I recently read this article
on the correlation between the decline of French food and the past 40 years of France’s economic stagnation, and I immediately draw a parallel between France and Italy and found plenty of similarities.
In my teenage years, about 25 years ago, food in Italy was great. I remember going out for dinner with my family once a week, an evening out where us, kids, could eat something different, something my mum would or could not cook at home and a day where everyone was allowed to have anything as long as it was on the menu. At home, there was one menu, one choice, and whether we liked it or not, we all had to sit down at the table and eat it, but once a week we could really eat what we liked.
Then, during my university, I moved to Rome and again, eating and drinking was part of me. I, together with a few friends, would go out looking for little, unknown “trattoria” - as students we could not afford restaurants - where we could eat great food and drink decent wine without paying a fortune and discovered some great place.
In Italy, eating establishments are divided in to “ristorante”, restaurant, “trattoria”, a less informal eating venue, and “pizzeria” where they offer only pizza with plenty of choices, except pineapple and ham. The main difference between “ristorante” and “trattoria” is the menu and the service. “Trattoria” has normally a smaller menu and a more informal service and as a consequence, it is cheaper, but the quality of the food, used to be as good as the “ristorante”.
Then 20 years ago I came to England and as soon as I landed, I noticed the difference between the food I grew up with in Italy and the Italian food in the UK and it wasn’t pleasant, this is one of the reasons I set up Italyabroad.com. Being a decent cook, my visit to restaurants have always been limited to non Italian restaurants and pizzerias or establishments where I knew and trusted the chef.
Fast forward ten years and food in Italy has become mediocre, exactly like the sloppy lasagne I tasted when I first arrived in the UK. With a very few exceptions made of highly rated, and I am not talking about Tripadvisor’s ratings, and expensive restaurants or small, hidden eating places, difficult to find, often located in uninhabited villages, run by husband and wife where there is barely a menu, offering one and only one option, but where the food is still great, it has become very difficult to find good places to eat.
Italy has an advantage, it has the ingredients. Italian soil is fertile and the sun does the rest, and every chef will agree with me when I say that when the ingredients are fresh and in season, the food has plenty of flavour. In the UK unfortunately we do not have the same luck; most of the ingredients are imported. However, despite the availability of the ingredients, the advantage, food in Italy has become very average. Driving through an Italian village is no different than driving through a UK village or city, plenty of boards inviting diners in with unbelievable low prices, eating out is now cheaper than buying the ingredients. Whether touristic resorts or small villages, there is no difference, and Italians have got used to this, their palate has changed and I believe, for the worse.
Italian supermarkets are no different, with people queuing to buy extra virgin Italian oil costing a couple of euros made with olives from Greece or Morocco or Eastern Europe when Italian olive growers are struggling to sell theirs. Italian cities have been flooded with hard discounters forcing small, independent, deli shops out of business. When at university in Rome, each street had a small deli, “l’alimentare”, where Italians would go to get a panino for lunch: fresh bread and freshly sliced ham. Only to get there, the aromas on the street when approaching the deli and inside the shop, was a joy, almost better than sex, not the pre packed, tasteless, cold flavourless tuna sandwich that has now taken its place. My friend Bruno, from a village near mine in Abruzzo, when he first came to England and opened its restaurant put a big sign outside saying “orgasmic food here”, and he kept repeating it to all diners visiting its restaurant in his English with a strong Abruzzo’s accent. Great food is good for the mind as well as the body and science confirms it.
These changes in eating habits have affected not just restaurants, but the whole chain, from top to bottom, from producers that have been forced to look for cheaper ingredients, ingredients that had to be imported, to employment. Funnily enough, the Italian trade body, has recently launched an initiative against what they call “Italian sounding names” given to products made all over the world other than Italy with names that sound exactly like the original and labels with images of the Coliseum or the Pisa’s lining tower, wrongly thinking that by removing the “copies”, the originals will fly off the shelves. Until poor quality products are allowed to be made by Italian companies, sales will not improve. Consumers choose with their palate and if the taste is the same, why paying more, only because it says “made in Italy”?
I believe there is a strong correlation between the nation’s economy, and I would add the quality of the politicians running the country, and the decline of Italian food, in Italy and abroad. Not only, the dramatic economic situation the country has been living for the last forty years has reduced the income available for Italians to spend in food and wine, but it also has profoundly affected their mental and physical health. Italians in the last twenty years have been constantly fighting for survival, fighting to meet ends. Italians were famous for the “bella vita” or the “joy de vivre” as the French calls it; this is now gone, the only evidence left of that way of living is the movie “La dolce vita” from the great Federico Fellini.