Cucina Italiana
Adelaide Food and Wine Writers' Festival


Chair Don Dunstan with Barbara Santich, Mietta O'Donnell, Rosa Matto
Questions given to panel in advance to consider:
  • Is foccacia getting us closer or further away from a real Italian cuisine? Does it matter?
  • What do books (all genres) tell us about Italian food?
  • Have books encouraged a stereotype of Italian food that doesn't match reality?

Is there anything that has not been said about Cucina Italiana

How do you talk about something which means so much to so many people. Everyone has an opinion and a different version. Each one is based on very particular memories and associations. Particular to geography, age, family.

But what is it? Consider the Italian love of the subjunctive -- what cucina italiana should be, would be, could be. But what is the reality? Can you expect reality from Italians? Much of what I will be talking about is based on my experiences (and those of my grandparents) as a restaurateur in Melbourne. and, you may well ask, what's that got to do with Cucina Italiana?? Well I could have been born in Milano (where my grandparents came from) and I could have been like Gualtiero Marchesi, and he could/should have been a concert violinist.Talking to him at the height of his fame as chef-owner of Italy's only 3 Michelin starred restaurant, Gualtiero fantasised about being a musician.

And indeed La Cucina Italiana is a total fantasia

And the more we try to discuss it, this fantasia , to pin it down, to define it, the more we become lost in its charms, the memories grow stronger as we talk about them. The seduction is complete.

Can we be rational here, can we blot out the memory of the sitting in the piazzas, the smell of the porchetta at the Umbrian roadside stalls, the weatherbeaten faces of the Catania fishermen, the light reflected through the windows, the exquisite cut and color matching clothes (of the men of course) And so on, everyone has their favourite Italian story. And there is no better story, than the myth of La Cucina Italiana.This myth has been the stuff of thousands of wonderful stories, each richly embellished by imagination and memories.

There are so many expatriate Italian authors frozen in time warps who tell their stories so often and so temptingly, churning out more and more books; so many cooking courses, so many special interest tours. More interest in culture and cuisine per square metre than any other part of the world.

So what has been the effect of all this interest, all these books. Have they, as the discussion question suggests encouraged a stereotype of Italian cuisine that doesn't match reality? I contacted Alfredo Antanaros, editor of Gambero Rosso in Rome who replied that "almost all of the food books encourage stereotypes and propogate the regional dish lists. There are very few things which are really common to a great part of the cooking of any region in Italy. This is not to say that ideas and ingredients do not pass from one kitchen to the other. Cooking is a living art, it is always in progress. It is dynamic, curious and experimental. It is not a museum or a mummy"

So, if it is not, as Alfredo says, a mummy Why is it presented so, Why it is so wrapped in its own traditions?

I believe that the myth, the fable of La Cucina Italiana is sustained not by fraud but by passion. Everyone loves eating the food, but each story teller has their own definition, their own memory of what their mother used to make.

And that, after all, is what Italian cooking is about. It is the cooking of the home and what that constitutes depends on where exactly the home is (and where the home of the grandmother is or was). And it's far too superficial to talk of the north or the south or even a particular region. It is much more localised than that. It comes from the particular village, town or city.

In more recent years, a lot of restaurants in English speaking countries are using the term "northern Italian" to describe their food. This is a more unpleasant and deceptive aspect of the mythology. Here one begins to sense a commercial rationality in this branding.There is no such thing as a northern or a southern Italian cuisine but there has evolved outside of Italy, particularly in the and USA an association of sophistication, elegance, lack of heaviness in a so-called northern Italian style as opposed to the supposedly coarse, heavy, peasant cuisine of the south.

However, I am straying from the matters I was asked to address.

The question - Have all the words, all these books stuffed it up. Have they destroyed the very thing their authors love, that they are trying to enshrine, to glorify, to perpetuate??

Certainly the telling of the myth is sometimes a bit rich and certainly some of the expat memories of the beloved homeland become stultifying.I quote from San Francisco author,Viana la Place

out of the darkened winter earth come black truffles and gnarled celery root, a forest of wild mushrooms, and masses of sturdy bitter greens. Seemingly overnight, spring gardens and fields are showered with blossoms. Tender green blades . . .

Leaving aside the book just quoted from -- the actual recipes in most of the books are not bad, and don't produce bad food. What that food is then called or believed to be is another thing.

The problems we are addressing today really come from the marketers. The consultants, the magazine writers, the advertising agencies. They have seized on a number of very marketable commodities and just about sold them to death. Probably the most important being the concept of an "Italian life style". The art and the joy of living.

Can you blame them? What so-called nation (made up of so many local egos) of exhibitionists seems more saleable. When la bella figura is the mainstay of one's existence, then surely the most desirable thing is for that "figura" to be slavishly emulated.

Most of us have a fundamental problem in not being able to afford the clothes and cars that make up "la bella figura" but we can, so we are told, afford what they eat - especially when it is pasta, pizza and foccacia.

The fact that these foods never constitute a complete meal in Italy and would rarely be eaten just as a base for a mound of other unrelated ingredients is irrelevant to the marketers and, by consequence, to the proprietors who have decided this is the way to go.

They have become a very cheap way of selling a lifestyle, of filling people's stomachs meaningfully. The familiarity of these foods now means that people feel "comfortable" with them (Our butcher, Jonathan Gianfreda, (who happens to come from the Veneto) says that we are told that Italian food is like a pair of jeans- everybody feels comfortable with it)

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But I understand that the effect this successful marketing has had here in Adelaide is to make it very difficult for people who don't share these values to get a different experience, to be able to eat a dish prepared according to a family or village tradition. God forbid it may even be without tomato. And what's more it may have to cost more than fast food.

We've got more Italians in Melbourne, more so called Italian restaurants and a lot more problems. Fasta pasta and pizzas on wheels get around a lot but we also have a much higher level of fantasia to cope with. And fantasia doesn't come cheap. Some of Melbourne's so-called Italian restaurants are amongst the city's most expensive. They are not using cheap ingredients and do have real skills in the kitchen. But do they have attitude. You have taken a trip to Italy and you will not here English in these places. Is this charming Italian arrogance, a skilful suspension of reality or a great con?

Anyway Melbourne swallows it and in believing that this is the true Italian way leaves no room for the honesty of someone like Silvana Palmira who has just sold Borsato Restaurant. She was serving wonderful food and did not succeed in Melbourne. I think this is the most damning indication of what is happening with food in my home town.

Whose fault is this. I could blame the Age Good Food Guide, and will. Though that's not the complete reason. However I can't knock back the opportunity to criticise the publication which has done so much harm to good food in Melbourne. However, this is not the topic for today though I would be delighted to speak about this at great length another time.

The real culprits of bad "Italian food" are the Italians themselves who simply don't eat out enough here or in Italy Because Italians prefer to eat their family cooking at home their restaurants don't maintain standards. Fortunately in Melbourne we have the Chinese community who eat out regularly with their families and so give us great restaurants at all levels.Being able to go out to eat a really good Cantonese supper after closing the restaurant was one of the things which kept us sane. And it always seemed that the Chinese babies sleeping patterns were geared to their parents' work. At midnight they would awake and share their mother's soup and noodles. Eating together as families is still important in Italy too but is done much less in restaurants.

However to continue for a moment talking about food in Melbourne. When we first opened our restaurant in 1974 we went through a period of enormous experimentation with a menu which changed completely every week and featured dishes from Middle Eastern, Old English, Chinese, Indian, Escoffier French, E David's Mediterranean Food etc. etc., I finally came to my senses and realised the impossibility of operating this way. Though interesting and educational it is not a way to produce consistently good food (a less than kind friend described eating with us as being like Russian roulette). So I then saw the light and decided to go with the strength - to use the two cuisines for which all the ingredients and a large population who understood them were there -- the Chinese and the Italians. So through our Chinese market supplier we found a Cantonese chef, Winston Chung and, by luck, found Franc Biencotto, a recently arrived Piedemontese chef. We had seperate dishes, not east mets west, effectively two menus, Chinese and Italian. To help bridge the cultural gap in the kitchen we took Winston to Italy and arranged a month's work for him at Il Griso, a restaurant with hotel on Laggo Maggiore.

Winston returned to Melbourne having learnt a lot about cooking but nothing about Italian life style. When he opened his own restaurant (as all good staff eventually do) he did a mixed menu. the food was good but the place did not really work. His wife had stayed home, had no understanding of European, let alone Italian style, and felt uncomfortable and unsuccessful in selling it.They changed premises and became a Cantonese restaurant. Now they serve food that their family and their customers understand completely and are comfortable with.

I'd like to stretch your patience and talk more about food in Melbourne. It is nearly 70 years since my grandparents came there from Milano, almost a lifetime. It is amazing how quickly they and other Italian families nearby established such an important position in the life of Melbourne. It all occurred at the eastern end of the city - close to Parliament House, near the theatres and the (now gone Eastern Market). There was Guiseppe Codognotto's Society; the Molinas, first at Cafe d'Italia (where the Latin is now) and then at the Imperial, the Massonis at Florentino, Marios in Exhibition street and the Triacas Cafe Latin, which at that stage was next door in Exhibition St (Marios bought it in 1955) and the Latin then re-opened in Lonsdale St. All these families knew each other, their children got up to mischief together, my mother learnt how to drive by practising in Bourke Street. They all shared in the running war with the licensing police. My grandfather had men with walkie talkies placed strategically around who would warn him when the cops emerged from the Russell St police station and immediately the grog was off the tables. The police would enter a roomfull of happy people, but no sign of alcohol.

Their first customers were fellow Italians, bohemians and politicians of various nationalities. Fasoli's which started even earlier in Lonsdale St had become famous as the temple of Bohemia.

When these families opened they had no choice but to cook what they knew best with what ingredients they could muster. The list of ingredients soon grew as they developed market gardens and an import industry of dried and tinned goods started to flourish. Their proximity to theatres (Her Majesty's and the Comedy) attracted more artists and writers. My grandparents developed musical evenings and eventually a large cabaret business. They and the other families at the top end of town changed Melburnians social and dining habits long before Lygon Street.It was in the two decades after the Second World War that Carlton (which previously had a large Jewish population) attracted Italians. These post war migrants were mainly from the south - Calabria and Sicily particularly. the food businesses they started were pizzerias and the next stage of Italian influence set in. More and more places opened and more and more of them were offering cheaper and cheaper food. And gradually people were starting to eat out more and the new Italian cheap ad cheerful style appealed. But it also lost prestige. then in the 80's the third phase started. These restaurants were started by the children of the second wave of migration. This was a new Italian renaissance, witness Marchetti's refreshed Latin, thenCafe Di Stasio and Caffe e Cucina, the epitome of the Italian style, truly foreign and exotic. It's yet another form of fantasia, to make Australians feel they're in foreign territory.

The wheel has come full circle. The children of the migrants who had worked so hard to give their children an education and good English were insisting on speaking only Italian in their restaurants. They want to be known as foreigners, to be considered exotic, to be a wog is now almost a term of endearment (thanks to John Newton - is he here??)

Another (unrelated) point I'd like to talk about is (one which Rosa may talk about also) the Tuscan imperative (and failure to recognise any food south of Rome).

Last year we had an extended trip to Europe without any real itinerary and - no restaurant bookings. So when we landed at Rome airport we did not (for the first time in 12 trips there) immediately head north. Instead we went across to Pescara (to visit my cousin, virginia) ate some good fish and then drove south on the coast road, right round the boot and across to Sicily.

Our previous trips whilst running Mietta's were geared to visiting as many restaurants as possible. It is now 20 years since we made our first gastro pilgrimage to Italy ( though I had lived there earlier as a student) and I am not convinced much has really changed in that time. Sure prices have risen out of proportion to the rest of Europe and the Italian translation of nouvelle cuisine has had its last gasp, thank god.

For the first few pilgrimages we used a range of guide books and then learnt to temper those with the advice of friends.Are guide books the way to discover La Cucina Italiana? I think not. But then, as stated earlier, I don't believe such a thing exists. It puzzles me that such well respected authors as Claudia Roden and Marcella Hazan title their books respectively "The Food of Italy" and "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" , then say in their introductions - CR" There is no such thing as Italian cooking, only Sicilian, Piedemontese, Neapolitan, Venetian, Florentine, Genoese and so on. " and MH", Italian cooking - (it would seem) no single cuisine answers to that name". We seem to have here a most basic contradiction in intent and execution. This is not to say I don't like these books. On the contrary, I think that the introductions to the regions by Claudia Roden are quite brilliant.

But how do we cope when we go to Italy carrying all this baggage of contradictions and hype. When it seems impossible to find any sense of a real national identity let alone a coherent notion of a cuisine - are we then disappointed with the food we find there??

Far from it, if you rely on your senses, on your own powers of observation and intuition. And listen to the advice of the locals.

Listening and looking is what it is all about.

Food and travel experiences are as subjective as you can get. At best you are getting informed opinion So take it for what it's worth and according to how much you want .to be convinced.

No matter what labels are given to food, as to wine, it's your palate which you must believe in. That's easier to say than to follow. How often are we persuaded by reputation and by cost to like wine and food??

Image and reality. And the traps we fall in, this is not a purely Italian phenomenon. But what other "race" (for want of another terminology) could have given us the irony, the beauty and the self delusion of La Dolce Vita. Looks aren't everything but they go a long way to making you believe in pleasure..

If this is wrong, if this is the cause of standards dropping in Italian cuisine, don't blame the writers. Their words may have persuaded you, seduced you into going to Italy or going to Italian restaurants or trying to cook Italian food.

Once seduced, its up to you to make it work for you. Its up to you to look and taste and form your own judgement, use your own skills. If you get rubbish, eat it and return for more, you are to blame for declining standards.

Words are powerful tools. Stand up to them, resist, ignore them if you must. But don't blame the writers for doing their job well.

Mietta O'Donnell
Presented at the Adelaide Food & Wine Writers' Festival on 12/10/1997
©Mietta's 1997