Monday, April 7, 2008

Italian cooking by non-Italians

Having Italian, or often pseudo-Italian, food prepared by non-Italians is something we have been used to in the States for a long time, to the point that it has become the norm. As the Italians would say: coi bei risultati che si vedono. With the great results we can see (said sarcastically). Despite its popularity, Italian cuisine of all sorts, including pizza, has taken a decidedly non-native turn, usually for the worst. And in the last several years, a bit because of 9/11, and a bit because of the disastrous dollar/euro exchange rate, there are fewer and fewer Italians even in those American restaurants which pride themselves on their authenticity. It is also somewhat dubious that merely having an Italian surname or an Italian nonna confers culinary nobility on you, as many would seem to think (and capitalize on).

Several years ago I remember speaking to Vinicio Paoli, who at the time was the owner of the Ristorante Toscano here in Boston. I complimented him on the risotto ai funghi porcini which was indeed excellent. I asked him if the chef was Tuscan, like Paoli himself. He replied that he was South American. And now, as the New York Times brings out in an interesting and informative article, this same phenomenon is occurring in Italy itself. The economic factor is foremost, of course, with the great tide of foreigners in Italy (which now has one of the highest immigration rates in Europe) contributing to all levels of staffing in the kitchens. The Italians rightly see this as a matter of concern. Although cooking is certainly not genetic, it is part of a complex skill which is the result, in Italy, of centuries and even millennia of oral tradition and knowledge of ingredients and techniques. It is safe to predict that within a decade or two, the panorama of restaurant cuisine in the country will be quite different.