Julie Bindel

Italian food purists need to calm down

There’s nothing wrong with pineapple on pizza

  • From Spectator Life

Last year, a large group of young people gathered outside the Trevi Fountain, one of Rome’s most popular attractions, to protest against ‘food crimes’ committed by tourists in Italy. Armed with signs reading ‘No more cream in carbonara’, ‘No more cappuccino with pasta’, and ‘Putting chicken in pasta is a crime in Italy’, they drew the attention of a large crowd of tourists. The protest was sparked by complaints from a number of the city’s restaurant owners about non-Italians (Americans in particular) asking for unorthodox ingredients to be added to the classics. 

‘If my customers want chicken in their pasta, and to them it tastes nice, then they will have it’

The organiser, Nicolas Calia, coordinated the protest because, he said: ‘I live in New York and I see the ruination of Italian cuisine every day, so I can’t accept seeing that here in Italy.’ A YouGov survey in 2022 found that the gastronomic habits most hated by Italians include ketchup on pasta, pineapple on pizza, putting pasta into a pan of cold water and breaking spaghetti before cooking. But to many Italian chefs and aficionados, the most heinous food crime of all is messing with carbonara. 

Carbonara is made by whisking eggs, guanciale (an Italian cured meat product prepared from pork jowl or cheeks), and pecorino cheese, served with spaghetti. Shock, horror, some restaurants use bacon or other pork cuts, and have even been known to substitute pecorino for parmesan. I can live with these changes – after all, it is still basically the same type of dish. And while the authentic Italian version is good, perhaps chefs do need to chill out about bastardised versions of their food? Pasta is bastardised noodles, after all.

I freely admit to being the first person to drone on about authenticity where it matters, and have written in these pages about the impossibility of effectively importing an Italian restaurant to, for example, London. Certain details matter, including the ambience. Italian food is mainly about letting ingredients speak for themselves – as opposed to French cuisine where it is often tweaked and manipulated beyond recognition. But pasta is pasta, and – as my good friend James Chiavarini, owner of the iconic Il Portico restaurant in west London, told me: ‘If my customers want chicken in their pasta, and to them it tastes nice, then they will have it.’

Not so at the trendy Bottega Prelibato in Shoreditch, east London, where carbonara was taken off the menu for causing controversy. The front page of its website states, ‘No, we don’t serve carbonara’. Talk about off-putting. It reminds me of a café in a north London park that has a chalkboard outside, not with drinks and food on the menu, but a ‘No crisps, no Coca-Cola, no meat’ warning to any plebs fancying a hangover cure. 

Owner of Prelibato, Gianfillippo Mattioli said of carbonara-gate, ‘We do it the right way, because I am from Rome and I actually know how to do it, and my chef does as well’. A number of customers had asked the chef to add cream, mushrooms, chicken, or other ingredients to the carbonara. 

Earlier this year, an Italian academic caused a kerfuffle by claiming in a newspaper article that carbonara was an ‘American dish born in Italy’. Alberto Grandi, a professor at the University of Parma, said: ‘Everything I, an Italian, thought I knew about Italian food is wrong,’ and continued, ‘from panettone to tiramisu, many “classics” are in fact recent inventions.’

In 2017, former Bake Off judge Mary Berry was criticised for adding thyme, garlic and white wine to her bolognese sauce. But what if it tastes good? Maybe she could just call it ‘meat sauce’ and be done with it? 

In one of the most ridiculous examples of purist high-handedness I have ever heard of regarding the Italian way of eating, a restaurant in Florence – tired of debating with tourists asking for a cappuccino before, during or after lunch and dinner, simply removed its coffee machine. Now, that really does strike me as cutting off il naso to spite la faccia.