Americans are smitten with Italian food. Without pizza, fettuccini Alfredo, garlic bread, spaghetti with meatballs, and a long list of other classic Italian-American favorites, a large percentage of kids and teenagers, and — let’s be honest — adults would have little to eat.
Yet, ask an Italian expat about any of these dishes and you will get a blank stare of incomprehension. The truth is, none of these dishes are authentic Italian or eaten in Italy. Meatballs and other meat are served as a separate course, not with pasta. And pastas drowning in sauce are also unheard of; a small amount of sauce that gently coats the pasta is the norm. What the heck is real Italian food?
To understand real Italian food you must first appreciate the role campanilismo has played in shaping Italian life, culture, traditions, values, and history. In Italian, campanile means bell tower and these tall towers have been prominent landmarks in Italy for centuries. The term campanilismo symbolizes the Italian people’s unbroken connection to their birthplace. In essence, the outside world that lies beyond the sound of the bells tolling in the campanile doesn’t resonate; it’s why most Italians identify with their quartiere (neighborhood), village, town, city, and region first, Italy second.
Campanilismo has, along with limited transportation and lack of refrigeration, helped create hyper local cuisines across all 20 of Italy’s diverse regions. Italian cooks’ passion for local ingredients is known as nostrano, which means “from our place” and this is still the way everyone cooks. Nostrano relies exclusively on fresh, seasonal indigenous fruit, vegetables, seafood, and game and is the synthesis of two distinct cooking styles: cucina povera and cucina alto-borghese. Cucina povera, or “cooking of the poor,” is the older, simpler fare of the contadini and working classes that made do with less expensive cuts of meat and what was grown in subsistence farm plots. Cucina alto-borghese was the more refined cuisine of the upper classes and royal courts begun during the Renaissance. Both styles produced incredible foodways and regional specialties that have been mainstays for generations. This is the essence of real Italian food, and what you don’t know will surprise and delight you.