Are the food traditions of Italy changing irrevocably? Italians are proud of their culture and maintain that their traditions will endure, but there are global forces at work that are bigger than a love of tradition. Italian cuisine may be changed permanently.
Italian food today encompasses vegetarianism and big cuts of meat, global influences and less time in the kitchen. More Tuscans eat at Chinese restaurants and McDonalds than 10 years ago. Traditions are changing here, as everywhere.
Tuscany, or Toscana as the Italians call the area, is a region in the center of Italy. Florence and Siena are the largest cities in the region and are well known for their long histories and cuisine. Historically, Tuscan cuisine is comprised of hearty dishes made from low cost staples such as grains, unsalted bread, and seasonal vegetables. Tuscan dishes make use of all parts of an animal such as the stomach and intestine linings from farm animals. But these traditions are changing.
Tuscan food practices are becoming more homogenized. A quicker pace of life, dwindling Italian population, and a slow but growing acceptance of other culture’s food is changing what young Italians eat and could change the unique Italian cuisine travelers look for in Italy.
The Mercato Centrale in Florence, Italy hums with life. Vibrant fruits and vegetables smell sweet and fresh. Italians chat with vendors and pick over produce and meat and by noon, the meat stalls are closing up. James Soderi, a butcher at S.A.M. Distribuzione Carni di Paolo Soderi, is one such vendor at the Market Centrale. His family, butchers since the 16th century, sees a shift in what Italians buy. There is an increased demand for hamburger meat from young Italians, he said, which is not a traditional cut of meat in Florentine food.
Alex Soderi, James Soderi’s nephew, said he also notices a big difference in what Italians are eating. Italians are influenced by Northern Europe and are buying cuts of meat that are not traditionally part of the Tuscan cuisine. Tourism is also changing the food Florentines make and sell. Tourists come to Florence for the large Florentine steaks, Alex Soderi said. Anywhere between 1 to 3 pounds, Florentine steaks are large cuts of T-bone steak that are grilled quickly at high temperatures. The inside is near raw and only warm, and the outside has distinct grill marks and is crisp. The meat is tender and buttery, melting in the mouth. Florentine steak is only seasoned with salt and, historically, was a meat served at celebrations with rich nobles.
Originally, Florentine dishes used cheap cuts of meat. Today, those same cuts of meat such as the lungs, heart, and liver, are sold less often than compared to 30 years ago, Alex Soderi said. Television has also influenced a shift in perceptions about meat. The media and television “gave us the conviction that different kinds of cuts are better,” Alex Soderi said.
These shifts in taste follow global patterns. A study published in Environmental Science and Policy in 2014, “Curbing global meat consumption” said meat consumption has risen dramatically over the past 50 years. Even coffee is changing. Italy, the creator of the cappuccino and perfecter of espresso, had no interest in Starbucks, but the global food system is now bringing the first Starbucks to Italy, which is to open in Milan in late 2018.
While some Florentines are eating more meat, others are going the opposite way of the trend and cutting it out their diets entirely. Vegetarianism is a new movement in Florence. Alex Solderi said he thinks being a vegetarian is not just a trend because Italians know that some animals aren’t treated well, kept in cramped living conditions and fed grains instead of grass, so some Italians decide not to eat meat. Vegetarianism is relatively new to Florence and is followed by mostly younger generations he said.
Jessica Haden, an American who has lived and worked in Italy for over three years, said older generations don’t question the nutritional value of their food because they didn’t have to. Organic food is not something that older generations care about because the food has always been local and fresh. While there are differences in what younger Italians and older Italians eat, there is one similarity across generations: foods that are quick to make are growing in popularity.
“Even the grandmas take shortcuts, they buy premade dough,” Haden said.
That’s just one small way that convenience food is working its way into Italians’ every day lives. When Dario D’Ambrosa was a kid, fast food was a special event for children. D’Ambrosa, an Italian Language professor at Florence University of the Arts, has lived in the Tuscan region for the majority of his life. Italians didn’t keep soda in the house or eat French fries, so going to McDonalds was something special, he said. Adults would hardly ever eat at McDonalds but now that is changing, he said. Indeed, early in the morning in Florence, there are groups of Italians hunched over burgers and fries, eating the greasy food to sober up after a night out.
And McDonalds isn’t the only outside food that is slowly being embraced by Tuscans. In Florence there are Chinese restaurants, Japanese sushi stores, Kabob stands, and Mexican restaurants. Some of the restaurants are obvious tourist traps with menus entirely in English. But locals eat at and enjoy some ethnic restaurants. This wasn’t common a decade ago.
“I love Chinese food,” Alex Soderi said.
Chinese restaurants are very common in Florence D’Ambrosa said. Eating Kabobs as a quick meal on the go is recent in Florence as well, something that started in the last 10 years or so. But while Italians are beginning to eat other culture’s cuisines, they have yet to fully embrace the foods. Even with foods from around the world, Italians don’t look far when they want a taste of another culture. Italy’s unique food landscape keeps Italian food from other Italian regions the go-to choice for something different.
There are 19 regions of Italy, each with its own cuisine, culture, and dialect. Even in today’s homogenized food world, the specialties of each region are dependent on what grows in each region.
“In general, Italians don’t like the cuisine of other countries,” D’Ambrosa said.
Florentines would rather go out for food from Naples than say, Mexico, because eating food from Naples is like eating foreign food but with one important difference: the cuisine is part of Italy and Italians know the quality is going to be good, D’Ambrosa said.
“Know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth and stomach,” Alex Soderi said, “eat seasonal.” People shouldn’t eat zucchini in the winter or broccoli in the summer because that is not when those vegetables are in season, he said.
“It’s more healthy and better for your country,” Alex Soderi said. But there is an increasing demand for foods out of season.
Italy’s government has noticed the shift to global foods and has enacted some buffers to protect local products. The Mercato Centrale is one example of the effort to preserve local traditions. The market was renovated in 2014 to house vendors on the first floor and restaurants on the second floor. Another way Italy is protecting its food heritage is with European Union-sponsored labels that, according to Speak the Culture: Italy, “protect the authenticity of Italian foodstuffs.” The labels are called Denominasione di origine protetta or DOPs and Italy has more of these labels for their food than any other European country.
The labels and markets will not be useful however if the Italian population fundamentally changes. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, Italy’s population growth rate is only 0.27%, meaning that there are more elderly Italians than young Italians. There is also more immigration into Italy than there is growth in the Italian population.
Along with population changes, new gender norms and work habits are changing the ways Italians eat.
“In 1950, the average Italian housewife spent seven hours in the kitchen,” Beppe Severgnini said in La Bella Figura “today it’s forty minutes.”
Italian tastes and attitudes toward food are changing and the globalization of food is taking root slowly in Italy, but Italians are confident in their cuisine’s history.
“Other things can change, but not food,” D’Ambrosa said “It is one of the few things we are proud of.”
But forces larger than individual love for food traditions are at work in Italy. Visit Italy to taste the food yourself and experience a food culture that is in a critical moment of change.