Ever hear of the “Academia Barilla?” Yeah, I didn't think so. They didn't make the list as a party school and they don't have a football team, so why should you care?
Seriously, there is such a place. It's part of the Barilla Center located near downtown Parma. According to their website at http://www.academiabarilla.com, their mission is to defend and safeguard Italian food products made by reputable artisans and certified denominations from poor-quality imitations; to promote and spread the understanding of these products and their role in traditional, regional Italian cuisine; and to develop and support Italian gastronomy by investing in the restaurant industry’s understanding and application of Italian culinary philosophy.
I can get behind all that. As part of that educational effort, the Academia Barilla has just issued what it calls “The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments.” There were no burning bushes, golden idols, or stone tablets involved here, but to lend an air of gravitas to the presentation, just imagine them being intoned by Charlton Heston. (And I'm employing Roman numerals for added effect.)
- YOU SHALL NOT SIP CAPPUCCINO DURING A MEAL! According to
Barilla, coffee is to be served at the end of a meal while
cappuccino is a breakfast beverage. “You can ask for a cappuccino
at the end of a meal,” it says, “but just know that most
Italians don't.” Of course, you have to understand that the
Italian idea of “coffee” is not the weak, cream and sugar
beverage Americans sip after dinner. No, no! We're talking about
espresso, that wonderfully bitter brew that is the reason so many
Italians have curly hair. My Neapolitan friends break
out the little demitasse cups of espresso after every meal
I've eaten in their restaurant regardless of whether I ask for it or
not. So, while you “can” ask for cappucino at the end of a meal,
at a well-mannered Italian table, you don't have to
ask for espresso.
- RISOTTO AND PASTA ARE NOT A
SIDE DISH. True. But are risotto and pasta actually a dish? Or do
they mean “are not side dishes?”
Awkward translation aside, this is a good one to consider. In the
unique construction of the Italian meal, the starch, meaning rice or
pasta, is a course all its own. It's called the “primo” or
“first” course. In America, you slap it on a plate next to a
slab of meat and call it a “side.” Doing so in Italy is, as
Barilla says, “almost a sacrilege.”
- YOU SHALL NOT ADD OIL TO PASTA WATER! Preach it, brother! Can I get an “amen?” The only thing I can figure is that a hundred years ago American cooks hadn't the slightest idea of how to properly prepare pasta. They probably tried cooking a pound of spaghetti in four cups of water instead of four quarts, and when it stuck together in a massive lump, somebody said, “Hey! Let's grease the hell out of it!” No, no, no. Save the oil for the salad. Just use more water to cook the pasta.
- KETCHUP ON PASTA: PLEASE DON'T. Okay. I won't. No problem. I never have, nor do I know of anybody else who ever does. But apparently the Academia folks think this is a biggie. They say it is “one of the combinations that most shocks Italians,” and brand it “a real gourmet crime.” So if I ever see anybody doing it, I guess I'm authorized to perform a citizen's arrest.
- SPAGHETTI BOLGNESE? NO WAY, IT'S TAGLIATELLE! The Academia proclaims that “you will not find any restaurant in Bologna” that serves spaghetti Bolognese. Only tagliatelle is used in an authentic preparation. Works for me. The only thing I don't like about tagliatelle is the way Americans pronounce it. (It's “tah-lee-ah-TELL-ay,” not “tag-lee-uh-tell-ee.” And, by the way, “bolognese” doesn't rhyme with “mayonnaise.” The “gn” in Italian is kind of like the “ny” in English. (Think “canyon.”) And, other than “h,” there's no such thing as a silent letter in Italian. You actually pronounce that final “e.” So it's “boh-lo-NYAY-seh,” or something close to that.
- CHICKEN PASTA: NOT IN ITALY. Barilla says there's no such thing. In fact, they say, when asked by well-meaning Americans for a chicken pasta recipe, “it's rather embarrassing to point out that in Italy there are no hot dishes featuring chicken and pasta.” I know this to be so because I once catered an event where the client asked for such a dish and when I asked my Italian cook friends for ideas, they just looked at me like I'd grown horns. Chicken Alfredo and such are all Italian-American creations. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not authentic Italian.
- “CAESAR SALAD.” Come on. You didn't really think Caesar had anything to do with this one, did you? In spite of his imperial image being slapped on the salad dressing bottle? Sorry. An Italian immigrant chef named Caesar Cardini was working in Mexico and California when he came up with the idea. Asking for a Caesar salad in Italy will just get you confused looks.
- THE RED AND WHITE CHECKERED TABLECLOTH IS ONLY A STEREOTYPE!
I remember writing about some schmuck from Georgia who said he found
the “perfect” Italian restaurant in Rome, right down to the red
checkered tablecloth. Hello! Can you say “tourist trap?
- “FETTUCCINE ALFREDO” ARE
POPULAR ONLY OVERSEAS. Strictly speaking, “are popular” is
correct because “fettuccine” is plural. Anyway, refer back to
commandments six and seven. Yes, a real Italian guy named Alfredo Di
Lelio “created” a butter and cheese pasta dish in his restaurant
in Rome. But it was a toss away dish. Something he fixed for his
pregnant wife because it was all she could keep down. American movie
star honeymooners “discovered” it and now it's the most popular
“Italian” dish in the world. Except in Italy, where nobody knows
what you're talking about when you ask for it. And if you can
convince them to prepare it, they'll run screaming into the night
when you tell them to use lots of cream in the sauce. There is no
cream in an “authentic”
pasta Alfredo. Just egregious amounts of rich, European butter and
tangy, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano, which, when combined with a few
spoonfuls of starchy cooking water, form a delicious, creamy “sauce”
when mixed with hot pasta. The thick, milky crap sold in jars –
none by Barilla, by the way – is strictly an American aberration.
- YOU SHALL RESPECT TRADITION
AND WHAT ITALIAN MAMMA SAYS. The Academia says, “She knows
from her mamma, who knew from her mamma who knew from her mamma and
so on. It's been tried and tested. And what a mother teaches at her
daughter while they are cooking? That love is the center of all. We
must share Italian food with your loved ones. It is what life, love
and family are all about.” And except for a little problem with
the “mother to daughter”
bias, I can't disagree with this statement at all.
XI. YOU SHALL NOT PILE A GALLON OF SAUCE ON TOP OF A CUP OF PASTA. Sauce is a condimento. The pasta is the featured “star” of the dish; the sauce is merely a dressing. In the same way that you wouldn't pour a whole bottle of Italian dressing over the top of your salad, you shouldn't pour a whole jar of sauce on top of your pasta. Ideally, authentically, you would finish cooking your pasta in the sauce, mixing just the right amount of sauce into the noodles as you cook. Dumping sauce on top of noodles is another unfortunate American cooking technique that makes Italians cringe.
So, follow the “Ten Italian Cooking Commandments” – plus one – that your days may be long upon the land and that you may prosper and be in good health and all that other biblical stuff. And also so that you don't have pitchfork-wielding Italians storming your kitchen at suppertime.