Experimenting With Italian Food

The civil war between culinary purists and pioneers is one of the great battles of our time. But when the dust settles, who really wins?

Italian Food Chefs
Chefs at work. Photo: Michael Browning on Unsplash.

The Italian food civil war between culinary purists and pioneers is one of the great battles of our time. But when the dust settles, who really wins?

Everybody knows that Italians can, and will, breathe fire for disturbing their prized recipes. Indeed, if you ever doubt the unity of a country that often seems utterly fragmented, just go to any social media page that displays ‘adaptations’ of Italian food, and you will find the solidarity of a people that you might never have thought possible. Their true feelings emerge, and the most tactful comments on the matter will sound something like, “my ancestors will emerge from their graves to haunt you.” They may even get specific: “every time I see recipes like this, an Italian grandma dies.” The contentious tortellini-gate took this affront to another level: when the canons of Italian cooking — like replacing pork with chicken in the classic Romagnolo pasta — become intertwined with the foundations of political and religious beliefs, we are all collateral damage.

Italian food and groundbreaking ideas: a brave new world

Although Italians don’t like people mistreating their beloved recipes, like carbonara or pizza Margherita, some pioneering national chefs are trying to play around with traditional cuisine. Among them is Valerio Braschi, a young chef from the province of Rimini, on the East Coast of Italy in Emilia-Romagna. He was put through his paces during the popular program Masterchef Italia, winning the 2017 edition. Today, he is the owner of 1978, an Italian restaurant in Rome incorporating refined techniques with classic recipes to create sophisticated food trends. At 23 years old he is as popular on Instagram as he is celebrated by culinary authorities, and he makes no apologies for not adhering to the strict interpretation of iconic dishes. Instead, he boldly challenges them and, in so doing, offers a glimpse into what may finally be the vanguard of Italian food.

First, happy hour

No Italian weekend can start without the ubiquitous aperitivo, where friends get together in busy bars and order cocktails, soft drinks, wine, and spuntini (snacks). But Valerio Braschi wanted to do more with this idea; his offering is an unconventional soft drink made with eggplant bitters. Slow roasted eggplants are cooled in a plastic bag, which allows the vegetable to release water that contains the essence of these complex flavors. Once cooled he adds Angostura, lime juice, and soy sauce, which adds both acidity and that elusive umami that cooking shows like Masterchef love to mention. When served over ice, it is the drinkable version of vegetable your grandmother assails you with every summer, when her garden overflows with melanzane. Of course, your grandmother never served it like this.

Later, an appetizer

Every gut busting, old-fashioned Italian meal worthy of its name starts with an antipasto that will no doubt be eaten voraciously and with no thought of the many courses still to follow. There is a reason that lunch lasts hours in Italy, but Valerio Braschi starts it off even earlier, with a toothpaste-like tube that, instead of your grandpa’s Capitano, is filled with lasagna Bolognese. The idea came from Braschi’s memories of his childhood holidays. According to the chef, waking up in the morning during those lazy days was always done in the hope of eating a forkful of lasagna. So why not cut to the chase and make toothpaste with the same flavor?

And his squeeze tube filled with lasagna carries every bit of that fatty and heavy nostalgia. To the initiated, the appetizer needs no introduction: a lasagna cream that you should put on an egg-pastry toothbrush. Of course, Braschi pays attention to process as much as he does to flavor — after brushing your teeth with lasagna, he gives you a mouthwash of Parmigiano to swish and gargle. It is playful, it is cheeky, and it is absolutely delicious.

Don’t forget the carbonara

When the world thinks about Italian pasta, their minds inevitably go to carbonara. It is a sublime alchemy that makes eggs, hard cheese (Pecorino is better than Parmigiano), cured pork, and pepper combine into an explosion of unique and distinctive flavor. If there is a more symbolic dish, both in national identity as well as in the very best that Italian food has to offer, you would be hard pressed to find it.

But Carbonara is also a caloric juggernaut, with nearly 450 kcal in just 100 grams of the dish. It is not for the faint of heart, in any way. Valerio Braschi came up with a solution: if carbonara is so heavy to eat, it will be infinitely easier to drink. His carbonara-to drink is not only gentler on the stomach, it also contains zero calories and no alcohol. Of course, you’ll probably have a hard time recreating this one at home, as the recipe requires a slow distillation process of a mix of zabaglione, Pecorino, black pepper broth, and cream of cured pork.

Can Italy make food (gasp!) fun?

Chefs are increasingly looking for ways of experimenting with food in Italy, building on the work that people like Massimo Bottura began when he started playing with the traditional recipes and memories of his youth. Many are trying to innovate while remaining faithful to custom, adopting the mantra that they can alter the outcome without changing ingredients. But this involves creativity and curiosity, and not a little bit of humor. Italians tend to take their food very seriously, and they imbue it with the kind of sacred reverence that is normally reserved for religious practices or football matches.

Maybe it’s time to have some fun with our food, to stop acting as though every tweak or twist will somehow bring down the nation and bring forth the wrath of our ancestors. It’s why we should give credit to Valerio Braschi, whose creations may be a bit weird but also challenge us to try something different and laugh about it a little bit. For in the end, food isn’t just about survival. It’s about sharing something, maybe even something new, reserving our judgment for things that really deserve it. Like football.

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