It’s fascinating how drastically the concept of “Italian food” has changed in the United States. The other day I was talking with my boyfriend about Mario Batali’s Eataly in Manhattan, which I visited for the first time just two weeks before returning to Italy, saying he would be shocked to see such a tribute to his country’s cuisine. When Italians first emigrated to the United States, their food was used as a source of scorn and prejudice against them. Their meals were considered repulsive and unhealthy, and reformers tried repeatedly to “Americanize” Italian immigrants’ eating habits. Interestingly, Italians were one of the few ethnic groups whose food traditions survived these assaults although they were greatly altered by new abundance, ingredients and a mixing of cultures.
Today in the US, Italian food is no longer associated solely with generic notions of Caesar salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and pizza. The focus has shifted instead to “authentic” Italian food, which usually means focusing on regional traditions rather than common national dishes. Living in one of the most renowned culinary regions of Italy, Emilia-Romagna, I am constantly reminded of the importance of local tradition: most restaurants offer the same menu, a small selection of only the most traditional dishes made with local ingredients.
Here’s the problem: while in the United States the discourse of local food has become increasingly important–and rightfully so if we mean cooking with ingredients grown locally as much as possible–it is also stifling and confining when the definition of local becomes inextricably interwoven with the idea of tradition. At Open View Gardens, we believe strongly in expanding our notion of what is local and not confining ourselves to what some have defined as traditional and, therefore by association, local.
I’ve encountered some of these same issues in Italy. Last week we went to the renowned Hosteria Giusti in Modena, recommended to me by our good friend Stacie. It was like stepping back in time. First, you enter a small store with beautifully arranged displays of cheeses, pasta, cured meats, and wine. In the back of the shop, you are then led through a small door, past the kitchen, where everyone stops to greet you, and into a dining room with only four tables. It is entirely family run — the father is the proprietor, the mother the cook, the son the sommelier and the daughter the waitress. The restaurant is only open for lunch, as the family must divide their time in the shop.
The food was exquisite, and the dishes were, of course, only the most traditional. We started the meal with a plate of gnocco fritto topped with a selection of cured meats.
For the primi, we ordered tortelloni filled with potato and pecorino and tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms. For secondi, we had small tastes of roasted rabbit and the specialty pork sausage, cotechino, with zabaione. We finished off the meal with a tart filled with cream, figs and nuts and a sour cherry crostata.
Afterwords, as we sat digesting our meal, I began to reflect on the experience. This was the Italy tourists search for — what many imagine and desire Italy to be, yet today is often difficult to find. In the US, I preferred to go out to restaurants to experience the chef’s creativity and to try dishes I couldn’t make at home. Here, it seems that locals go out to eat the traditional dishes they no longer have time to prepare themselves.
Being surrounded by such fierce pride in the local, traditional and authentic, something so distant from the food culture in which I was raised, I yearn for invention and creativity, to break the boundaries of tradition. Yet I also understand and appreciate the need and desire of both locals and foreigners to preserve these food traditions.
As my move to Venice approaches, I find myself contemplating the many new experiences that await. I will be surrounded by an entirely different regional cuisine with new dishes to discover. I am excited by the prospect of learning about Venetian food, yet wonder how long before I tire of those traditions and begin to search for creative twists on what has existed for so long. We shall soon see!