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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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Grazie mille!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

More On Fake Italian Food: Just Because It Sounds Italian.....

Just Because It Ends In A Vowel Doesn't Make It Italian

There's an old saying in the South: “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven don't make 'em biscuits.” You can also apply that maxim to Italian food. Something like “just because it ends in a vowel doesn't make it Italian.” Not as pithy, I know, but still true.

Nobody can argue that Italian is among the most popular cuisines on the planet. And justifiably so. Real, authentic Italian food is fresh, natural, simple, seasonal, and delicious. And because of its popularity, Italian is also one of the most counterfeited cuisines on the planet.

It's all about marketing, my friend. Everybody and his brother wants to jump on that Italian bandwagon to make a quick buck. And though there's no evidence P.T Barnum ever really said “there's a sucker born every minute,” the sentiment is nonetheless accurate. Or to (mis)quote H.L. Mencken, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

See, ad men long ago figured out that it's easy to make something sound Italian: all you have to do is add a vowel to the end of almost any word and ecco! – instant Italian! Go ahead, try it for yourself. It's a fun parlor game even if it is insulting and denigrating to an entire culture. It's also easy to completely make up “Italian” words. Just hang together three syllables, accent the second syllable, and make sure the last syllable ends in a vowel, preferably “a,” “i,” or “o.” Ta-dah! Something “Italian” to stick on the label of your cheap, inauthentic product. But who cares? As long as it sells pizza or spaghetti, right?

Well, it turns out somebody does care. While there's obviously a matter of cultural pride involved, there's also a huge economic impact. Some Italian politicians want to impose an all-out ban on the “Italian-sounding” names used to give cheap frozen pizzas and crappy packaged risottos an Italian image. Nicola Danti, MEP of the Socialist and Democrat party, calls it “an odious and unfair commercial practice,” and he's calling on the EU to take action against blatantly misleading labeling. Danti goes on to note that said practice “affects not only Italian agricultural producers and the entire European agro-food sector, but also the credibility and trust in all the products sold in the European Internal Market.” Traditional Italian food products like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, and a host of others are staples of Italian agriculture and represent a substantial portion of the nation's economy. According to the Italian food industry federation, Federalimentare, counterfeiters who make up Italian-sounding names for their cheap, substandard products are picking the pockets of real Italian food producers to the tune of nearly 18 billion euros annually in the US market alone. Figures cited by Danti estimate the impact in the global marketplace to be as high as 70 billion euros. In North America, the disparity between fake “Italian-sounding” products and genuine Italian food products is about 10:1.

Take, for instance, the Freschetta pizza line. Introduced by the Marshall, Minnesota-based Schwan Food Company in 1996, the word “Freschetta” (pronounced “fresh-ET-uh”) is an obvious Italian fake. There is no such word, term, or name in the Italian language. The word is a made up construct designed to mimic the authentic Italian word “bruschetta.” But the madmen ad men who designed the word did not speak Italian. Had they done so they would have known that “bruschetta” is pronounced “broo-SKEHT-tah” and not “broo-SHET-uh.” Hence, their product, in order to sound really Italian, should actually be pronounced “freh-SKEHT-tah.” But the name is as fake as the pizza.

Then there are companies that take real Italian words or names and apply them to fake Italian products. Like the “Violi” brand of olive oil. What could be more authentically Italian than “Violi,” right? I know because Violi is the surname of the Italian side of my family. “I love this oil,” reads one glowing review. “I got it at Walmart for seven dollars a bottle.” Uffa! The biggest, boldest words on the label are “Violi” and “Extra Virgin.” The fine print, however, tells you it's a “Mediterranean Blend” that is eighty-five percent sunflower oil and only fifteen percent olive oil. The most authentically Italian thing about it is the brand name.

You've got to admit “Prego” sounds Italian. And it is; “prego” is the Italian word for “you're welcome.” What that has to do with pasta sauce, I don't know, but I do know that “Prego” has no Italian roots whatsoever. Back in the 1970s, Campbell's Soup was looking for something to do with their tomatoes other than making soup out of them, and so the “Prego” line was born. Competitor Hunt's makes a pasta sauce, too. But they just call theirs “Hunt's Pasta Sauce.” What's Italian about that? No wonder “Prego” sells more.

Packaging plays a part, too. Dress up any poor quality dreck in green, white, and red, slap an Italian flag on it, call it something that ends in a vowel, and most people will just snap it right up. They don't know the difference and, more distressing, they don't care about the difference as long as they can save a nickel. If it sounds Italian, that's close enough.

Now, to be honest, there is no such thing as an “authentic” frozen pizza. Nor are there any “real Italian” prepackaged dinners on the market. Anybody who buys anything frozen or prepackaged with an Italian name on it thinking they're getting a real taste of Italy does not understand the Italian concept of fresh, natural, seasonal, and simple. All the vowel-ending words in the dictionary will not make frozen lasagna taste anything like lasagne made with fresh ingredients. And I'm sorry, but the Chef Boyardee Pepperoni Pizza Kit they sell at Walmart is.........let's just say Ettore Boiardi is probably spinning in his grave.

Buitoni – maker of various prepackaged pasta dishes – sounds really Italian. But the brand is careful to say that its products are Italian “inspired.” As the official PR story goes, “Guilia Buitoni opened her little pasta shop in Sansepolcro, Italy in 1827; it was quickly a local favourite. The tradition and popularity of Buitoni products continues. Dedicated to using the highest quality ingredients to make delicious pastas and sauces, the Buitoni brand is inspired by traditional Italian cuisine.” Got it? A little Italian lady might have started it, but now it's “inspired.” Buitoni is currently owned by the Swiss-based Nestlé company, which also, by the way, makes Alpo. Hey! “Alpo” ends in a vowel. Does that make it Italian?

In fact, there are a lot of “Italian” products on the market that started out in Italian family kitchens. The aforementioned “Chef Boyardee,” for example. Or “Ronzoni,” a pasta line that goes back to young Emanuele Ronzoni, who emigrated from the small fishing village of San Fruttuoso, Italy, back in 1881. Assunta Cantisano left Italy from Naples in 1914, bound for America with a recipe for the sauce that eventually evolved into “Ragú.” There's nothing inherently “wrong” with these products. Some are actually quite good. It's just that modern commercial processing and production methods have long since sucked anything Italian out of them, leaving them with nothing but their Italian names.

The problem extends beyond frozen and packaged foods. I would hope anybody with an ounce of common sense could figure out that frozen pizza, no matter how many vowels the name contains, is not really Italian. It's another matter when it comes to basic ingredients like tomatoes, cheeses, meats, oils, and vinegars. These are the areas where counterfeiting really takes a toll.

Remember the scandal a little while back wherein an American manufacturer of “Parmesan” cheese was found guilty of adulterating the product with wood fiber filler? And yet, because the crap was packaged in Italian colors and sold as “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese,” the lemmings at the supermarket all bought the stuff and jumped over the cliff, just as the marketing people intended.

Even I can't keep track of all the olive oil fraud going on these days. When I was a kid, the only place you could buy olive oil was in shops in the Italian neighborhoods. Regular grocery stores were stocked with corn oil and vegetable oil and something nebulous called “salad oil.” But then olive oil became a “thing” and the bootlegging began. Remember the “business” The Godfather was in? Life imitates art and the Mafia really does have its fingers in the olive oil trade. Fake extra-virgin olive oil is a major problem globally. And don't judge an oil by its Italian name. You know, like “Violi”?

I was in a supermarket the other day and witnessed two ladies debating over balsamic vinegar. Now, you are not going to find a twenty-five year-aged, four-hundred dollar bottle of real balsamic vinegar on any supermarket shelf in America. The best you're going to get is the common commercial grade stuff. There were several price points available at this store, ranging from around twenty-five dollars down to a bottle that sold for about three bucks. They all had Italian-sounding names like Alessi and Colavita, but apparently Monari Federzoni “sounded the most Italian.” A freakin' sixteen-ounce bottle for a little over three dollars! I bit my tongue clear down to the root.

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano goes for about twenty dollars a pound. A pound of grated crap in a can goes for about seven bucks. Decent Italian extra-virgin olive oil is going to set you back at least twenty dollars for a seventeen-ounce bottle. You can buy a gallon of something with an Italian-sounding name for fifteen bucks at some stores. American grocery store shelves groan with American-grown “Italian-style” tomatoes with Italian sounding names, and generic prosciutto with names like “Del Duca” that never even saw a map of Italy. Can you blame Italian producers for being upset?

Here in the US, we have very few “protected” food products. Vidalia onions come immediately to mind. These onions, by law, have to be grown in certain parts of Georgia in order to bear the name. Italy has more than two hundred legally protected and regulated food products. And because many other countries, the United States included, do not recognize the laws protecting these products, the farmers, growers, and artisans who produce them are being ripped off by purveyors of inferior garbage trying to make a quick buck off their hard work and good names. Again, can you blame Italian producers for being upset?

DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta or Protected Geographical Indication) are the two designations that ensure the origin and exquisite quality of the authentic Italian products they include. And they are the only assurance of authenticity. Words like “Product of Italy” and “Made in Italy” are worthless. Take, for example, a bottle of olive oil that says “Product of Italy” on the label. The oil might come from Morocco, the bottle from Albania, the cork in the bottle from Portugal, and the label itself from Switzerland, but as long as they all met in an Italian factory, it is a “Product of Italy.” Of course, I guess that's better than some pasta company in Kansas City trying to pass off its product under an Italian-sounding name.

It comes down to this: if you want Italian quality, buy Italian products, not just an Italian-sounding name. If you don't care about Italian quality, buy whatever is cheapest. But don't expect the same results. Be a label reader and be aware of where the food you put in your body comes from. Whether you're looking for Italian quality or not that's always a good idea.

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