How to Understand Italy

MILAN — Expo 2015 opened its doors here this month, and with 145 countries exhibiting and 11 million tickets sold, there are quite a few surprised faces. You mean the Italians actually did it, actually pulled off a world’s fair? Despite the scandals, delays, cost overruns and squabbling? Of course we did it. No one is better than us at turning a crisis into a party.

There’s a bit more to it, though. This time Italy and the Italians are out to teach the world a thing or two. The theme of the event, which moves from country to country and whose origins go back to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, is “Feeding the Planet.” And we Italians know what we’re talking about on that score.

Why? The answer comes in five parts: family, feuds, fantasy, feelings and fashion.



For centuries, the home has been a gastronomic workshop that combines simplicity with robust good sense. In the Renaissance, Italy’s cooking was superb, but rather sophisticated and restricted to the upper classes. The new, world-conquering Italian way of eating was a simple, practical product driven by a communitywide competence. An Italian doesn’t think that a sauce is appetizing, or that an olive oil tastes right. We just know.

Italian cooking is a popular art form that bubbles up from below. In contrast, French cuisine since the 16th century, when the Florentine noblewoman Caterina de’ Medici married Henry II and taught his court how to cook, has been an aristocratic product, trickling down from above. “Of all the arts practiced in France, the culinary one is least intermingled with life, the only one, it might be said, that requires professionals,” wrote the Italian Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale in 1953. Sixty years on, Italians still hold that opinion.

Then there are feuds. Public life in Italy is based on rivalry. Centuries of foreign domination have forced Italians to find comfort, security and a sense of identity in their own community. And this has influenced their food.

Every town and village in Italy believes itself to be unrivaled for one food product, recipe or preparation. To an American, there is no difference between tortellini pasta wraps from Bologna and those from Modena. But wars have started for less. Both towns believe passionately that they are the masters of tortellini (and both are wrong; the best tortellini come from Castelfranco, where there is even a belly button-shaped monument to the delicacy).

But differences spawn more than just competition. They also generate spectacular variety. Our temperate climate, from the Dolomites to the tiny islands off Sicily, provides raw materials of sublime quality. The best red wines come from Piedmont and the best whites from Friuli, but wine is excellent all over Italy. Since 1986, the Slow Food movement has identified 254 presidia, or authentic artisanal food products, in Italy, from lardo fatback to coppa pork butt, onions, garlic, artichokes and apricots.

What about the tomato? Imported from America, it remained an ornamental plant for hundreds of years until Italians made it their signature ingredient.

And coffee? It grows in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and was brought to Venice by the Turks. But it was espresso — an Italian name and style of consumption — that conquered the world. Here in Italy, we often drink our espresso standing at the bar. For years, the rest of the world thought we didn’t want to pay for a table. Then they caught on to the singular experience of sipping coffee on your feet.

And consider feelings. Food is emotion as well as nutrition — and we Italians know emotion. Today, Northern Europe has its share of superb restaurants and excellent chefs. But their performances sometimes spill over into show business (à la Gordon Ramsay) or competitive sport. Italian cooks put the emphasis on empathy. They have been sharing their passion with diners since they were kids.

A few days ago, at Identità, a restaurant created just for the Expo, the chef Andrea Ribaldone waxed rapturously about how he made a saffron risotto with bone marrow. It was more like he was sharing a secret than giving a lecture. Diners listened ecstatically. Italians like to be together, and restaurants are convivial places.

Finally — fashion. Italian cooking is fashionable. Spaghetti, pizza, cappuccino, prosciutto, prosecco — these are global words that people everywhere like to hear and love to say. And our cooking style — simple preparation and serving, fresh products, brief cooking times with not too much sauce or seasoning — have influenced food trends worldwide. Millions of families all over the world have included pasta in their diets.

Every international hotel has at least two restaurants. One is hushed and elegant, with a name like La Tour Eiffel, while the other is brighter, less pretentious and often called L’Olivo or something like that. L’Olivo will be busier than La Tour Eiffel and less expensive. And that, as the millions of visitors to Expo 2015 are learning, is a good thing.

Beppe Severgnini is a columnist at Corriere della Sera and the author of “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.”