My granny always said that the hardest dishes to prepare are those which are the most simple. Savory spaghetti with fresh (not canned) tomato sauce, basil (from your garden) and extra-virgin olive oil (from the producer). Or a plateful of Roman artichokes fried in mint leaves and lemon sauce until crispy and golden.
When it comes to real Italian cuisine, innovation and tradition are often at odds. Experimenting within the boundaries of Italy’s diverse and centuries-old food heritage can be tricky and often leads to cooking up queer concoctions that raise purists’ eyebrows – and mine.
The saying ‘don’t play with your food’ takes on a totally different meaning in this context.
Creativity in cuisine is very important – like sprinkling dried mint to enhance the taste of baked aubergines or mixing pasta tomato sauce with melted buffalo mozzarella – but it shouldn’t lead to contamination.
There are certain recipes which are sacrosanct, handed down across time and untouchable. If you make one variation, then you need to come up with a different name for your ‘little frankenstein’.
Take Tiramisù – it’s Italy’s iconic dessert, loved and known by everyone in the world.Its recipe – with the precise list of ingredients – invented in the northern town of Treviso over a century ago, is registered with the Tiramisù Academy and Italy’s Cuisine Academy.
The one and only real Tiramisù is made with layers of Savoiardi ladyfinger biscuits dipped in a whipped mixture of mascarpone cream cheese and coffee powder. Bitter cocoa powder can also be sprinkled on top but there is no added alcohol.
Italians are dead serious when it comes to protecting authentic recipes: many old ones have been registered with the local chamber of commerce, as for Bologna’s Tortellini and Milan’s Panettone. It’s a matter of culinary pride and supremacy.
Nonetheless, lately new twists have been ‘contaminating’ and debasing historical recipes.
Strawberry tiramisù, Nutella tiramisù, Pistacchio tiramisù and Lemon tiramisù are wacky versions invented by Italian pastry chefs to play around with ingredients, but in my view they’re no-nos.
Even though they all use Italian products, they should be called something else, like Italian strawberry pudding, for it’s not the real Tiramisù.
And these ‘variants’ confuse people, undermine and insult food traditions.
Another newer fad which is taking hold is so-called sushi all’Italiana – aka ‘sushi made the Italian way’ (and even Italianized as ‘su-sci’) – which is made with Italian ingredients but looks like Japanese sushi. Think Mediterranean fish wrapped in mozzarella, for instance.
It might be rather tasty, but it’s a ‘hybrid’ and as such it shouldn’t be called sushi, for it’s a lack of respect not just to top Italian delicacies but also to the real Japanese tradition. It’s like if the Japanese started making pizza with seaweed paste instead of flour dough and called it ‘Japanese pizza’.
Of course, if there are such things as strawberry tiramisù (even at supermarkets) and Italian su-sci it’s because there’s demand, even if niche. Most Italian families would still order the original Tiramisù and, if they feel like sushi, hop over to a Japanese restaurant.
But I think such crazy eating fads kicked-off when transgressive chefs ‘imposed’ these experimental twists to shock and lure eaters. The fact that the food is being warped by Italian and not foreign cooks makes it all the more baffling.
Hybrids are also often created as a nod to the tastes of foreign tourists. Other ‘creations’ that blur the lines with traditional Italian recipes and have created a lot of fuss – merely because they’re ‘not Italian’ – include penne with vodka and spaghetti with salmon sauce to lure Scandinavian and northern diners, weird carbonara recipes with cream, pizza with pineapple and kiwi, lasagne with chicken bits, and bucatini pasta with orange peel.
I have personally tried them all and must admit I found them quite revolting – but that’s the opinion of my taste buds.
There are however many other Italian chefs who brilliantly cook within the lines to make modern twists that balance innovation and tradition while sticking to Italian ingredients.
Chef Cesare Battisti of Milan’s top Ratanà restaurant serves ‘Puttanesca’ Risotto with capers, anchovies and olives, alongside raw Piedmont Fassone beef with toasted local hazelnut mayonnaise.
Pasqualino Rossi at Pizzeria éLite Rossi near Caserta has turned Italian iconic dishes into pizzas. His hybrid Pizza Amatriciana is made with the same ingredients of Rome’s staple pasta dish.
Regional cuisine has found a great compromise between creativity and tradition in many dishes.
I adore slight ‘adaptations’, such as pasta with tomato sauce mixed with pesto (like they have in Piedmont), ‘green’ lasagne with spinach (in Emilia Romagna), pizza with melted ricotta instead of mozzarella cheese, or pizza with Nutella (served in Rome), done without crossing any red lines and in respect of tradition.
Never try to contaminate Italian food with ingredients that either are not Italian, or with ‘hybrid’ recipes that destroy authentic Italian dishes. A bit of innovation in cuisine is fine, but it should always stay close to tradition.
OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?
Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.
Published: 4 May 2022 14:53 CEST Updated: 7 May 2022 10:00 CEST
The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.
In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people.
The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.
The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia.
Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.
More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)
Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.
One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices.
To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.
While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.
The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.
There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids.
Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)
On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination.
However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.
The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).
The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure.
There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.
Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.
Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location.
A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)
The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.
The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.
Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome.
It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days.
The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria.