Pasta, pannetone, Parmegiano and pizza are obviously Italian . . . right?

Of course, it goes without saying that many Italians and Italian-Americans alike have vested, entrenched opinions about their foods. So when Alberto Grandi — an Italian academic and a professor of history at an Italian university in Parma — made some especially controversial comments about the provenance of certain Italian dishes in a recent interview with the Financial Times, it’s no surprise some feathers were ruffled. 

Grandi said that some of the most cherished Italian dishes were actually not that Italian and even ventured to say that cheese produced in Wisconsin is comparable or even better than “real” Parmigiano Reggiano made in Italy. People weren’t pleased. And by that, I mean they were flipping tables across the land a la Teresa Giudice circa 2008.

To argue that pizza, pasta, pannetone and Italian cheese wasn’t intrinsically, thoroughly Italian obviously struck a chord with many, but (and please read this in my best Carrie Bradshaw impression), “I couldn’t help but wonder . . . what if Grandi’s statements are true?”

Gandri’s claims may have raised our collective hackles, but could he be on to something?

In order to get down to the bottom of this mystifying debate, I contacted Ian MacAllen, author of “Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American,” knowing that he could help shed some light on the truth. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What is your overall impression of Grandi’s statements? 

Even academics can be prone to clickbait and it does seem Grandi is looking to cause a stir. 

However, many things we believe to be facts about food are half-truths and a lot of his statements are true, from a certain point of view.  

Is there any merit to his statements re: Parmesan cheese from Wisconsin vs. Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy? 

Wisconsin Parmesan Cheese might be more true to some historic cheese recipe, but historic recipes aren’t necessarily the best way of making food. I much prefer Parmigiana Reggiano with flaky, crystalized granules to the damp American or Argentinian Parmesans. 

I’ve seen historic recipes that describe cooking a tomato sauce on an open fire. We don’t cook like that anymore. Does that make tomato sauce cooked on an induction stove less authentic because we didn’t burn it on the bottom of the pot? 

A lot of American cheese is produced on large scale farms and processed in large, industrial facilities, especially in comparison to agriculture in early 20th century Italy. Even if Parmesan is being produced using a similar recipe as Parmigiano Reggiano was a century ago, Italians in Emilia-Romagna were not making it the same way as mass market cheese in Wisconsin. 

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As far as you know, did carbonara, panettone or pizza actually originate in the US or by American chefs? Or were they authentically Italian creations? 

Carbonara has a lot of mythology behind it and much of it is just made up. The phrase is often credited to the black ration packs US Soldiers carried in World War II, but also attributed to a secret society known as the carbonari, who maybe served the dish at their secret meetings or maybe because of the charcoal workers who cooked it at their forest camps. Renato Gualandi, a chef who cooked a banquet for high ranking allied commanders in World War II is often credited with inventing the dish using ingredients in American soldiers’ ration packs. For this reason Luca Cesari describes it as an “American dish invented in Italy.” One of the earliest documented instances of a Spaghetti Carbonara recipe is in “Vittles and Vice” by Patricia Bronte indicating the recipe originated in a Chicago restaurant. But it is also possible that Carbonara existed before the war under a different name.

“Carbonara has a lot of mythology behind it and much of it is just made up.”

The fascists were keen on renaming dishes as a method of control. The fascist government  also wanted Italians to give up pasta because pasta used too much high quality wheat and they worked to unify the country culturally through food. Variations of dishes were renamed and it can be seen in sauces like Arrabbiata and Puttanesca materializing from out of nowhere after the war but being very similar to regional recipes. 

Carbonara is a relatively simple dish. It builds on pasta alla gricia, which has been attributed to the area outside of Rome for centuries. Gricia is made by adding guanciale to cacio e pepe, which is just cheese and pepper. Carbonara takes this a step further and adds eggs to the cheese, pepper and guanciale. One of the mythologies behind Carbonara is that shepherds would make this dish while tending to their grazing flock of sheep, out on the mountainsides away from the village. Salted pork and aged cheese both travel well. Eggs are obviously difficult to transport, but this is only true if you are transporting chicken eggs from a hen house. Wild bird eggs could certainly have been a substitute and impoverished, subsistent shepherds likely would have found those in the forest.  

Panettone is a very old Christmas dish dating back to Milan some five hundred years. That bread recipe obviously was different from the food we can bake today. Flour was refined differently, fruits were cured differently and even sugar, which we take for granted today, was more difficult to refine. Recipes evolve over time. 

Pellegrino Artusi has a Panettone recipe in his 1891 recipe collection, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Well, that we would recognize, but it was really the industrial production of the bread after World War I that produced the big dome shape and the extremely airy texture. Angelo Motta did create the modern panettone. However, Italian immigrants to South America also created versions of the bread that are perhaps even more widely known around the world than the Italian brands and that speaks to the constant evolution of recipes.   

Italian food culture has always been extremely local. Neapolitan pizza, as a savory dish, came about in the late 18th and early 19th century in working-class neighborhoods. Before that time, pizza in Naples referred to a sweet pastry. Outside of Naples, pizza was not known to anyone. Certainly Italians had various types of flat breads, often with olive oil. But pizza with tomato sauce and cheese was very much limited to Naples, as was the term pizza. 

Pizza in America was also confined for many years to Italian immigrant neighborhoods where Neapolitans settled. When pizza first started gaining popularity outside of those enclaves, Americans had to literally be taught the pronunciation of the word. There are phonetic guides in many of the magazines of the time. 

The reason so few people knew about pizza before the 1950s, whether it was in Italy or in the United States, was because of the pizza oven. Neapolitan pizza ovens were heated with wood fires. Americans used coal, but the principle was the same. These ovens were temperamental. They could get very hot and bake a beautiful pizza, but it was difficult to build the fire and if the fire was out too long, the bricks would become cold and damp. After the war, Ira Nevin invented the gas-fired pizza oven. Nevin’s Bakers Pride ovens became a standard for making pizza and it is that invention that allowed pizza to become a global phenomenon. 

Do you think statements like these are in good faith? Or they’re essentially to stir up discussion like this or act as “click bait?” 

The original story reporting on Alberto Grandi on was written by a woman in Britain writing for a British paper. The United Kingdom has a very different relationship to Italian food then Americans have. The United States has literally millions of Italians come to the country between 1880 and 1940. It has become a huge part of American culture — but it’s also tied to that time and place where and when these people came to the United States. Italians come to America today and if they end up working at an Italian American restaurant they are cooking dishes that have little connection to what they knew in Italy, but it is very American. In the United Kingdom, the relationship has been different. Italians had free movement to the island when it was a member of the EU. And this happened across all of Europe — Italians moved to those countries and brought with them contemporary Italian cuisine. That food is very different from Italian American cuisine or even contemporary American-Italian cuisine.  

“There is a history of Italians blowing food dramas out of proportion.”

There is a history of Italians blowing food dramas out of proportion. When Carlo Cracco revealed he added a secret ingredient to his Amatriciana sauce, there was a national outrage. The mayor of Amatrice, where the sauce allegedly originates from, released an official recipe making clear Cracco’s error. His secret? Garlic. 

As a people, Italians take food very seriously. It is one of the country’s most endearing qualities. But many Italians don’t know the true origins of the recipes behind the food they eat. For instance, most Italians will deny Fettuccine Alfredo is of Italian origin even though the original was invented in Rome. Of course that is a very different food from the Alfredo sauce Americans eat at Olive Garden. 

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