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FOOD & DRINK

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

Michelin Food - Washington DC
A sous-chef works on an eggplant tart in the kitchen of the Pineapple and Pearls restaurant, Washington, DC. Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.

Member comments

  1. I question if Silvia has actually been to a starred restaurant. Asian street food has received stars, so this vision of French cuisine and 20 courses is so lame and just an excuse to not be better. Silvia, the lack of italian starred restaurants has nothing to do with the food in Italy, its a lack of creativity and excellent execution. Be better

  2. As a retired gastronomy journalist, I would like to add to this that the great Ilario Mosconi has- in Luxembourg- successfully given an Italian interpretation to the Michelin star world.
    He has actually been the only one in my small home country to ever have had – and defended – two Michelin stars.
    Nevertheless, I now live happily for 14 years in Lombardia and clearly prefer the Taverne, Osterias and Locande with real local food!
    http://www.mosconi.lu

  3. I don’t think Michelin cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition. There is a place for all levels and styles of cuisine given the sheer number of restaurants where one can dine. But the thing is, I don’t think they stand out like a Michelin place in Paris or NYC might amongst all the other places. You can get just as good, if not better, food at many local trattorias or osterias. It’s hard to top the experience that so many great places already offer, purely because as a whole, Italian food is a cultural gem in itself. You don’t generally need to fancy it up.

    I appreciate a lot of the cuisine found in Michelin restaurants, but I over the last decade of returning to Italy year after year, I find Italian Michelin venues tend to be overpriced for what it is (often it’s not much different than a normal nice meal I might get in the States, it just costs 3-4x as much). Out of the many Michelin restaurants in Italy I’ve dined at, there are maybe only 2-3 that remain long in my memory. Over and over the local places with great regional cuisine, fresh food, and general attention to detail, or a kind/generous service, are the ones I think about long afterward, and that I recommend to others.

  4. Michelin star-chasing Nouvelle Cuisine mostly represents the triumph of style over substance. To approach food preparation as an art or chemistry class is an aberration. And the results, whether 1, 2 or 3 stars, have always left me unfulfilled ever since this food fashion started. The best approach is to apply the chef’s talents to prime ingredients and remove the ego. Italian chefs knows how to excel at this and should try to avoid being distracted by the pretentious pouting that is so often prized in the Michelin ratings.

  5. I would rather eat as the author describes on a regular basis but for me, to eat at a Michelin restaurant with one, two or even three stars is one of the great pleasures of life. Alas, these days it is not possible for reasons financial but I look back to some meals and can still fantasize about them – where I was, what I ate and drank and even where I sat. They are meals for very special occasions and are different in that they require many hands and processes: impossible in an ordinary kitchen. Wonderful and uplifting.
    But I could not eat Michelin quality every day as the call of simple fare wins out overall. But now and then when the stars are in allignment …

  6. I totally, totally agree. I have been saying the same thing for quite a few years. I would much rather eat in a trattoria than in a Michelin restaurant. Brava Silvia.

  7. Brava Silvia,
    My wife and I recently finished an epic journey through Sicily where we were treated to some of the best food I’ve eaten ANYWHERE. From a small salumeria in Marsala with a dining room in the back to a fromageria in Taormina where the owner was so proud of his products that he couldn’t stop bringing out cheese after cheese for us to sample to the incredible experience of the street markets of Palermo, great food in Italy is the product of what is locally grown and prepared in the traditions of the region.
    Viva Italia and viva la cucina Italiana!

  8. I agree with you Silvia. We use Michelin to identify restaurants for consideration. If you throw out the starred restaurants and concentrate on the ‘recommended’ and perhaps ‘one-toque’ establishments, you’re likely to find good ingredients and well-prepared food without all the fancy bells and whistles. I might add, at a much reduced price than the starred ones.

  9. Silvia Marchetti i love you. You have put into words EXACTLY what I have thought for years, and said it better than I could.
    Really made me smile, thank you. Linda Love

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FOOD & DRINK

How Italy’s farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

As traditional crops fail, a rising number of farmers in southern Italy are turning crisis into opportunity by cultivating everything from avocado to ‘chocolate fruit’ and coffee. Silvia Marchetti looks at how the landscape is changing.

How Italy's farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

We’re all accustomed to seeing the Italian countryside characterized by ancient olive groves and vineyards, but a change in the rural landscape is occurring.

If you drive across southern Italy today you might be amazed to find exotic fruit plantations alongside the usual lemon and orange trees.

In the regions of Puglia, Calabria, and most of all Sicily, a rising number of farmers are adapting to climate change; or rather, they’ve learned how to exploit the impact of rising temperatures and have embraced non-traditional, non-indigenous fruit species.

They now grow bananas, mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, finger limes, pomelos and avocados, alongside lychees and even cocoa beans and coffee, replicating what is being done in tropical areas.

Sicilian bananas are popular among consumers in Italy. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I remember the first time I discovered and tasted a Sicilian black sapote: Italians call it ‘chocolate fruit’ and I love this weird persimmon that has a soft, dark Nutella-like pulp easy to spread on a slice of bread or scoop up with a spoon.

I walked into the supermarket, spotted this weird-looking dark apple, and as I grabbed it the lady at the counter told me I was buying Sicilian produce, which made me happy twice over because it was delicious and I was helping the local agriculture.

But the greatest surprise was when I discovered that my much-beloved Italian kiwi was the first exotic fruit grown in Italy, since the 1970s, particularly in the area of the city of Latina, Lazio, where there is a top kind of variety.

OPINION:

According to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti, there are currently 1,000 hectares of exotic fruit estates in Italy. The number has tripled in the last few years. 

And the great news is that Italians are eating more and more of their own exotic fruit with an annual consumption of 900,000 tonnes.

This ‘fruit revolution’ is good news in terms of cutting food miles and imports from tropical countries, while at the same time reducing the amount of pesticides we eat after they are used in transporting fruit to Italy.

The Italian plantations are still niche and experimental, so farmers are lobbying and campaigning to get extra funding from the state to help them really take off.

I think they do deserve help for the huge efforts they are making in transforming Italian agriculture. 

The ‘tropical experiment’ has been a real success so far and the farmers I spoke to are super satisfied with their results.

Sicilian farmer Rosolino Palazzolo shows off one of his coffee plants. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The Palazzolo brothers are two Sicilian farmers growing bananas, little bananas dubbed ‘bananito’, mango, passion fruit and papayas on the warm coast near the city of Palermo. They’re leading producers of tropical fruits which they ship across Italy and even abroad, and have seen demand for their made-in-Sicily produce grow over the last few years.

“We must thank this superb patch of land where the sea wind acts as a natural balm. We are extremely careful in that we don’t stress our plantations and have adopted a green approach”, says Rosolino Palazzolo. 

There are of course many challenges: first of all making sure that the fruit seeds, which come from the origin countries in South America or Asia, actually grow on the Italian soil. That is why many of these farmers start planting the seeds in a greenhouse and then once the plants start growing, transfer them onto the open-air terrain. 

Another important aspect is that most of this exotic fruit is organic so there’s no use of pesticides or chemicals.

Rosolino says they heal their tropical trees, when needed, with other plants and herbal remedies by applying so-called agro-homeopathy. 

He says Italian customers are much happier to buy Italian exotic fruit than the produce imported from abroad; they trust the domestic origin because it is easier to trace.

Rosolino Palazzolo holding his coffee seeds. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The last time I visited Mount Etna near Catania I could actually spot the yellowish plantations of avocado grown on the volcano’s black flanks where past lava flows of massive eruptions have made the soil extremely fertile.

This summer along the coast between Rome and Naples I discovered a small farm that grows finger lime, which is considered quite luxurious and elite, as well as being extremely expensive. 

It’s even called ‘lemon caviar’ and is used by top restaurants to prepare fresh fish dishes, usually it is sprinkled on top of raw shrimp as a substitute for ordinary lemon.

If temperatures continue to rise and we cannot stop disastrous climate change, at least this is one local positive: eating ‘homemade’ Italian papayas and bananas. And who knows what next: perhaps coconut?

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