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Britain's Idolisation of Italian Food

Perhaps the most uninteresting fact you could put on a dating profile is “I love Italian food.” In Britain at least, the prevalence and popularity of Italian cuisine over the last sixty years has been so absolute that stating how much you personally enjoy it comes off like you’ve had to Google “frequently held opinions.” Our town is a prime example of this unique status. We have the chains Pizza Express, Zizzi, Mozza, its preppy neighbour Rocca, the new kid on the block Palompo’s, plus the “fine dining” triumvirate, Lupo’s, Little Italy, and The Seafood Ristorante. This excludes straight pizza places, Domino’s and the holiday park Papa John’s, which are admittedly Italian-American. The disproportionate abundance reveals less about the food itself than it does the strange significance British culture and consumers attach to it.

It was not always this way. People typically credit Mario Cassandro as the man who introduced Italian cooking to the London restaurant scene, the first step in its eventual dominance. In 1959, he opened La Trattoria Terrazza in Soho. According to The Greasy Spoon blog, the menu offered among other things fried octopus, Italian sausage on spinach, and sautéed calf’s brains; these dishes were rich, complex, and radical to postwar British palates. It was exclusive and expensive, but crucially, it was cool. Celebrities came in droves not just to eat there, but to be seen eating there. Italian food said something about you, and said it with its mouth full. Plus, the restaurant’s initial kitsch decor was revamped by designer Enzo Apicella, a fellow Italian, framing the regionally specific food with metropolitan, modernist aesthetics. 

Twenty years later, after Italian cuisine had established itself in London and was beginning to disperse, Apicella was recruited to design the next big thing: Pizza Express. Its founder Peter Boizot pushed Trattoria Terrazza’s premise of mixing casual swank with rudimentary Italian substance (the first restaurant imported its beer and its pizza oven). But unlike its predecessor, this breached divide “between low and high culture,” as Digby Warde-Aldam calls it, meant Pizza Express was more inviting to a large portion of consumers who weren’t just yuppies and consultants. Its subsequent expansion over the 90’s was pretty incredible. By the turn of the millennium, well beyond any other European cuisine, Italian food had a grip on the national appetite.

Yet as reception to Italian food grew wider and warmer, a fresh batch of British culinary jargon and class snobbery came hot on its tail. Pizza Express never claimed to represent a particular regional cuisine — you might find Bologna in one dish, Apulia in the next — so it never took itself too seriously. Meanwhile Jamie Oliver, eager to demonstrate that child obesity in Britain is solely caused by poor parenting and has nothing to do with cuts to public spending or systematic economic inequalities, took a different tack. His book Jamie’s Italy, along with his restaurant Jamie’s Italian, vaunted “traditional” Italian cooking like a deity, drooling over its supposed simplicity, cleanliness, and deep historical roots.

In reality, his version of Italy is cartoonish and glamourised to distinguish between lazy eaters of fake food and refined eaters of the real deal. Take this gem from an interview in 2013: “I meet people who say, 'You don't understand what it's like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta…We've missed out on that in Britain, somehow.” Mmm yes, a strong flavour of moral superiority, with some heady notes of fetishisation. Oliver’s Italy is a rhetorical device.

Jamie’s Italian had tanked by 2019, closing over 20 stores, and most people now have the good sense to loathe the Naked Chef. However, his ideas linger. The recent infatuation among upper-middle-class food writers with calling focaccia a “peasant bread” is an unfortunate reminder of how Brits can champion great food for not-so-great reasons. Italian cuisine should be loved for its flavours, not for its authenticity: there is no such thing. As Angela Carter writes, “the concept of ‘true nourishment’ can exist only in a society where hunger happens to other people.”

Illustration by Calum Mayor

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