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Starbucks and supermarket sugo: Is Italian food getting more ‘American’?

As Starbucks expands into southern Italy and stores stock a rising number of convenience foods, Silvia Marchetti asks: is the country seeing an inevitable shift towards a more industrialised, American-style diet?

Starbucks and supermarket sugo: Is Italian food getting more 'American'?
US fast-food chains including McDonalds and Starbucks are enjoying success in Italy - but how much are Italian eating habits changing overall? (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

I’m shocked each time I go to the supermarket in Italy and see people buying heaps of canned ragù: all sorts of sugo al pomodoro, pesto con aglio or senza aglio (with or without garlic), and ready-to-serve lasagne and fettuccine.

I know these convenience foods have always been around but they never really caught my attention, probably because they were no big deal up until a few years ago.

READ ALSO: ‘One for every district’: Starbucks begins southern expansion in central Rome

Lately, there are more of them on supermarket shelves, and a great variety to satisfy all palates: tomato sauces with vegetables and chicken, rabbit and olives, beans and onions, and vegan mixes. I notice it’s mostly young people who buy them, and I can’t help but fear that this might be the future, or the end, of traditional Italian cuisine.

People don’t have time to cook after a hard working day, and this is perfectly understandable but in a country where nonna’s recipes have always been the pillar of culinary culture it’s frightening.

I’m aware the Italian supermarket offering of canned sauces and ready meals may seem limited to American and British people, but Italy could soon catch up if eating habits become more industrialised, and an unrestrained attitude towards junk food takes over.

Supermarket shoppers in Italy are faced with an ever-growing selection of processed foods. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

Ordering take-out food is now commonplace. According to a report by the Eurispes think tank, just over 70 percent of Italians buy takeaway food while 54 percent opt for home delivery.

Also very common is the habit of buying industrial products at the supermarket that take a few minutes to cook or heat in the microwave or oven (61.9 percent). In all these cases the largest share of consumers are young people aged 18-24.

READ ALSO: Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

Another survey by online food operator Everly that tracks purchases made via the web or app on its platform found that compared to 2020 the purchase of ready-to-use sauces in Italy increased in 2021 by 10 percent.

When I see my friends heat frozen lasagne in the microwave, my stomach churns in disgust. If I ever did that, my granny would turn over in her grave. She used to prepare handmade gnocchi curling them with a fork and two types of lasagne (red with tomato and white with just spinach) each weekend. For hours she’d knead the dough to cut out flat, fine strips of tagliatelle.

More french fries, less handmade tagliatelle – to what extent is Italy adopting ‘American-style’ eating habits? (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

I am picky, I’ve never bought extra virgin olive oil at the supermarket – it tastes like water – only from local farmers near my place who have tiny olive groves. Theirs is so tasty that I don’t need to add salt to my dishes.

But it’s not just a supermarket frenzy conquering Italian dinner tables. It surely depends on personal tastes, however Italian families are also feeling the pull of non-Italian cuisine sold close to their doorsteps. Italians are adapting to food globalisation.

Starbucks is now expanding in Rome and southern Italy. When Starbucks opened its first shop in Milan a few years ago I thought it would not last long, but I was wrong.

The success of such foreign chain foods in Italy, like McDonald’s (the one at the Spanish Steps is always crammed with Roman teenagers) seems to be getting stronger. It’s not only because of the products they serve, particularly for French fries and hamburger addicts, it’s what they symbolise that attracts customers – the immaterial power of the American brand.

Customers queue outside the new Starbucks branch in central Rome shortly after it opened on Thursday, May 11th. Photo: Elaine Allaby/The Local Italy

Sitting at Starbucks and tasting a frappuccino made US-style, even if a far cry from the real Italian cappuccino, is like indulging in an imported American lifestyle for ten minutes.

And it’s not only teenagers: customers include young adults, professionals who stop by at lunch break, and ladies who meet for ‘evening tea’. These non-Italian foods are still seen as a cool novelty and fad, but could soon become a regular part of more peoples’ diets.

The only antidote to this Americanization of Italian food is through the preservation of culinary culture. Italians must remain anchored to their family homemade recipes passed down across generations, and keep searching for genuine products with certified food origin and zero miles.

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

That’s the only way to counteract this trend, but if nonnas and mammas die without having passed on to their stressed-out workaholic nieces and daughters ‘l’amore per i fornelli’ as my dear auntie used to say (literally ‘the love of stoves’, meaning ‘a passion for cooking’), then it will be the end of what makes Italian cuisine unique in the world.

If you lose the culture behind the food, you lose the food.

Only die-hard purist restaurants and old trattorias will be left to defend the authenticity and identity of Italy’s centuries-old culinary heritage – until they too, will disappear.

Member comments

  1. With the greatest of respect some of the bottled pasta sauces are incredibly delicious and will have been cooked by someone who has or had a
    What a joy after a days work not to have to start chopping onions !
    I think we should salute these delicious sauces and hail them as a culinary triumph rather than get all nonna ‘ ish about them !
    Anyway nonna probably wants to put her feet up ?

  2. Im American and would never use bottled sauce. Matter of fact I make a sauce that was passed down from my great-grandfather to my father to me. The recipe has remained unchanged for almost 125 years, probably longer since I assume my great-grandfather learned it from his mother.

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OPINION: Italy’s constant strikes are part of the country’s DNA

The Italian news is full of reports of strikes - again. Silvia Marchetti explains why striking is part of Italy's social fabric, and why it's always the same old story.

OPINION: Italy's constant strikes are part of the country's DNA

Each time there’s a major strike the whole of Italy, especially big cities like Rome and Milan, descends into chaos. 

Be it a transport or rubbish disposal strike or public sector employees simply ‘crossing their arms’ as Italians would say (‘incrociare le braccia’) to skip work, it’s usually disruptive – and particularly for foreigners and tourists who might not be as accustomed to such frequent strikes.

Constant strikes are part of Italy’s DNA, and it’s also a dysfunction that plagues this country. I’ve lived in four other European countries and have never experienced the amount of monthly strikes we have in Italy.

READ MORE: Keep up to date with all the latest strike news in Italy

The evening news is flooded with reports of the ‘disagi’ (disruption) caused by strikes but it’s always the same drill. 

Italians get seemingly mad, saying how it has made their day a nightmare between bringing the kids to school and getting to work late, or complaining about a cancelled flight or train ride that would have brought them for the weekend to Bologna. But then everything falls back into the same routine.

It’s like playing a broken record.

Strikes in Italy are a cultural and political issue. Italians may get annoyed because it affects them but they are also by now used to them. It’s part of their inbred fatalism. 

My gran would say ‘ci hanno fatto il callo’ (meaning ‘they’ve formed a callus’, as if to say that bearing the burden of so many strikes has made them passive).

Italians who participate in strikes tend to be specific types of workers that have fixed job contracts protected by trade unions, such as pilots, bus drivers and factory workers. We have also created a word for that: ‘sindacalizzato’, to refer to a privileged worker who belongs to a trade union.

READ ALSO: Should you travel in Italy when there’s a strike on?

In Italy trade unions have enormous powers, more so than in other European countries. I am aware that trade unions are the end result of centuries of fights for workers rights’ and democracy, however in Italy things are extreme: they can push through a specific job category contract, a salary raise, establish how many holidays a worker should have in a year, and even sometimes decide which specific people should be hired.

I have several friends who teach at Italian high schools and they become enraged whenever  a colleague with fewer years of teaching experience gets a promotion or a fixed position (‘cattedra’) not based on merit or years worked, but just because he or she has been a member of the teachers’ union since the start of their career.

It’s a bit like being a member of a political party, if you’re not ‘tesserato’ (don’t have the trade union membership), your chances of landing a dream job in a specific sector are slim.

It is amazing how trade unions are often more powerful than trade lobbies and employers themselves. This power is clear each time Fiat car workers ‘fold their arms’ for a pay raise, or steel plants that are central to the country’s economic growth shut down in protest.

So where does this power come from? Many laws approved by the government are made in agreement with trade unions and business lobbies, it’s the so-called ‘concertazione con le parti sociali’ (consultation with working groups), which is a mechanism that has ruled in Italy ever since the birth of the republic. 

READ ALSO: What are the upcoming strikes in Italy?

Government ministers regularly hold meetings with trade union representatives and employers to discuss key measures including those concerning fiscal policy and taxation.

So it comes as no surprise that strikes are the weapon of choice for Italy’s trade unions. 

What does get Italians mad, more than the strike disruption itself, is the fact that strikes have always been a powerful tool used to persuade politicians and force employers to pay higher salaries, while ordinary people see their daily life being used as a political pawn. 

When planes are grounded because cabin crew are on strike it’s the usual background noise, albeit irritating. What really annoys some people is that these workers are so protected by their trade unions that they can afford to skip work in protest.

People who are self-employed, professionals, VAT-holders, teleworkers and freelancers can’t afford to strike because they are not represented by any political group or trade union that could organise a potential strike. They would just be striking against themselves, given they’re self-employed.

Foreign visitors get very worried when they hear about a transport strike in Italy, and I’ve personally met a family who embarked on a 72-hour trip one sultry summer day before they made the Rome-Florence train ride. 

It’s hard to reassure tourists that the next one won’t be as disruptive, but then again when it comes to Italy it’s really all very unpredictable.

These strikes in my view are barely effective in the short term, but in the long run, especially if continuous, they become ‘threats’ and increase the unions’ leverage power, so they eventually do bear fruit in the form of a slight pay raise. 

Trade unions here are still strong, just old-fashioned and slow to kick-start change – as are so many things in Italy.