Yes, We Say It: Italian Cuisine Is The Best In The World

Italian cuisine might be one of the most popular in the world, but it is also one of the most exported. We believe the reason behind the cuisine’s popularity goes beyond a savvy marketing operation.

People dining in the outdoor seating area of a restaurant in Rome centro storico.
A restaurant in Rome. Photo by Sten Ritterfeld on Unsplash

Last summer I went on a vacation to Capri. I was somehow dragged there. I have an aversion for hyper touristic places where restaurants are majorly targeted towards tourist’s palates. I was there with my boyfriend and his family. I remember asking waiters and the hospitality staff for recommendations for traditional Caprese cuisine — anything beyond the infamous, wrongly named ‘salad’. We were sitting in a higher-end restaurant and I was advised to try the torta caprese. Little did I know my decision to try the rich nutty cake was about to ignite a cultural feud for the rest of the evening.

Right after the waiter suggested that I try it, he specified that people in Capri did not particularly enjoy it themselves, “It’s heavy, it’s more popular in Napoli. It’s always Neapolitans who order it.” My boyfriend’s stepdad chimed in, better to avoid it and order the rum babà, another Neapolitan delicacy. Here’s the thing: rum babà — or baba au rhum — and I have a charged history. I am French. I grew up on a southern French and Mediterranean diet which can be different from the expected classic fare (crepes, butter, steak etc). Baba au rhum is certainly not Neapolitan, it originates from Lorraine, in the south east of France. Legend has it that the exiled Polish King was actually the one who imported it — hence the name, baba a diminutive of Babka, grandma.

When my southern French palate tried it for the first time, I had a shock. I was not culturally related to it, it was completely foreign. Still, it was part of my extended heritage. Years later, I discovered that my Neapolitan loved ones were also claiming it as part of their cultural and gastronomical landscape, their childhood Proustian madeleine. Babà was brought to Southern Italy in the nineteenth century by the monsù — chefs who had trained in France and worked in the kitchens of the well-off families of Naples. Here we go. One dessert, one recipe that everyone is claiming as their own. Isn’t this how it often happens?

I began to wonder, what makes a dish truly Italian? When I told my boyfriend’s family that they were in the wrong, they also had a shock. Something they believed had been part of their southern Italian heritage this whole time had just been stolen from them. My boyfriend’s stepfather eventually proceeded to order a ‘French baba’ very bitterly. “Italian food is still the best in the world, this I am sure of,” he added while giving me a dark look. As of today, they are not over the baba incident. As ingredients, recipes and produce are fluid entities, at the mercy of historical changes or political decisions, one could wonder if a cuisine actually goes beyond these parameters. Tomatoes are a huge part of Italian culture yet they are not indigenous to the country. At the end of the day, Italian identity and the cuisine attached to it might be more about legacy than anything else. Legacy goes beyond culture, traditions, and family. It can also be acquired or taught. It is the delicate balance between nurture and culture. Our whole humanity is present between those two ideas.

A Malian pizzaiolo at work in a pizzeria in Bamako, Mali.
A pizzaiolo at work in Bamako. Photo credit: Palermo Résidence

A popularity rooted in history and immigration

As a French person I never eat French food outside of France. French food is associated with high-end restaurants around the world and popular items on the menus: snails, steak and frites are dishes we either never eat or have never tried. Italian food, for Italians, is similar. Spaghetti and meatballs, which is considered the classic Italian food and can be found in Alaska or Bamako, is not eaten together by Italians. Pizza is next on the list — no offense to Chicago residents but deep crust pizza is where we have to draw the line. If you’ve been lucky enough to travel to Italy or have lived in the country, chances are you will think twice before ordering a $27 cacio e pepe in New York or eating Pizza Hut. It’s just not the same thing. One could argue this is just gastronomy in general, after all this also applies to sushi or jerk chicken.

Still, according to a study by an economist at the University of Minnesota, the most exported cuisine globally is Italian cuisine. China and Japan are in second place. Depending on the restaurant, products might be imported or not therefore potentially contributing to the Italian economy directly. What may come as a surprise to some people is that Italy is not even in the top five countries with the most Michelin-starred restaurants. When you think of the world’s famous chef, you think of French names like Alain Ducasse or British ones like Jamie Oliver. Because the quality of Italian food is not pertinent to restaurant trends, marketing, and fame.

Anywhere in the country, chances are you will eat well. Due to the various waves of Italian immigration around the world, a small percentage of dishes (pizza, lasagna, pasta and some pastries) became known to almost everyone on the planet. They then mutated and adapted to subcultures such as Italian-American palates. The reason behind those is that the recipes are easy to be passed down generation after generation. Pizza is over 200 years old. It might be done differently from region to region in Italy, and on the international scene, but it is a global symbol.

When I was living in Bamako, Mali, I would go out of my way to visit my friend’s pizza restaurant. At this time it was the only one in the capital. It is also proven scientifically that carbs help our brains release serotonin, in other words participate in our happiness. You might not eat the most authentic pizza all the time, but chances are, you will still be pretty satisfied afterwards. This paired with simple flavors and produce that is some of the best on the planet, we have a winning combination.

Italian cuisine is one of the best in the world because it is self-sustainable on so many levels: through time, it keeps on being good. It’s very difficult to mess up a pasta dish. Italian cuisine can be both elaborate and simple. When you dig deeper and you focus on the regional gastronomy, a whole new world opens up. It is also the best in the world because of this — there is really an infinite amount of possibilities. Mozzarella from Lazio or Campania are worlds apart.

Close up shot of a hand holding strands of freshly made pasta.
A chef makes pasta in Mexico. Photo by Jorge Zapata on Unsplash

A well-preserved ritual

An Italian meal is a ritual. Forget about pizza and a huge plate of pasta, let’s focus on the everyday mechanisms: primo, secondo, contorno, sparkling or mineral water. No cappuccino after 11 am. Something sweet like a pastry for breakfast. There are so many rules. I thought we had rules in France: an appéritif (daily mandatory ritual if you’re from the south), baguette, a main dish with minimal carbs and some protein, a simple green salad with vinaigrette (the dressing has to be in a little bowl on the side, very important), cheese and something sweet like a fruit (must be done in this order or you may risk to become instantly ill).

But Italian meals are on another level, no one speaks of the rules. The rules are part of everyone’s identity. They actually make sense and are rooted either in an intention to preserve flavors (like, add pasta water to your sauce) or for health benefits (cappuccino after lunch ruins your digestion). Everywhere around the world, people are baffled that Italians have low cholesterol, obesity risks, etc. besides eating carbs on a daily basis.

Portion control is part of the ritual: a primo might be pasta but just 250 grams, and a secondo could be fish (healthy protein and fat). In these unspoken rules lie the greatest satisfaction. There is no better feeling that eating a fresh plate of pasta and vongole and then taking a dip in the sea (although one must wait an hour before swimming to digest or also risk to instantly become ill — something else French people also abide by).

There are many cuisines around the world which are equally ritualistic, after all, the Japanese tea ceremony is ancestral and has no equivalent in the world. However, the dishes centered around these rituals might take longer to make. I personally adore Persian food and find that it follows the same pattern as Italian cuisine, while the flavors are greatly different. Take ghormeh sabzi, a delicious herb stew considered the national dish of Iran, it takes an average six hours to make.

While it is true that making homemade pasta can take a while to make, at the end of the day, pretty much everyone has time to make a quick lasagna. This is another reason why Italian cuisine has exported so well — forget about the rules, even with minimal cooking experience, it is easily accessible.

Learning from Italian traditions

For us to state that yes, Italian cuisine might be the best in the world, is definitely Western-centric, and there is a lot of room for debate. Popularity is rooted in privileges, and just like anything that has been exported or is simply known on a global scale, colonization and oppression might be behind it. However, there are some elements that pertain to Italy’s unique culinary profile. Agriculture, as opposed to other nations, has a strong presence and allows Italians to consume local, fresh produce, cheeses or wine on a regular basis. This might not be the case for other cultures and countries.

Italians can definitely be proud of their culinary heritage and its prestige. The ancient traditions deserved to be fought for and preserved (perhaps you have previously heard of the olive oil scandal). We need Protected Designation of Origins and other institutions to protect Parmigiano or San Marzano tomatoes and to extend Italian food on the international scene. However, one must not forget that within traditions and ancestral knowledge, there is room for innovation and diverse voices. Italian society is changing, for the best, and its heritage should change with it.