There is no real Italian food outside of Italy. Sure, there is trendy Italianate food, at best a delicious pastiche, and there are occasional flashes of brilliance from neighbourhood Marios or Francos, but on the whole the thing has become a bit of a performance, a production of fashion and wishful thinking. In Italy it all happens rather more easily; good food, be it at home or in restaurants, is an everyday occurrence: commonplace, familiar and, exactly as expected, delicious. This cooking is done with whatever produce is seasonally available to a repertoire of orally transmitted recipes, largely of local origin. The importance of this locality cannot be stressed enough. It is almost fatuous to discuss Italian food as a whole when you bear in mind that the country is still imperfectly unified, and anything from another region is always referred to as straniero, foreign. The only common denominator between the various regional kitchens is a fondness for pasta.
In restaurants the best food is often the cheapest. You would be wise to ignore the menu, particularly if it is translated into four languages, and accept the waiter’s advice. Indeed he may wish to settle your pasta order before you have sat down. The posher the restaurant the more the simplicity of the food disappears, except in a few exalted cases where the concept of elegant restraint is carried to extremes. Less definitely becomes more when you get your bill.
Italians wouldn’t dream of buying food in supermarkets – they use them for toothpaste, nappies and bleach, that’s about it. Markets thrive, speciality shops still prosper, and their customers await with relish the seasonal arrival of locally produced food, the canon of fruit and vegetables from spring to summer, unfolding into autumn with game, mushrooms and truffles then rounding off in winter with the new pulses and olive oil. You can be certain that everybody knows exactly what to do with this stuff as it arrives.
All this didn’t dawn on me until I first arrived to work in Orvieto five years ago clutching an armful of carefully researched recipes – then quickly found I couldn’t do any of them. The food I’d chosen was either out of season or simply unavailable in that region. No choice but to come round to their way of thinking: shopping first, then much discussion about what to do with it and finally a blazing row about precisely whose mother’s recipe to follow. This approach seemed to me to be sensible – a balanced way of approaching cooking and eating. Suddenly things seemed so much simpler, and I wonder if this is due to an innate Italian talent or a national indolence.
The strictures of seasonality, locality and simplicity in no way limit the scope of the cook; on the contrary, they are immensely liberating. Even the poorest region will have an enormous range of dishes to choose from. Asparagus, peas, broad beans and artichokes are the only vegetables good in May, but who could get bored cooking or eating an endless succession of pasta, antipasti, risotti, minestre and frittate incorporating them. They are enjoyed and then other produce replaces them until next year. To elaborate or embellish these dishes will ruin them; inventive cooks are not welcome here.
This is not a Utopian view. One can and frequently does eat badly in Italy, but that is due to sloppy cooking and most often found in areas over-infested with tourists. On a day-to-day basis the Italians eat better than any nation I know. The underlying bone structure of the food is so fabulous that misapplied cosmetic touches or familiarity cannot completely mask it. Prosaic excellence is the quality that has entranced me for twenty years, and what this book hopes to communicate.
© 1996 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.