Breaking with Tradition
Few cuisines can start a heated debate faster than Italian food. Restaurant review sites are full of comments containing the words “authentic,” or “not authentic.”
Some online reviews we’ve seen addressing authenticity in Italian restaurants include:
“Not as tasty as calamari at authentic Italian spots.”
“The cannolis are way too sugary and not authentic at all.”
“Not authentic pasta con sarde no pingnoli: no toasted bread crumbs, no pecorino Romano grated cheese.”
“It's not authentic Italian, but what I call New York Italian, like the stereotype.”
“…they also seem to think salami is sausage, which proves to me they are not authentic.”
Foods that are tied to a specific culture, like Italian, have a familial connection. When people defend a recipe, they often feel like they’re defending their family, much more so than they would a hamburger or grilled cheese. There are even social media sites dedicated to defending Italian food, such as the Twitter page Italians Mad at Food (for more musings on this phenomenon, check out FSR editor Laura D’Alessandro’s Your Truly column on the matter).
So, what makes an Italian dish “authentic,” and why does the idea of authenticity in Italian food seem to be so important?
“The reality of ‘authenticity’ is that it doesn't really exist,” says Gio Osso, executive chef and owner of Virtù Honest Craft in Scottsdale, Arizona. “The ‘authentic’ dishes in Italy have been cooked for thousands of years, however, they differ from household to household, just like the interpretation from chef to chef. My mother's Sunday ragu is different from my grandmother's Sunday ragu.”
It’s true that Italian food is extremely regional. Someone hailing from Sicily will cook pasta differently from someone who grew up in Venice or an Italian who was born in New York. The recipes are different, but technically “authentic.”
Authenticity in ingredients and preparation
Ingredients and the way they’re prepared are how chefs work toward making an Italian menu more “Italian,” so to speak.
Italian menus vary widely. One restaurant may offer traditional Italian dishes that are easily found in Italy, another may serve Italian-American takes on favorites, and yet another, like Virtù Honest Craft, takes a more modern approach to cuisine.
“When Italians immigrated from the homeland to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc., they were using ingredients that were available to them in the way they knew how to cook them, hence the creation of Italian-American cuisine,” Osso says. “I'm a chef with southern Italian roots who grew up in New York, spending my summers in Calabria, but I now live in a desert city in Arizona. I couldn't be further from creating authentic Italian cuisine.”
Some chefs insist on sourcing ingredients directly from Italy. Gianfranco Sorrentino, owner of Il Gattopardo, The Leopard at des Artistes, and Mozzarella & Vino (all in Manhattan), makes regular trips to Italy to ensure authenticity. "Me, my wife, Paula Bolla-Sorrentino, and our head chef, Vito Gnazzo, go to Italy at least two times a year,” he says. “We meet with cheese producers from the south of Italy; we visit pasta makers from Gragnano, Marche, Puglia, and Sicily; olive oil producers from Tuscany, Puglia, and Garda; and last time we visited, my wife and I met with a family in Sardinia that makes the best red mullet bottarga.”
Sorrentino says that to him, fresh ingredients and authentic recipes from home equal authenticity in Italian food. “We even research old recipes to try dishes they don't cook in Italy anymore,” he says.
Surprisingly, the type of Italian menu—traditional, Italian-American, or modern—doesn’t always affect opinions on authenticity. It often comes down to a “taste” or a “feeling.” If a chef can drum up those feelings in a guest, there’s a good chance the food will be perceived as authentic.
“Two Italians from New York recently dined with us, and as they were leaving, one of them told me, ‘That was the best Italian food I’ve had; it was more Italian than my grandma used to make,’” says Becca van Oostendorp, co-owner of TriBecca Allie Café in Sardis, Mississippi.
Van Oostendorp, who hails from New York, believes the food brought back a memory for the customer. “There’s a simplicity in Italian recipes,” she says. “When I think of authentic Italian, I think of clean and simple food.”