There Is No Such Thing As Italian Food

Italy’s cuisine has long been defined by foreign flavors. But with anti-immigration sentiment rising and the climate changing, will Italians continue to embrace new ingredients and ideas from abroad?

Roman Bratschi
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John Last is a freelance journalist based in Padua, Italy.

ARQUÀ PETRARCA, Italy — In the mirror-flat valley of the Po River, the Euganean Hills stick out of the vast landscape, their shallow peaks topped by sloping vineyards and groves of olive trees. Nestled between them is the tiny medieval village of Arquà Petrarca, where a microclimate created by the shaded hills and their abundant water produces perfect conditions for one of Italy’s rarest crops.

The giuggiole, or jujube fruit, resembles an olive and tastes, at first, like a woody apple. After withering off the vine, it takes on a sweeter flavor, closer to a honeyed fig. Among the medieval elite, the fruit was so popular that it gave birth to an idiom: “andare in brodo di giuggiole” — “to go in jujube broth” — defined in one of the earliest Italian phrase books as living in a state of bliss. Every fall, the handful of families that still cultivate the fruit in the village gather in medieval garb to celebrate the jujube and feast on the fine liquors, jams and blissful sweet broth they create from it.

Italy is full of places like Arquà Petrarca. Microclimates and artisanal techniques become the basis for obscure local specialties celebrated in elaborate festivals from Trapani to Trieste. In Mezzago, outside Milan, it’s rare pink asparagus, turned red by soil rich in iron and limited sunlight. Sicily has its Avola almonds and peculiar blood-red oranges, which gain their deep color on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. Calabria has ‘nduja sausage and the Diamante citron, central to the Jewish feast of Sukkot. 

All these specialties are encouraged by local cooperatives, protected by local designations, elevated by local chefs and celebrated in local festivals, all lucrative outcomes for their local, often small-scale producers. It’s not so much a reflection of capitalismo as campanilismo — a uniquely Italian concept derived from the word for belltower. “It means, if you were born in the shade of the belltower, you were from that community,” explains Fabio Parasecoli, a professor of food studies at New York University and the author of “Gastronativism,” a new book exploring the intersection of food and politics. “That has translated into food.”

In many ways, it’s this obsessive focus on the intersection of food and local identity that defines Italy’s culinary culture, one that is at once prized the world over and insular in the extreme. After all, campanilismo might be less charitably translated as “provincialism” — a kind of defensive small-mindedness hostile to outside influence and change.

Italy’s nativist politicians seek to exploit deep associations between food and identity to present a traditional vision of the country that’s at risk of slipping away. In 2011, a politician from the nativist Lega Nord party named Pietro Pezzutti distributed free bags of corn polenta, a northern delicacy, emblazoned with the phrase “yes to polenta, no to couscous” — a swipe at the region’s immigrants from Africa, where couscous originates. “We want to make people understand that polenta is part of our history, and must be safeguarded,” Pezzutti explained.

All across Italy, as Parasecoli tells me, food is used to identify who is Italian and who is not. But dig a little deeper into the history of Italian cuisine and you will discover that many of today’s iconic delicacies have their origins elsewhere. The corn used for polenta, unfortunately for Pezzutti, is not Italian. Neither is the jujube. In fact, none of the foods mentioned above are. All of them are immigrants, in their own way — lifted from distant shores and brought to this tiny peninsula to be transformed into a cornerstone of an ever-changing Italian cuisine.

“An obsessive focus on the intersection of food and local identity defines Italy’s culinary culture, one that is at once prized the world over and insular in the extreme.”

Today, jujubes are better known as Chinese dates. It was likely in Asia that the plant was first cultivated, and where most are still grown. By the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus, at the turn of the first millennium, the tree had spread to parts of the eastern Mediterranean where, according to local tradition, it furnished the branches for the thorny crown of Jesus Christ. Around the same time, Pliny the Elder tells us, a Roman counselor imported it to Italy.

The Romans were really the first Italian culinary borrowers. In addition to the jujube, they brought home cherries, apricots and peaches from the corners of their vast empire, Parasecoli tells me. But in the broad sweep of Italian history, it was Arabs, not Romans, who have left the more lasting mark on Italian cuisine.

During some 200 years of rule in Sicily and southern Italy, and the centuries of horticultural experimentation and trade that followed, Arabs greatly expanded the range of ingredients and flavors in the Italian diet. A dizzying array of modern staples can be credited to their influence, including almonds, spinach, artichokes, chickpeas, pistachios, rice and eggplants.

Arabs also brought with them durum wheat — since 1967, the only legal grain for the production of pasta in Italy. They introduced sugar cane and citrus fruit, laying the groundwork for dozens of local delicacies in the Italian south and inspiring the region’s iconic sweet-and-sour agrodolce flavors. Food writers Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari argue that Arabs’ effect on the Italian palate was as profound as it was in science or medicine — reintroducing lost recipes from antiquity, elevated by novel ingredients and techniques refined in the intervening centuries. In science, this kind of exchange sparked the Renaissance; in food, they argue, one of the world’s great cuisines.

Today, in Italy’s north, where African influences give way to more continental fare, Italian cuisine leans heavier on crops taken from Indigenous peoples in the Americas: tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, zucchini, peppers and corn, which is used to make polenta. Cultural exchange moved in the other direction as well. As millions of Italians left for the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries, Italy’s culinary traditions were remixed and revolutionized again. Italian Americans pioneered a cuisine that would become almost unrecognizable to the old country: spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Marsala, fettuccine Alfredo, deep-dish pizza.

Though traditional-minded Italians still scoff at many of these creations, Italian-American culture nevertheless made its way back to influence the old country, as John Mariani writes. Americans’ post-war love affair with Italy gave us more than the americano — it kicked the country’s cocktail culture into overdrive and poured American products into Italy that still influence cuisine today. Virtually all Italian recipes for authentic Neapolitan pizza will ask for “Manitoba flour,” a nod to a variety of strong flour milled from hearty North American wheat first imported as part of the Marshall Plan. Even Mezzago’s pink asparagus may have come from the U.S. — according to local legend, it was first planted by a returning émigré.

This kind of borrowing never stopped. In 1971, an agronomist named Ottavio Cacioppo read about a “mouse plant” from New Zealand and set out to grow it on a drained swamp near Rome. Today, Italy is behind only China and New Zealand for kiwi production. The Latina region where Cacioppo started out was deemed the “Land of the Kiwi” in 2004, and with almost 30,000 acres now in production, the fruit has been graced with protected status as a regional delicacy.

“A dizzying array of modern staples can be credited to Arab influence, including almonds, spinach, artichokes, chickpeas, pistachios, rice and eggplants.”

In 2012, though, something began to change for Italy’s kiwi farmers. Thousands of acres of plants began to wither and die inexplicably. Ten years later, the mystery disease is still ravaging the country. No one knows why.

The morià, or kiwi death, is not the only disease to threaten beloved Italian delicacies in recent years. This summer, an outbreak of highly infectious African swine fever was found in the country’s ample wild boar population, threatening the rural pig farms that produce staples like prosciutto and Parma ham. The threat was great enough to drive Italy’s environmental agency to erect a chain-link wall around parts of Rome.

But it’s not only disease that is troubling Italy’s farmers. “This year we’ve seen major changes in the climate, with a very dry spring and summer,” Cacioppo tells me. “Blooms, vegetative regrowth, fruit development — all had delays and changes. The fruits have not developed as they should have, and we have lost many benefits for the soil.”

This past summer, in some parts of Sicily, half of the iconic citrus crop was claimed by the càscola — a term for the sudden and devastating loss of fruit caused by flash floods, hail storms and crippling drought. Italy’s national research council says 70% of the island is at risk of desertification — and it’s not alone.

In northern Italy, the drought of 2021 dried up risotto paddies, forced early harvests of tomatoes and reduced olive oil production by as much as 30%. Coldiretti, the country’s largest farmers’ union, estimated almost a third of national agricultural production was threatened by climate change.

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The problems are bigger than one bad summer. The last seven years have seen a perpetual heatwave and a drought that scientists estimate is the worst in more than 2,000 years. As mountain snows fail to gather and melt and aquifers fail to refill, the landscape of Italy — and its food culture — is changing forever.

Italy is facing other changes, too. Despite a youth-led back-to-the-land movement, its countryside is emptying. The population is declining in about 90% of rural municipalities. Italy has set new record lows for its birth rate every year for the last decade. It’s estimated to lose about a fifth of its population by 2070. “A turnaround in the number of births in the years to come appears unlikely,” the country’s statistics provider reported in an analysis.

In North America, we might expect to make up that difference with increased immigration. But not Italy, a country notoriously hostile to migrants. The number of foreigners allowed to stay has been kept below a symbolic threshold of six million by increasingly unwelcoming immigration policies. An average of just 280,000 migrants are welcomed each year — while nearly half as many people leave the country annually.

This is all the more ironic because of the lengthy and major role migrants have played in delivering Italy’s now-disappearing iconic foods to the table. In her study of Italy’s “slow food” movement, anthropologist Carole Counihan highlights how, by emphasizing ancient tradition and local family lines, Italy’s local food culture often disguises the way immigrants have become crucial links in the production of these delicacies — “from the Pakistani and Moroccan butchers preparing prosciutto in Parma, to Sikhs raising and milking cattle in the Val Padana, to Romanians and Albanians herding sheep in the Abruzzo and Sardinia,” she writes.

Taken together, Italy’s demographic and climate changes herald a profound transition in Italian cuisine. The real question is, will Italians stay bound to invented traditions, or will they embrace their mercurial past?

“The landscape of Italy — and its food culture — is changing forever.”

At his century-old coffee roastery in Sicily, Andrea Morettino can observe firsthand how climate change is ravaging his native land. “We’ve witnessed the alteration of the traditional seasons, with double and triple blooms,” he says. “Nature has given us an incredible signal, and this signal deserves to be listened to and valued.”

For the last 30 years, Morettino and his family have been engaged in what he calls a “huge, ambitious, experimental project” to adapt to these changes in their environment. Using heirloom seeds from the botanical gardens in Palermo, his family raised a small crop of coffee plants — the first-ever commercially grown on Italian soil.

Coffee occupies a special place in Italian culture. There’s a café on virtually every corner. But it has long been one of the country’s biggest food imports — even its diverse climate could not produce a region suited to coffee growing. That is, until elevated temperatures made it possible. Morettino got more than 60 pounds of viable beans last year. This year, he expects more than 100. “Climate change has a fundamental role in these achievements,” he tells me.

These are not quantities that will disrupt the coffee import business. But the small scale of Morettino’s production is already part of its marketing appeal. Sicilian coffee, Morettino says, like Sicilian wine or oil, is marked by the terroir: “notes of zibibbo wine, carab and jasmine.” That makes it a rare and artisanal product. And like many Italian delicacies, Morettino’s coffee is primarily intended for local consumption — part of “a short-chain vision, with lower emissions, with fewer logistics and with lower energy costs.”

Like Cacioppo and other agricultural visionaries before him, Morettino sees the potential in Sicilian coffee to become a regional delicacy, one that supports dozens of small farmers and maybe, someday, a modest export market. He recognizes that traditional crops could vanish in a generation. “But historically,” he says, “you have some fruits or some vegetables that came from other countries that could adapt to a new land, and that became, in time, a symbol of that land. Like citrus, maybe the coffee that came from tropical lands could be a new symbol of a positive future.”

Morettino is not the only person thinking this way. Throughout Sicily, farmers are taking advantage of higher temperatures to grow tropical fruit that was not previously viable, like mangos, papaya, avocados, lychee and miniature bananito bananas. For the moment, it’s not clear what role these tropical crops will play in the future of Italian cuisine. Made-in-Italy coffee is one thing. But what about the preparations and recipes that accompany other tropical plants? Will Italians embrace African flavors the way they once embraced Arab ones?

Some shifts may be inevitable. Even in spite of its attitude to immigration, the number of foreigners in Italy increased 400% between 2004 and 2012, including many from West Africa, Bangladesh and India. They don’t only labor on farms to produce food, Parasecoli says — they often prepare it for Italians too, as care workers or home chefs. Maybe, he wonders, variations on traditional dishes will gradually become accepted.

“Incorporating new ingredients and ideas today will necessitate a new appreciation for the people who brought them to Italy in the first place, and a collaborative spirit that seems hard to achieve in an age of tense politics.”

Italian food could open to a wave of culinary transformation, if Italians are receptive to it. In theory, the Italian food philosopher Alex Ravelli Sorini explains, Italian cuisine is “not like a castle … but like a field.” Despite strongly held traditions, in other words, the only constants in its culinary culture are seasonality and simplicity — a base of three or four fresh local ingredients combined in a manner straightforward enough for a home cook. “It’s not important if it changes in aspects,” he says. “The ‘tradition’ is an idea, an invention of the person. … ‘Tradition’ doesn’t exist!”

And yet, Italians can be surprisingly dogmatic about simple combinations. Despite a lengthy history of adopting foreign ingredients as their own, as the Italian gastronomer Simone Cinotto writes: “The Italian culinary model seems to resist almost completely the influence of immigrant cuisines.” 

As Immaculate Ruému, a Nigerian-born, London-trained chef who develops fusion recipes in Milan, puts it, there is “a big barrier that’s very difficult to breach” when it comes to introducing Italians to African foods and flavors, even those that can already be produced from local products. “I have to take away the fact that it’s Nigerian,” she says. She tends to explain the Nigerian heritage of dishes on a tasting menu after customers have eaten, for example. But if they see that story on a menu, she says, most will say, “We just want a classic ravioli.”

Instead, she focuses on where the ingredients come from, emphasizing familiar regional delicacies like Piedmontese Fassona beef. Perhaps someday, she could make ogbono soup with Sicilian mango seeds and Calabrian okra, and maybe then it would be easier to sell to Italians. 

But there is a deeper philosophical disconnect that makes many other cuisines unfamiliar to the Italian palate. Ruému says Italians tend to look on spices with suspicion, as if using them was a sign that ingredients are less fresh, which closes off a lot of immigrant cuisines.

And then there’s the attitude. There’s an entire genre of internet comedy about Italians getting angry at improvisations on their food. Incorporating new ingredients and ideas today, Ruému says, will necessitate a new appreciation for the people who brought them to Italy in the first place, and a collaborative spirit that seems hard to achieve in an age of tense politics. “The people you are trying to copy from know better now,” she tells me. “Nigerians are not going to let you come and copy-and-paste. We will hold you accountable.”

In a decade or two, you may be able to go to a Calabrian avocado festival, or find more than one place serving jollof risotto with ossobuco and plantain (one of Ruému’s recipes). “There will be changes,” Parasecoli says. “That is inevitable. But I do think there will be an effort to maintain a familiar way of life, for a sense of emotional security, if not anything else. If you see everything changing around you, it’s the end of the world — not only the drought, not only the swine fever, but I cannot find my tomatoes. Then everything is really going to hell in a handbasket.”