How would you define the concept of “authentic” when this word comes next to “Italian”? The question seems easy but the answer is not. That’s why a plethora of Chefs and experts gathered at the SVA Theater on 23rd Street in Manhattan and discussed the matter.
We’ve been invited to attend this very interesting seminar organized by our friends of Gruppo Italiano (the non-profit association of Italian Restaurateurs, Distributors and Importers of which SOCIALE is proudly part of).
So: what’s authentic Italian?
First off: are we talking about a restaurant or about a dish? In the first case what makes the restaurant Italian? The menu (of course) but what about the ambiance? Are you already thinking of a candle lit dark room, a fiasco of Chianti on your table and a mustached waiter serving you while whistling “oh sole mio”? The menu: one of the panelist Chef Stefano Masanti (cookbook author; owner of the Michelin Starred restaurant “Il Cantinone” in Lake Como and operating 5 months a year at the Sattui Winery in the Napa Valley) said they keep asking him to make his nonna’s lasagna, but his nonna never cooked lasagna for him because it’s not a typical dish from where he grew up. He makes it anyways because “the customer is always right” and because it is poetic and the market requires it but is that an authentic dish? And talking about specific dishes, do the ingredients have to come from Italy? Can it be authentic Italian if the ingredients are outsourced locally let’s say in New York State?
As you can see there’s a lot to talk about here. As a restaurateur in Brooklyn I found myself at the fork of choosing between not satisfying a client request or polluting my authenticity pretty often. A classic example is the avocado. I LOVE avocado, but I’ve never eaten one for the first 30 years of my life. We can probably say Brooklyn consumes half of the world avocado production, we’re all crazy about them, it’s like an obsession. I remember in Italy my mother once asked Meghan if she had any particular request for breakfast… she replied “just an avocado would be fine”, my mom thought she needed a lawyer (avvocato in Italian). So, are we supposed to add avocado in your salads at SOCIALE? Am I supposed to comply with a relatively common client’s request of “side of avocado please”? Your feedback would be greatly appreciated on the matter, leave your comment and let us know your opinion.
Another of those tricky ingredients (that everybody love because it makes everything better) is butter. We recently received harsh criticism when Meg dared to add 3 tbs of butter in her Cacio e Pepe recipe video. I assure you: 99.99% of Italian restaurant in New York City put butter in your tomato/basil spaghetti. It just makes it better. Now: if i talk to my Napolitan friends they would tell me I’m out of my mind… but at the same time they wouldn’t put Parmigiano on top of their Spaghetti al Pomodoro either. So am I authentic because I put cheese on my pasta? The answer is yes because we produce the king of the cheeses exactly where I was born and you’ll never ever convince me to skip the snowing cheese moment when I prepare to eat my pasta (unless it’s seafood…please do me -and yourself- a favor: stop asking for cheese on your seafood pasta).
The great Felidia’s Chef Fortunato Nicotra (first on the right) had so many interesting points, he basically said that he uses local ingredients whenever he can and imported ones whenever he can’t avoid. The second case would be: burrata, olive oil, mozzarella di bufala because in his opinion “the domestic products are still not there in terms of quality”… at the same time his cheese board is completely local, as all the produce and of course the meats. Fortunato (whom I had the pleasure to meet a couple of times and believe me his food is authentic and phenomenal) also added that in his conscience being a Chef nowadays he needs to face the problem of scarcity of resources (especially fish) and climate change. He said he dreams of a menu where the protagonist of a main course will be locally sourced vegetables and the protein will be just an accompaniment to it: agreed 100% Fortunato !!
My last point -then I’ll let you go back to your life- involves two very interesting trends. The first is that we noticed that the concept of authentic started to be assigned also to an Italian-american style of cuisine. For example I don’t feel bad if somebody asks me for spaghetti and meatballs, as we are considering to add a Caesar salad to our menu…and I push myself to the limit: is there really something wrong with an Alfredo sauce? It’s so freaking good and really, in Italy if you tell somebody you put chicken in your pasta they’ll laugh at your face but, maybe is time for Italians to learn something again from their immigrants and be more accepting and open? Now would I ever put heavy cream on a Carbonara? No. Would I use pancetta instead of guanciale? Yes. Would I use bacon instead of pancetta? No. Another interesting backwards trip of authenticity traveling from America to Italy instead of vice versa is the brunch. Again, in the almost 30 years I spent in Italy I never had brunch, I didn’t even know what the hell it was. Now all the trendy restaurant in Milano and Roma offer brunch.
There is a lot of material for more thoughts, are we facing a future of Italian-Chinese fusion due to the many immigrant from the Far East living in Italy? We live in a globalized world, we live in a world where formalism, regionalism and purism (and sometimes good manners) are on their way to extinction, it’s up to us as professionals but above all as consumers to draw the line.
Thanks for reading.