Q. Italy, is well known for its amazing cuisine. What do you think makes Italian dishes so special?
Italian dishes are special because they are, at the same time, savory and healthy, rich and simple. Rich in taste and diversity. Simple as our natural raw materials remain the protagonists. Our ingredients don’t need to be “anesthetized” by (indigestible) sauces. Our cuisine is deeply-rooted in tradition. An amazing array of regional dishes. It was not born in some chef’s kitchen. It comes alive in every kitchen, of every family, every day. Being rooted in tradition does not mean lacking ingenuity, though. Quite the contrary. Italian cuisine is an ongoing process, a continued evolution driven by creativity, while based on a solid but multi-faceted food identity, on the ancient history of a country that is a bridge in the Mediterranean, a natural crossroads of civilizations. Italian cuisine is a successful combination of tradition and innovation.
Q. Gastronomy tourism and wine tours attract thousands of travelers to Italy every year.
Out of 75 billion euros (tourism turnover in Italy), one third (26 billions) comes from gastronomy. We turn the best ingredients into delicious products. Italy has the largest selection of foodstuffs (292) and wines (523) certified by their origin and production process. It holds the world record for number of olive varieties and boasts 500 different kinds of cheese. The 2017 study by Coldiretti (largest farmers’ association in Italy and Europe) counted 5,047 regional products. Among this vast repertoire: 1,521 types of bread, pasta and biscuits; 1,424 fresh and processed vegetables; 791 salami, hams, fresh meat and sausages; 253 typical dishes or gastronomy products, 147 liqueurs, beers and spirits, and non-alcoholic drinks; 167 products of animal origin including honey and other dairy products; 159 preparations of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. Campania, Tuscany, and Lazio are the richest regions in culinary diversity.
Q. Please tell us about your recommendations and choices.
All along “the Boot”, you have infinite options. Tasting Modica’s chocolate surrounded by the magic Val di Noto baroque architecture in Sicily (one of the 53 Italian sites on the UNESCO heritage list, another world record); looking for precious white truffles in Alba (Piedmont), like a culinary gold digger; sipping bubbles along the Prosecco route (Veneto) or Limoncello on the Amalfi Coast (Campania); strolling around the hills of Chianti and Brunello in Tuscany; trying mortadella, prosciutto, parmesan, and tortellini to realize why Bologna (and more broadly its region, Emilia Romagna) is nicknamed “la dotta” (the learned one: most ancient university ever), but also “la grassa” (the fat one, for the incredible variety of delicacies). I stop there, as these are only examples. Just start exploring! 2018 is the year of Italian food (#annodelciboitaliano). Many events in every city. 169 wine routes, 100 museums of taste. Google, for travel ideas. Lots of websites. You can begin with www.italia.it, to then browse http://www.itinerarinelgusto.it/ or www.deliciousitaly.com. All these itineraries will let you savor the distinctive traits of the countless territories of the “Great Beauty”. You will not be able to separate flavors, landscapes, and monuments. Cuisine, nature, and history are deeply intertwined. You will undertake a multi-sensory journey through beauty, culture and taste. The extraordinary Italian taste.
Q. Because of common stereotypes pasta and pizza are the most demanded dishes by tourists or guests of Italian restaurants. But we believe it’s just a little part of Italian cuisine.
I agree. Man shall not live on pizza alone. But don’t forget that pizza making is an art, that has been just awarded world heritage status by Unesco. I’m talking specifically about Neapolitan pizza, the softer and ticker one, obtained by “pizzaiuoli” by spinning and twirling the dough in the air. Quite a show. I’m from Rome and also love our paper-thin crust, with crunchy edges kind of pizza. Try both! Regarding pasta, you are spoilt for choice, too. Italy has been the world leader in pasta making for over 500 years. And one can count more than 300 different kinds of pasta. Each and every one reflecting different ingredients and local cultures.
Q. Tell us about dishes Italians love beside pizza and pasta.
Plenty to choose from. Starting with our famous appetizers (“antipasti”). I suggest to try any type of cured meat: they are all good. I would also go for fish and seafood (the Italian coastline has a length of 7,500 kilometers!!) Nothing better than a gilthead bream cooked in foil, a baked sea bass with lemon and herbs, grilled calamari or peppered mussels. Don’t like fish? You can eat “alla milanese”: saffron risotto, breaded stick (“cotoletta”) or “ossobuco” (meat stew with bone and marrow). Cold outside? Polenta and sausages! I’m also crazy about fried finger food. Sicilian Arancini, for example (rice balls filled with meat, mozzarella, peas and tomato sauce). I could go on for hours. Best method? Try it for yourselves. You will not be disappointed.
Q. What is the origin of the name “Pizza Margherita”?
According to tradition, the origin of Pizza Margherita derives from Queen Margherita of Savoy. Indeed, in 1889, the Queen went to visit Naples and the Royal Palace of Caserta (the amazing “Reggia di Caserta”). For this important event, a famous “pizzaiuolo” from Naples, Raffaele Esposito, prepared a special dish for the Queen, with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and basil. White, red and green: the colors of our flag. However, the pizza had been created before the visit of the Queen, and it was only named after the Queen in 1889, to honor her. According to some writings, pizza already existed at the end of the 18th century.
Q. Tell us about ‘prosciutto’.
Prosciutto is a particular cut of pork meat. Specifically, it’s the thigh and hip of the pork. Its main feature is the way prosciutto is processed, that is different from any other kind of cured meat. It can be eaten as an appetizer or a main or side dish. There are two main kinds of prosciutto: cotto (baked) and crudo (raw). The former is baked and salted, and its color is pink. The latter is dry, has a red color and is more refined. Prosciutto is well known and sought for in many foreign countries. The most famous ones are “Parma” and “San Daniele”. These names come from the places of origin – Parma (Emilia Romagna) and San Daniele del Friuli – and also identify two consortia (respectively, 150 and 31 producers) able to ensure the high quality and taste of the products, and to promote them with global brands. The same applies, for example, to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (gathering 350 small artisan dairies) and many other food treasures. Consortia and geographical denominations (whose multiplier effect can benefit highly qualified and relatively small producers) is a meaningful experience Georgia should draw upon.
Q. Which Italian dessert do you like most?
I know you expect me to mention tiramisu or panna cotta. Indeed, these are very popular desserts. But chocolate cakes and fruit tarts are my favorite ones. Also, I adore the colomba, our traditional Easter dove cake. The natural complement to Christmas panettone and pandoro: same dough in a nice dove shape, topped with pearl sugar and almonds. Don’t forget Sicilian cannoli, tube shaped shells of pastry dough filled with ricotta and chocolate.
Q. Ice-cream occupies an important place in Italian culture. Tell us a little about Italian ice-cream production and distribution.
It is no coincidence that when Americans want to highlight an ice cream as really special, they use the word gelato (with the US pronunciation, of course). To mean: real Italian stuff. Gelato is the ideal way to conclude a meal or take a refreshing break. Also, there are cakes of the same consistency of ice-cream, the so-called torta-gelato. Fruit or cream, cup or cone? It depends on your taste. There are infinite varieties of ice-cream, the only limit being the producers’ fantasy. I know I’m boring, but personally, I stick to dark chocolate. Producing gelato is considered an art (there are more 40,000 ice cream parlors in our country, employing 150,000 people.) But gelato is also enjoying a great success in the world (export is growing every year). Not surprisingly, Italy is the main producer of machinery for ice-cream: about 90% of world market. But let me spend a final word on Sicilian granita (semi-frozen delicious sweet: just sugar, water and fruit or coffee or almonds). As a family, we vacation in Sicily, and our favorite breakfast ritual (to be repeated at different times in the day, though) is peach, fig or mulberry granita. With a brioche, of course: amazing yeast pastry, to dip and bite. Be careful, it can become an addiction…
Q. From your point of view, how strong is the influence of Italian cuisine on societies worldwide?
Italian cuisine is largely spread and has a big influence worldwide. Food is a gateway to culture. It’s an important component of the Italian experience. We call it: Vivere all’italiana, Living the Italian way. Our food is appreciated across the globe, and many tourists visit Italy also to try the real Italian cuisine. Actually, we are often victims of our success. I’m referring to the so called Italian sounding. Products made and marketed overseas with alleged Italian brands. And disastrous attempts to recreate Italian dishes, adjusting them to the local tastes (fusion is another thing, I would call this just manipulation.) These phenomena damage not only our economy, but also our great food culture. Therefore, beware of imitations! Taste the real thing.
You will be in good company. Last year, Italian agribusiness export amounted to 41 billion euros (9% of total 2017 Italian exports, +7% with respect to 2016,), led by wine, cheeses and cured meats. In general, the agro industry sector accounts for 9% of our GDP.
But cuisine, as we said, plays also a crucial cultural role. This role has been acknowledged by UNESCO through several recognitions. Besides the already mentioned art of pizza making, also the Mediterranean Diet, Parma creative city of gastronomy, the sapling vine of Pantelleria, as well as the vineyards of Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato have been awarded. We also submitted nominations for Prosecco and Amatriciana.
“Culinary diplomacy” is a powerful tools of soft power, especially for a country like Italy. It is a way to promote the country through food, while developing commercial or economic opportunities and increasing the role of Italy in the world. Every year in November, we celebrate the “Week of Italian Cuisine in the World” (more than one thousand events across the globe). We brought several starred chefs to Georgia. We organized dinners, masterclasses, exhibits and film screenings in Tbilisi.
Q. Pesto, a green herb sauce from Genova, has become a “trendy” dressing for pasta in the last two decades. What are its traditional ingredients?
Pesto is one of the sauces Italians are most proud of. Once again: beware of imitations. The original pesto is not always available in supermarkets, especially abroad. The best is, of course, the homemade one. It’s not easy to prepare, though. You would need a mortar and pestle to crush (that’s the meaning of pestare, hence pesto) all the ingredients. Or, more simply, a mixer. Basil gives the color to the sauce. The other ingredients are garlic (ideally from Vessalico, tiny village of Liguria region), pine nuts, coarse salt, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese and pecorino cheese.
Q. How would you estimate Georgian cuisine culture?
Georgia has a wonderful, ancient, and wide cuisine culture, as proved by the variety of dishes and the ability to use properly all the ingredients: from vegetables to meat and fish. Great bread and cheese. And, needless to mention, high class wines. All Italian delegations, friends and tourists bring back home a wonderful souvenir of Georgia. Like in the case of Italy, a successful combination of hospitality, extraordinary cuisine, and beauty.