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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Who Cares About Fake Italian Food? Italy Does and You Should, Too

Italia sta guardando!

Next time you throw together a spaghetti dinner at home, be aware that Italy is watching. And they are not pleased.

The Italian Trade Commission is in una sudore on the topic of counterfeit Italian food products, especially in North America, where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are among the most egregious offenders in the consumption of fake Italian food. Trade Commissioner Pasquale Bova unequivocally states, “If you're not buying Italian, you're not eating Italian.”

He's right.......and he's wrong.

The main reason Italy is so exercised over the issue is economic. A number of papers (like this one: http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/7861/1/pp07ni01.pdf) have been published on the subject, so I'm not going to go on for pages and pages about it. Suffice it to say that agribusiness is big business in Italy. It is a staple of the Italian economy, and imitation Italian food products take a big bite out of the economic pie. In the same way that those fake Gucci handbags sold at American flea markets affect the profits of the real fashion house, the fake Parmesan cheese sold in American supermarkets affects the bottom line for the producers of the real thing.

Then there's the more hard to define cultural effect. Not only is food a big part of the Italian economy, it is also an essential element of Italian culture. And officials like Bova are rightly concerned about the “dumbing down” of the palate that occurs as a result of the consumption of knock-off ingredients. Once you get used to cheap, crappy “Italian” food, your appreciation for the real thing diminishes. I know people who find real Italian food to have overwhelming flavors because they are so accustomed to eating imitation Italian garbage.

Over the course of time and through generations of experience, consumers have been led to believe, and correctly so, that “Italian” is synonymous with “quality.” Whether it be artisan meats and cheeses, exceptional produce and pasta, or superior oils and vinegars, the “Italian” imprimatur guarantees a high level of performance that people come to expect. And that is precisely how purveyors of inferior products prey upon consumer confidence. They understand that nobody has ever gone broke pandering to the consumer's desire for a bargain, so they take advantage of Italian branding to make their cheap junk appealing to cost conscious buyers. They accomplish this in three ways: packaging iconography, name branding, and sloganeering.

To the average shopper, anything wrapped in green, white, and red says “Italy.” Cheap manufacturers know that and they capitalize on it. They stick the colors of the Italian flag on everything and hope that you won't notice the product was made in Poughkeepsie rather than in Parma. Images of gondoliers, the Colosseum, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa help sell the effect.

Most Italian words end in a vowel. Some have unique suffixes like “ini,” “oni” and “etta.” So all knock-off producers have to do to get you to think their product is authentic is to stick a vowel or an Italian-sounding suffix on a word and – tah-dah! Instant Italian identification. “Freschetta” pizza comes immediately to mind. Not only is this not real Italian, it's not even even good made up Italian. They pronounce it “fresh-etta.” If it were a real Italian word, it would be pronounced “freh-SKEHT-tah.” Then you have those Italian-sounding surnames. Throw an a,e,i, or o on almost any name and you can make it sound Italian. “Smithini,” anyone? To paraphrase Shakespeare, “What's in a name? That which we call Italian by any Italian name could still be fake.” And, bless her heart, “Mama” can sell almost anything. All-a you gotta do is-a put-a pica-ture of-a Mama on-a da label an-a you gonna sell-a lotsa spaghetti sauce-a.

Then there are Italian words and phrases – or at least those that are supposed to sound Italian or be Italian inspired. Put something like “Mamma Mia” on your box and you've got a surefire sale. Or “like Mama used to make.” Or “Old World Quality.” Or “real Italian taste.” Another is “Italian-style.” Watch out for that one. You can even use real Italian words on your imitation stuff. One of my favorites is “Autentico.” How much more authentic can you get?

The Italian Trade Commission has set up a website at https://italianmade.com. There's a great video there spoofing a fake brand of pasta sauce called “Authentissimo.” It's got a green, white, and red label and it's being made by an Italian-looking grandmother in an Italian-looking kitchen. But “Nonna” pulls her gray wig off at the end to reveal she is just an actress on a set. The website is aimed primarily at the Canadian market, but the message is good across the board (or the border.)

It's not difficult to identify real Italian products. They say “Made In Italy” on them. Some have the initials D.O.P. and/or a little red seal indicating that they are Denominazione d'Origine Protetta, meaning they are from a specific controlled, protected area in Italy. By Italian law (Decreto-legge 25 settembre 2009, n. 135), only foods that are entirely produced in Italy may use the designation “Made In Italy” on their labels. This differs significantly from other designations such as “Product of Italy” or “Packed in Italy,” wherein the only requirement is that something Italian be involved somewhere in the process. The tomatoes, for example, could be from Spain and the jars from Lithuania, but as long as they were brought together in a factory in Italy, they can be called “Product of Italy.”

Staying with the tomato example, San Marzano-grown plum tomatoes are a highly-prized Italian variety produced in a controlled, specified area of Italy. Now check out the labels in your supermarket. Cento markets a couple of different tomatoes under their bright yellow and red labels. One is labeled “San Marzano, Product of Italy,” and bears the word “Certified.” Okay. This product used to say “D.O.P. Certified.” Now it just says “Certified” and the verbiage on the back alludes to an independent third party. The Cento website says the packing plant is located just 22 miles southeast of Naples. Okay. So why did they drop the “D.O.P.” designation? Could be because the manufacturer got tired of paying for it. Anyway, right next to those “San Marzano” tomatoes you'll find cans that say “Italian Peeled Tomatoes,” also labeled “Product of Italy,” and beside those some that say “Italian Style Peeled Tomatoes.” No mention of Italy on that label. All have different price points, the “Certified” ones being the most expensive. Another popular “Italian” tomato brand doesn't actually carry a brand name. The labels are white and they have pictures of plum tomatoes on them. On the pictured tomatoes are the words “San Marzano.” There's a little colored band running around the top and the bottom of the can bearing the Italian words “Pomodori Pelati” or “Pomodori Cubetti” and the English translation “Whole Peeled Tomatoes” or “Diced Tomatoes.” That all sounds Italian, right? Look closer. The fine print at the very bottom of the label reads, “Grown Domestically in the U.S.A.” They are about as Italian as Florence........HENDERSON! I actually grew some San Marzano varietal tomatoes in my garden last year. And my garden is nearer Naples, Florida than it is Naples, Italy. I'm not saying any of these products are bad; they're just not as Italian as they seem. Caveat emptor.

Which leads to the part where I take slight issue with commissario Bova's “if you're not buying Italian, you're not eating Italian” statement. In my book – and many others – the hallmark of Italian cuisine is the ability to take the best, freshest, most seasonal local ingredients and turn them into something delicious. And while I might agree that Italian-made products are the standard and the benchmark, I have to disagree with the sentiment that they are the only way to create wonderful Italian food.

I live in the boonies, boys and girls. There ain't no Prosciutto di Parma or Parmigiano-Reggiano on the shelves at my neighborhood grocery store. Oh, I can sometimes find it in the high-end shops in the “Big City” forty or fifty miles down the road, but for day-to-day shopping and cooking, I might be limited to country ham from Virginia and Parmesan cheese made in Plymouth, Wisconsin. My mozzarella may not be “di bufala,” but there's an artisan cheesemaker at the farmers market who does a pretty good job with cow's milk. And as I said, my San Marzano tomatoes often come from my garden rather than from Campania. Or I may have to use plain old fresh plum tomatoes from the produce market around the corner. Does that mean that I can't turn out some Italian food that would knock commissario Bova's calze off? Not on your life. I buy Italian when I can find it and when I can afford it. The rest of the time I cook like an Italian, and that's far more important, if you ask me.

But not everybody has that ethic where quality is concerned and in that respect, Sig. Bova is completely right. Far too many North Americans are content to grab a can of vaguely cheese-flavored sawdust in a green plastic or cardboard can and call it “Parmesan.” And rather than De Cecco or Barilla or something that has some provable connection to Italy, they'll grab the cheapest store brand pasta they can find on the theory that “spaghetti is spaghetti,” which it decidedly is not. And instead of taking a few minutes to saute some onions in olive oil and stir in some tomatoes and herbs, they opt for the sauce in the jar with the Italian-sounding name. “THAT'S Italian!” the old TV commercials used to say. No. Not even close.


Buy real Italian products whenever and wherever you can. They truly are the best quality and the best representation of the Italian culture. But when you can't buy Italian, cook like an Italian, using fine, fresh, local ingredients. Yes, in both instances it'll cost a little more, but the results will be undeniably worth it. As for the fake Italian products with the fake Italian names, leave them on the shelves to gather fake Italian dust. You and your family deserve better. 

And besides, the ITC is watching.

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