Italian are gluttons for tradition. As a people whose well-trodden historical tracks have worked quite well for themselves over the past 2500 years, the Italian population loves nothing more than embracing their past, a lengthy lineage of glorious empires, artistic treasures, and culinary conquests. These thousands of years of profound roots have, like the Sirens that are said to have lured Odysseus to Southern Italian shores, beckoned to and enchanted the world, inviting foreigners – travelers, pilgrims, academics, alike – to discover Italy’s many layers, secrets, and stories.
It is often the traditions in the Italian cuisine that intrigue me. These traditions, upon analysis, reveal truths about the Italian people and their way of life that could never been discovered in an interview. Tradition in the kitchen is real – it’s raw, it’s telling, and it’s fascinating, and people literally eat it up.
Especially Italians. This group of people (and the Italophiles who love them) are gluttons for tradition, and while the old-school Italian in me delights in this lineage of culinary roots which mandate how, when, what, and why plates are cooked, my American innovator has run into more than one instance in which what I believed was a welcome change was greeted by great suspicion and utter denial.
Instance 1: I make polenta dolce, a sweet, fried cornmeal dish that my Piemontese nonna once cooked, for my Sicilian husband in our Chicago home. He matter-of-factually states that this dish does not exist in Italy due to the fact that he has never eaten the same dish made by his mother or grandmother. It just doesn’t. Instance 2: In 2010, I eat a Nutella pizza for the first time at Tampa’s Bavaro’s (great wood-fired pizza, by the way). One year later while living in Rome, I get in a 45-minute heated discussion with my roommate, a 23-year-old male from Abruzzo, who refuses to accept that a pizza was made with Nutella instead of the traditional savory toppings. “It’s not a pizza,” he says. “I don’t know what you ate, but it wasn’t a pizza.”
Mamma mia, I would think to my self, there’s no breaking these teste dure, or hardheaded believers in the law of their mothers’ kitchens, wiggle room strictly prohibited! But for a country whose creativity and innovation has so drastically changed the course history in fields such as science, art and music, I found the attitude towards a non-evolving cuisine odd.
Enter Paolo Marchi & Identità Golose
“Everybody loves the cucina della mamma the best,” Paolo Marchi, a former journalist turned full-blown professional foodie and more importantly, another Italian man who loves his country’s food, tells me, as we sit at a table in Chicago’s Eataly after a truffle cooking demonstration that highlighted the skill of Ugo Aldiani and Tony Mantuano. “But it is impossible that every mother is the best cook in the world.” (What?! I think to myself, Are you sure you’re Italian?) “She simply makes her children the dishes and flavors that they like. The challenge arises when the innovators in the world of food create something new, something that we don’t know yet if we like. That is the beauty of innovative cuisine and that is what I am looking to celebrate.”
And celebrate it, he has, since 2004, when a trip to Spain with Italian celebrity chef, Carlo Cracco, gave him the idea to launch Identità Golose, a yearly conference held in Milan where the most innovative Italian chefs come together to share ideas and draw inspiration from seminars and activities centered around an overarching theme.
This year’s Identità Golose 2015 will take place from the 8-10 of February in Milan and its theme is una sana intelligenza, “a healthy intelligence.” The theme gives a nod to a growing worldwide concern toward conscientious eating; from sustainable agriculture practices to lightening up once highly praised heavier dishes. It is also an allusion to the need for a healthy, open mental state in approaching the food of the chefs who participate, for seeing their dishes not only as replicas of the traditional way of cooking food as physical nutrients, but also as an impressive expression of each individual’s style and artistic vision.
A Celebration of Innovative Italian Chefs
Take Massimo Bottura for example. Largely considered to be the “best Italian chef in the world” with three Michelin stars and an award-winning restaurant Osteria Francescana, Bottura is a master at taking traditional Italian flavors and transforming them into gastronomic masterpieces that often leave guests pondering whether to eat their food or frame it (most settle with the obligatory photo before diving in).
Paolo Marchi counts himself among the Bottura fan club. “Memory is linked to food. But when you have a new food, there is no memory, and so innovation is often not linked to memory. Massimo, however, innovates with tradition – what you see, touch, and feel is completely new, but the taste and smells are those that you remember from when you were a child. “ Dishes of Bottura’s include those such as Cappuccino, shaped as the traditional Italian sweet breakfast of a Cappuccino with a cornetto while in taste reflecting the savory onions and potato with pork flavors of his home region, Emilia Romagna.
Then there are the Italian innovators who create entirely new flavors, combos and styles, borrowing from their experiences in other regions of Italy and the world. “Carlo Cracco makes a risotto ad achiughe, limone e fondente,” Marchi raises and eyebrow and waits for my reaction to the though of anchovy and chocolate risotto. I give what I believe to be the appropriate skeptical frown. “It’s good!” He exclaims, “but you have to think!”
In fact, Marchi underlines that the world’s greatest dishes are those that make you think, that bring you out of your comfort zone. “Try eating tongue in the dark,” he suggests. “It’s an entirely different experience in which you are not burdened by your cultural prejudices and presuppositions. It is only the purity of the dish that shines through in its flavors.” His thoughts continue on with a more unconventional foodstuff. “Insects are gross, right? But they are a great source of protein, fat-free, and are eaten by a relatively large portion of the world’s population. If you could open your mind, leave the cultural assumptions behind – if you didn’t know it was an insect – you might actually find yourself stepping out of the box, and liking it.”
Innovation Comes from Conversation
The chefs that Marchi invites to participate in Identità Golose are those who seek to rid their guests of these presuppositions and cultural assumption, and his commitment to heralding the Italian innovative cuisine has spread outside of the Bel Paese. “In order to grow, we have to go where there is quality,” Marchi explains, “Within Italy and outside of it – innovation comes from the conversation and sharing of cultures and regional traditions. The beauty of these dishes is sacred, and in an increasingly global world, is it possible – or healthy – that all cuisine remain unchanged? We want to facilitate the conversation.”
The conversation has been carried elsewhere, in fact: to London, which held its debut Identità Golose in 2000, to New York and San Marino who hosted their first conferences in 2010, and in fall 2014 the chef’s congress took place in Chicago. The conference also has its own newsletters in Italian and English, in which Paolo Marchi recounts the identità of Italian foodie, pasta, wine, and pizza, and will be participating in a booth at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, whose theme “Energy For Life” perfectly melds with Identità Golose’s mission.
For those who wish to learn more or take part in one of the chef’s conferences this year, visit the English version of the Identità Golose website. These international events, unlike the private conference to be held from the 8-10 of February in Milan, are opened to the public, with the goal of educating and being educated by the local population. Tickets to the Milan Expo are available soon on selectitaly.com, and Identità Golose’s free e-newsletters welcomes new subscribers on their site.