OPINION: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Italians have a reputation for becoming enraged by unorthodox food adaptations, but why is Italy in particular so touchy about its cuisine? Silvia Marchetti says there's a good reason for the defensiveness.

OPINION: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?
Spaghetti alla carbonara. Italian chefs may experiment with new twists on the classic recipe - but adaptations from abroad regularly cause outrage. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

When it comes to defending their iconic recipes Italians really are extremely touchy, and at times lash out with verbal aggressiveness as if they’ve been dealt a heavy blow. 

Food outrage is standard whenever a popular foreign chef or media outlet messes with classic recipes, creating ‘Frankenstein’ dishes that make Italians’ hair stand on end. 

READ ALSO: ‘Declaration of war’: Outrage in Italy over New York Times tomato carbonara

The tomato carbonara recipe with parmesan and bacon recently published by the New York Times is just the latest example of such a ‘monster’ twist.

In recent years Italian food lobbies have taken up arms against such culinary contaminations, which they deem preposterous – from pizza with pineapple to caprese salad with cheddar cheese instead of buffalo milk mozzarella.

Farmers group Coldiretti says recipes like tomato carbonara destroy or “betray” traditional Made-in-Italy goods. 

But why so much ado, and why are Italians known as being the most fussy about this? 

Italians are the most emotional about their food when compared to other nationalities. Italian cuisine is viewed much like a flag, a source of pride. Truth be told (and not just because I’m Italian) this is because Italian cuisine is the most rich, diverse and complete in the world. It’s unmatched.

So I believe Italians’ reputation for being food zealots is unfair. Their outrage at off-the-wall reinterpretations of traditional dishes is justified. 

However, try messing with French baguettes and see what happens; the French are also very nationalist about food – albeit not as much as Italians.

READ ALSO: 34 sure-fire ways to truly offend an Italian

You might think Italians get so angry about people messing with their recipes because they believe their food is simply perfect, and therefore untouchable. But it’s not a matter of perfection, which would be an arrogant reason.

I believe the main issue is in messing with a centuries-old gastronomic culture handed down across generations with few changes. Take lasagne: its ancestor is the laganae on which the Ancient Romans feasted. Delicious thin sheets of layered pasta to which the great Cicero was addicted and ate so many plates of it he ended up with an upset stomach for the rest of his life. 

Contaminating food tradition is like destroying Nonna’s much-loved recipes and the food handed down to us by our ancestors. Food is culture and identity, just like language, art, history and music. So if someone messes with Italian food they’re actually messing with Italian identity. 

This identity is far from being perfect, but it’s unique in its kind, multifarious and dates back millennia. 


There is a distinction worth making: if it’s foreigners or outsiders contaminating our dishes with wacky takes and ingredients, it’s a no-no and hell comes down. But if an Italian provocateur chef or avant-garde restaurant creates an experimental twist, it’s okay. It might raise a few eyebrows, but there is seldom any shock or outrage. 

That’s because, as long as an Italian messes with his own ‘domestic food’ it’s still within the limits of what may be morally acceptable, but if a foreign entity does so that’s perceived as an invasion, a violation of national identity – like trespassing a boundary. 

I’ve had the chance to taste dishes at certain fancy Italian restaurants – not necessarily Michelin-starred – including a premium Piedmont beef fillet with melted chocolate and sbriciolata crushed biscuits on it, Roman porcini with oranges, fettuccine with blueberry sauce, even lasagne turned into a paste and squeezed into a tube, and tiramisu espresso made from a coffee machine. 

At Christmas many pastry chefs around Italy compete in creating crazy twists to Milan’s traditional panettone cake by adding olives, aubergines, vinegar, foie gras and chili pepper. It’s so trendy that even a yearly event has been organized to admire their takes and Italians are intrigued by these salty panettone variants. 

So it all comes down to one of my granny’s wise sayings about her husband (which here would be Italian cuisine): Guai a chi me lo tocca, solo io posso punirlo e trattarlo male, meaning ‘nobody can touch him, I’m the only one who can punish and treat him badly’. 

Bottom line: as long as it’s an ‘in-house’ overturning of iconic recipes it’s fair game. If it comes from abroad: ‘giù le mani’, don’t touch… my carbonara, for instance.

Member comments

  1. I lived an Italy for 30 years and became just as fussy as everyone else about food orthodoxy. When I returned to the USA I once went to an Italian restaurant and ordered a classic Cozze dish, or so I thought. My American sister-in-law was with me when the plate arrived smothered in cheese. I threw a tantrum about cheese being verboten on any fish, and how could this place claim to be Italian?! She was flabbergasted. Her rebuttal to my protestations was, and I quote,” you, my dear, need a good lay”!

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OPINION: Why a ‘posto fisso’ work contract is still the Italian dream

What type of job do Italy's graduates dream of landing? For many, being employed by the state is the ultimate goal. Silvia Marchetti explains what's behind the intense competition for 'posto fisso' jobs in the public sector.

OPINION: Why a ‘posto fisso’ work contract is still the Italian dream

The dream of many Italians is to secure a permanent job contract either in the public or private sector – preferably in the public sector – and I know this fixation baffles many foreigners. 

There is a widespread belief, based on reality, that once you are a public employee hardly anything could cause you to lose your job.

The public sector is preferred to the private simply because it guarantees a more stable, secure life-long job that makes families confident about their future, and able to look ahead with optimism and make plans.

The state doesn’t usually fire employees (unless you do something extremely bad), and even the private sector decides layoffs only if there are very sound reasons, because contracts and trade unions protect employees.

There is an obsession in Italy with the so-called posto fisso, meaning a permanent job, even if the workforce has to migrate across the country.

READ ALSO: What to know about getting an Italian work permit in 2023

The fact that this type of job is the dream of most freshly graduated young people has a lot to do with family education and mentality.

Many Italian parents educate their children on the life-mission of securing a posto fisso, a bit like marrying, buying a house and having kids. And so children grow up with this ultimate goal in their mind, and the belief that having a permanent job with all the benefits, the paid pension schemes, paid holidays, sickness days and severance pay would make their life perfect.

Historic post office building in Italy

A permanent job contract in the public sector is the dream of many Italian graduates. Photo by Sara Cudanov on Unsplash

It would give them total security, and is seen like stare in una botte di ferro (literally meaning “being in an iron barrel”).

Italy has one of the world’s highest rates of spending on social security (second only to France, according to the OECD), and each year more resources are earmarked. This has also impacted on the approach towards work. Everyone wants a slice of the (public) pie.

It still astonishes me listening to many young people chatting on the beach about securing that permanent job, even if it’s not what they like, but they have already calculated what they will be earning over the years, and what their pension would likely be.

Italians generally don’t have much of an entrepreneurial spirit of ‘let’s live life, and work, as an adventure’. There’s a bit of a negativity around going freelance or registering as self-employed, becoming a libero professionista, for it is seen as scary and yielding a highly unstable and insecure future solely based on what you earn, which is really never a fixed amount each month.

Unlike abroad, Italian parents don’t all support libera professione (self-employment) and most would rather see their kids settle down with a safe job contract. Remote workers and freelancers are often looked down upon compared to those with a posto fisso, as if there existed an intangible work hierarchy made of unreachable privileges.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will Italy follow Spain in introducing a digital nomad visa?

Many friends of mine got the long-coveted posto fisso because their parents were retiring and managed to exchange their retirement with a permanent job for their kid within the same firm or public body.

Police, nurse, firefighter, teacher and public administration jobs are the most wanted, because they’re for life. To get kicked out you must do something very horrible because the type of contract secures your position.

It doesn’t matter what it takes to land a posto fisso. Many friends of mine had to relocate to other cities, either in the very north, or in the very south, to be able to later find a permanent job in Rome, for instance as a middle school teacher.

There was one lady who, in order to teach on her native island off Rome’s coast where she lived, had to go all the way to work in a Basilicata school to get the job she wanted 10 years later on her home island.

Sometimes freshly-hired young people have to commute for hundreds of kilometres per day just to work fuori sede (out of the area) for a few years before landing a position in their own province.

Train station in Rome, Italy

Young Italian graduates often have to commute for hundreds of kilometres every day just to work. Photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash

A scuba diver friend of mine who works in the fire brigade toured nine northern cities in order to finally settle down in his native Sicily where he could put to use his diving skills in deep Sicilian waters, rather than climbing frozen trees in Treviso to rescue cats.

Public jobs come with huge ‘competitions’ (concorsi pubblici) with thousands of applicants for just a few hundred, or less, available places. The numbers are impressive because the state must allow everyone who meets the required criteria to participate – but then just the lucky ones make it through, and then they often end up on waiting lists anyway.

READ ALSO: The jobs in Italy that will be most in demand in 2023

Every time I pass a major Carabinieri military police station in Rome I see young people lined up for exams and they really have miserable faces, having traveled probably hundreds of miles that same day.

State exams for qualified professions such as lawyers are also massive in terms of applicants. The cost to the state is relatively low compared to the time and money applicants must waste on taking part, given that they often have to pay to access state exams.

But there’s also the other side of the coin: exploiting ‘geography’ can come in handy. Surprisingly, attending a state exam to become a lawyer in certain remote southern regions where there are few applicants, thus less competition and easier tests, increases the chances of passing those exams.

Many people I know who failed the state exam for law in Rome after three consecutive attempts eventually passed it in deepest Molise or Abruzzo. They then went back to Rome or Milan to work in some fancy attorney office.

I don’t think Italians will ever get over the posto fisso obsession – unless merit and entrepreneurship are more effectively supported with targeted policies.