlton Hotels in Boston, Key Biscayne-Miami and New Orleans. In 2002, he was shortlisted 1 of 8 candidates for the position of Food & Beverage Director for The White House in Washington D.C., under the Clinton administration. He then came back to India and headed the F&B division at The Oberois, New Delhi where he was instrumental in launching the benchmark restaurant, Threesixty. In 2012 he set up the entire Kitchen & F&B structure for the 1200 bed Fortis hospital in Gurgaon where he has successfully redefined hospital cuisine. Raj Rao has now created his own brand, NYC.PIE, which is a Boutique Pizzeria catering to pizza lovers. He plans on scaling this brand through company owned stores as well as a Partner Owner Program (POP).