This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
I came to this topic as an eater first. My partner and I fell in love through food. We met during the pandemic and got to know each other through long walks and home-cooked meals. On an early date, she put a glistening mound of pasta in front of me and I thought how lucky I was to have fallen for an Italian. (She was born and raised in Rome.)
Most Italians have a strident pride in their cuisine; a passion which occasionally verges on the maniacal. The food and beverage industry makes up a quarter of Italy’s GDP and a substantial portion of its tourist draw. Food is tightly bound with ideas of national identity and politicians often rely on a kind of gastronationalism. (When running for election, current Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni posted a video of herself making tortellini with a stereotypical Italian nonna.)
And it’s not just Italians who hold this enthusiasm—Italian cuisine is one of the most popular in the world. Home cooks love to prepare Italy’s dishes, and about one-eighth of restaurants in the U.S. serve Italian food. Shows like Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy and the Netflix series From Scratch highlight just how ravenous audiences are for luscious, almost erotic depictions of Italian food.
But in researching this list, I’ve learned that beneath the promotional language and tired clichés, Italian food has a complex and often contradictory history. Academics question the true origin of classic dishes like carbonara; migration from Italy to the U.S. makes it almost impossible to disentangle the two gastronomic traditions.
Italians often obsess over this cultural purity. When Italian chef Gino D’Acampo appeared on morning television in the UK a decade ago, he was horrified by the suggestion that you could substitute ham in carbonara. “If my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bike,” D’Acampo responded incredulously. The clip went viral, bolstering the stereotype that Italians can be fussy about their food. But the history of Italian cuisine—like the food of any nation—is a melting pot of influences.
But what of the future? Migration patterns, together with demographic trends and climate change, mean that the cuisine must adapt. Since 2003, Europe has experienced an unprecedented number of heatwaves, prompting Italy’s largest farmers’ union to estimate that almost a third of national agricultural production is now threatened by climate change. Italian food—so rooted in tradition and adamant in its authenticity—will have to change.
But for now, I’m excited to visit Rome for the holidays and soak up the city’s culinary delights: creamy cacio e pepe, indulgent layers of tiramisu, and moreish slices of pizza. I’ll photograph the food, luxuriate in it, and come home with a suitcase full of olive oil and cheese. This time, I hope to enjoy the food while knowing more about the context that underpins it. Like the best Italian dishes, this topic is rich with complexity and nuance. So please devour this collection of articles that complicate the understanding of Italian food and what it means both within Italy’s borders and beyond.
Everything I, an Italian, Thought I Knew About Italian Food is Wrong (Marianna Giusti, Financial Times, March 2023)
This Italian-language podcast, hosted by Alberto Grandi and Daniele Soffiati, also explores the true history of Italian food and aims to separate marketing from truth.
In this fascinating piece, Italian journalist Marianna Giusti aims to uncover the truth about classic Italian dishes like carbonara, tiramisu, and panettone—which are celebrated for their authenticity despite being relatively recent inventions. She speaks with older family members and friends from across Southern Italy, asking about the food they ate as children (lots of beans and potatoes) and how it contrasts with the food on menus today.
Inaccuracies about the origins of Italian food may be considered harmless—if it wasn’t for how gastronationalism influences Italian politics and culture. She cites the example of the archbishop of Bologna, Matteo Zuppi, suggesting that pork-free “welcome tortellini” be added to the menu for the San Petronio feast. What was intended as a gesture of inclusion to communities that don’t eat pork, was slammed by far-right Lega party leader Matteo Salvini. “They’re trying to erase our history, our culture,” he said. To me, food is one of life’s great unifiers. I love to bring people together around food, but just as often, food is used to divide people. This piece made me reconsider what I thought I understood about Italian food and think critically about who and what is welcome at the table.
It’s all about identity,” Grandi tells me between mouthfuls of osso buco bottoncini. He is a devotee of Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian who wrote about what he called the invention of tradition. “When a community finds itself deprived of its sense of identity, because of whatever historical shock or fracture with its past, it invents traditions to act as founding myths,” Grandi says.
There Is No Such Thing As Italian Food (John Last, Noema, December 2022)
In this provocatively-titled piece, journalist John Last examines how climate change and immigration patterns are changing food in Italy. It examines how ingredients from abroad and the labor of migrants were used to build one of the world’s most loved cuisines. It also cites a study that found that the role of immigrants in Italy’s farming and culinary sectors has been systematically ignored. Italian food is often celebrated for connecting eaters with unadulterated, authentic cuisine. The reality is much more complicated. I enjoyed how this deeply-reported essay challenges ideas of culinary purity and questions who that narrative excludes. I was interested to read how Italy’s microclimates produce regional specialities, and how they will be forced to adapt due to climate change. If you’re curious about the future of Italian cuisine, this is the essay for you! It has also been anthologized in Best American Food Writing 2023 for its examination of how food shapes our culture.
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.
What the Hole Is Going On? The Very Real, Totally Bizarre Bucatini Shortage of 2020 (Rachel Handler, Grub Street, December 2020)
If you’re interested in the pasta-making process or more pandemic-era pasta content, I recommend Mission Impastable from The Sporkful.
The early months of the pandemic were characterized by lockdowns, widespread anxiety, and a national pasta shortage. In this funny, engaging piece written by the self-described “Bernstein of Bucatini,” I learned why some pasta shapes were especially difficult to find due to production challenges. This piece is an enjoyable, twisty romp that points to the sensual delight of pasta during a dark time.
I’d like to go a step further and praise its innate bounciness and personality. If you boil bucatini for 50 percent of the time the box tells you to, cooking it perfectly al dente, you will experience a textural experience like nothing else you have encountered in your natural life. When cooked correctly, bucatini bites back. It is a responsive noodle. It is a self-aware noodle. In these times, when human social interaction carries with it the possible price of illness, bucatini offers an alternative: a social interaction with a pasta.
America, Pizza Hut, and Me (Jaya Saxena, Eater, March 2016)
I really enjoyed this thoughtful personal essay about a young girl’s obsession with Pizza Hut and the influence of food on her identity. The author questions her intersecting heritage: she’s a mixed kid with an Indian father and a white mother, a New Yorker who craves stuffed crusts in Pizza Hut rather than an “authentic” dollar slice, and a pre-teen who wants to eat “white food” while her family enjoys soupy dal and potatoes flavored with cumin and turmeric. This piece is also a useful primer on the history of Italians in America, tracing the path from “other” to mainstream acceptability.
I was half Indian, half white, and all New Yorker. In simple assimilation calculus, going to Pizza Hut with my Indian grandparents in Fort Lee should have earned me points for eating in real life what the cool kids were eating in commercials. And yet, I was still a New Yorker: My ideal sense of self was white, but worldly, opinionated, and judgmental.
Finding Comfort and Escape in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (A. Cerisse Cohen, Lit Hub, November 2022)
I loved this essay about how the author learned to cook during the pandemic and the comfort she found in the reassuring, authoritative voice of Marcella Hazan. The piece vividly describes the flavors of Italian food (“mellow, gentle, comfortable”) and the solace found in cookbooks at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Before learning to cook, the author considered it a domestic task inextricably linked with traditional notions of femininity and heterosexual marriage. But Hazan, who is widely considered to be the doyenne of Italian cuisine, teaches her that cooking for herself and her chosen family is an essential element of survival, not only literally but existentially. This essay brought me back to the early days of 2020. As the pandemic spiraled out of control, I found my equilibrium through brisk morning walks and the comfort of a pot bubbling on the stove. I still cook most days. Sometimes, it’s a pleasure. More often, it’s a chore. For me, this beautiful essay evoked the visceral, bodily demands of appetite and how satiating them can provide not just culinary satisfaction, but a feeling of peace and wellbeing.
Hazan helped me see that nourishing oneself, and sharing a family meal, is simply foundational. To privilege invention and labor outside the kitchen, but not inside it, is to play into patriarchal distinctions of value.
Hazan herself was a cook, an educator, and an incredible creative success. She remains influential for many contemporary cooks. Her adoration of the anchovy—“Of all the ingredients used in Italian cooking, none produces headier flavor than anchovies. It is an exceptionally adaptable flavor”—foreshadows the long reign of Alison Roman. Her careful ideas about layering flavors and her scientific approach to the kitchen find their echoes in the methodologies of Samin Nosrat (who, in her blurb for the new book, also credits Hazan with beginning her obsession with the bay leaf).
Eating the Arab Roots of Sicilian Cuisine (Adam Leith Gollner, Saveur, March 2016)
If you’d like to continue your study of Sicilian cuisine and perhaps try a recipe, you might enjoy this Salon piece about the author’s love of oily fish, simple pasta, and bright flavors.
My partner and I recently returned from a holiday in Sicily. The island is considered to be a melting pot of North African, Arab, French, Spanish, and other cultures—which for me, was best understood through the food. We enjoyed regional delicacies like deep-fried lasagne, cookies made with beef and chocolate, and cremolata, a sherbet-like dessert that originated in Arab cuisine. It was a delight to remember the trip while reading this mouth-watering travel essay which aims to disentangle how Italian and Arab culinary history mixes on the island. What begins as an academic question quickly becomes a catalog of exquisite meals as the author explores the island’s rich, colonial past through its food. He traces the ingredients that are core to Italian cuisine—including the durum wheat used to make pasta—to migrants who arrived on Sicily’s shores and “gifted this land with what’s sometimes known as Cucina Arabo-Siculo.”
Sicily has had so many conquerors, and there’s simply no way to pull apart all the intermingling strands of culture in order to ascertain what is precisely “Italian” and what’s “Arab” and what’s not anything of the kind. At a certain point—ideally sometime after having a homemade seafood couscous lunch in Ortigia and sampling the life-changing pistachio ice cream at Caffetteria Luca in Bronte—you have to give up trying to isolate the various influences and accept that countless aspects of life in Sicily have been informed by Arab culture in some way. It’s deep and apparent and meaningful, but it’s also a cloud of influence as dense and intangible as the lemon gelato sky that greeted me upon my arrival.
Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copyeditor: Krista Stevens