The Italianity of a restaurant is a combination of different factors
The question is tricky, isn’t it? But the answer is simple: of course not!
Just think about your own countries: you must have eaten in good restaurants, but I’m also sure that you encountered some passable or — even worse — terrible ones along the way. Well, the same happens at Italian restaurants in Italy.
Let me tell you a little anecdote: a few months ago I was roaming the streets of the center of Rome looking for a place to eat. I was pretty hungry and willing to stop somewhere as soon as I could. Then a waiter outside a restaurant gave me a flyer showing a selection of menus for tourists. I was quite skeptic and ready to move on when the waiter told me I should give the restaurant a go, since the pizza maker was from Naples. So I entered. As you may have already figured out, this was a bad decision: when I ate one of the worst pizzas I had ever tasted, it verified a couple of sayings such as “you can’t judge a book by its cover” and “the gown does not make the friar.” I also felt bad for all the foreign tourists who were eating there and didn’t have the chance to enjoy a decent meal!
Therefore, I had the misfortune of entering a terrible restaurant. Nevertheless, it was — for geographic reasons — Italian.
What makes a restaurant good and truly Italian?
I’m not saying that the Italian cuisine is not good; quite the contrary. I’m only stating an intuitive truth: there are good and bad cooks. A restaurant can be Italian and, still, be a bad restaurant.
On the other hand, especially abroad, there are also cases of good restaurants whose only link to Italy is, unfortunately, on their sign. Or worse, restaurants that pretend to be Italian and, moreover, are mediocre. Therefore, pizza and pasta on a menu or the words “Italian restaurant” are not proof of Italianity.
This latter word is used a lot in a TV program called Little Big Italy: Francesco Panella, an Italian restaurateur, travels abroad and in each city he visits he tries three different restaurants — recommended by three Italians who live there — to decide which one is the best. Every place receives a score, which is determined by the votes of the contestants and by the “Italianity vote” given by Panella. This vote takes into account the atmosphere, the location and the authenticity of the dishes. Many of the chefs fail to win the heart of the presenter because they’re not able to satisfy his “Italian craving,” that is to say, a typical Italian dish which Panella wants to eat even if it isn’t on the menu.
The search for Italianity and quality around the world
But, what exactly is this Italianity? How can we distinguish an Italian, quality restaurant from a not so Italian or not so recommendable one?
There’s a Marchio di Ospitalità Italiana (the “Italian hospitality brand”, a quality seal recognized by the Italian Government) that began a project called “Italian hospitality, Italian restaurants around the world” which is “addressed to all the Italian restaurants abroad, ensuring compliance with quality standards typical of Italian hospitality.” The project has the aim to promote Italian foods, to support those restaurants abroad that respect the quality standards of Italian hospitality and to create an international network. The certificate is issued only to those restaurants that — after being checked by an Evaluation Committee — comply with all the requirements. These are:
Identity and Italian distinctiveness
Mise en Place
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Experience and Competence
PDO and PGI Products
Some of these points are quite interesting. In the second and the fifth, they explain that at least one person at the reception of the restaurant must be able to speak to the customers in Italian and that the menu should also be written in Italian. Regarding points number seven, eight and ten, you will notice the importance on certified ingredients of Italian origin: it is essential that restaurateurs use PDO (Protected Destination of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) products. These truly make a difference: you know, mozzarella is mozzarella, and it shouldn’t be confused or replaced with any pale cheese!
If a recipe needs mozzarella, you can’t just substitute it for cheddar (no offense meant: cheddar is a tasty cheese!): a pizza Margherita can be considered such only if it contains that fresh stretched curd cheese that comes from Italy which changes a lot depending on the milk used. That’s why a mozzarella di Bufala, produced using the milk of buffaloes raised in specific Italian regions, has a whole different flavor and texture from the “classic” mozzarella, and is a PDO product.
Just to give you another example, also pasta requires specific cheeses: the most used are Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano (both are PDO products), although some recipes use Pecorino (for example, the Pasta alla Gricia) and salty ricotta (this is the case of the Pasta alla norma).
Having said that, remember that depending on the ingredients used, a dish changes drastically.
So, who can you trust?
In conclusion, the Italianity of a restaurant is a combination of different factors: first of all, the owner’s, the chef’s and the staff’s Italian attitude and knowledge of our culinary tradition, the menu, and last but not least, the use of high-quality products. Then, the competence of those who work in the restaurant can make it either good or bad.
If you’re abroad and you can’t find a restaurant that shows the quality seal I talked about, don’t lose hope. You can always try it and ask the waiters or the chef some tricky questions: and if they don’t use Extra Virgin Olive Oil and they don’t know the difference between PDO and PGI products, run away!