You can criticize their fashion, make fun of their politics, and even complain about the garbage, but questioning Italian cuisine is strictly off the table.
That’s why a recent interview with controversial food history professor Alberto Grandi has caused such a stir. Grandi, who has been questioning the authenticity of Made in Italy staples like carbonara, Parmesan and even pizza for years, told the Financial Times that Italians’ obsession with their cuisine stems from an insecurity.
“When a community finds itself deprived of its sense of identity, because of whatever historical shock or fracture with its past, it invents traditions to act as founding myths,” he said, implying that the cult of food so many Italians subscribe to is built on false traditions.
“Italian cuisine really is more American than it is Italian,” he added, which is hard to swallow for Italians who often mock America’s fast-food culture.
Questioning the authenticity of the richness of Italy’s cuisine has left a bad taste in the mouth of the Italian government, and with good reason.
The same day Grandi’s article rocked the kitchens of Italy’s greatest chefs, Italy’s ministers of Culture and Agriculture officially entered Italian cuisine into candidacy for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which will be decided in December 2025.
The government has also said they will appoint a sort of czar of cuisine to help Italian restaurants and food producers stay in line with the standards and traditions of the country’s culinary history.
Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano and Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida announced the UNESCO candidacy, based on a “combination of social practices, rituals and gestures based on the many local flavors that, without hierarchy, identify it,” at a press conference on March 23.
The ministries also applied to have Italian cuisine recognized for the 2023 UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “We have two years ahead of us in which we will have to promote our food in Italy and in the world, we hope it will see collective participation” Gianmarco Mazzi, undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture said.
The group presented a dossier written by Pier Luigi Petrillo, a professor at Rome Luiss University, who wrote about the “mosaic of traditions” that, he says, “reflects the country’s biocultural diversity and is based on the common denominator of conceiving the moment of preparation and consumption of the meal as an occasion for sharing and talking.”
The only problem is that Grandi’s now viral theories on Italian food—including that the classic Roman pasta dish carbonara is actually an American invention, and that real Italian Parmesan has shifted so far from tradition that you can only find anything close to what it is supposed to be in the US state of Wisconsin—undercut the nomination.
Grandi told La Repubblica news outlet that there is “a lot of bullsh*t” in the UNESCO application dossier and that he actually fears that Italy may win the coveted designation for its food.
“What happens if we get it? Those who love it will continue to love it and those who don’t like it will continue to dislike it,” he said.
He also explained to CNN about just why he remains so passionate about this cause. He says that the dossier is based on recipes, not roots, and that the essence of this designation is about the importance of cuisine in the culture, not the actual cuisine or whether there are mushrooms in carbonara.
“UNESCO is not giving the designation for the recipes,” he told CNN. “The question is a philosophical one, not a gastronomical one.”
He is bothered by the adage that Italians emigrated from Italy and taught people how to cook and eat. “They emigrated because they had nothing to eat here, they were poor,” he said. “They left because they were starving. It’s offensive to our grandparents to paint it differently.”
He also said that “crystallizing” or freezing Italian cuisine in time will kill it, and that if pizza got better when Italians emigrated to the United States and made the traditional recipe with American enhancements like tomato sauce, as he insists happened, then that should be recognized for what it is—and where it came from.
Just by being Italian, he says, does not mean it is guaranteed to be the best. “It’s not like if I take a prancing horse and I put it on a Fiat Panda and this becomes a Ferrari,” he says. “It’s not history that legitimizes current events.”
He is also somewhat surprised by the scandal created by his interview and the subsequent research done by the Financial Times. The author, also Italian, was able to support much of what Grandi said by talking to her relatives about when they first ate pizza and how various staples were originally made.
“Recipes change. Tastes change,” he said. “My job is to be a historian, I don’t sell products.”
Not everyone agrees that culinary heritage has little to do with the actual food, though.
Italy’s National Confederation of Direct Farmers, known as Coldiretti, told CNN that the attack by Grandi—especially on the heels of the UNESCO nomination—is “surreal” and that in fact global agro-piracy, or the theft of traditional Italian recipes produced abroad with substandard ingredients, has reached 120 billion euros ($130 billion) a year.
The top offenders are the creators of fake extra virgin Italian olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano, or Parmesan cheese. Coldiretti scours the globe to find the fakes and files legal suits to stop them and has even taken action in Wisconsin, where Grandi says more authentic cheese is produced than that in Italy.
The protection of Italian food has also led Italy to introduce legislation to ban so-called synthetic or cell-based cuisine, meaning you won’t see Woolly Mammoth meatballs on spaghetti in Italy anytime soon if it passes.
Italy’s current prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, won last year on an Italy-first platform, which focused on immigration but also included protecting Italian cultural heritage, including food, from technological advancements like synthetic meat.
Meloni’s Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said the bill to ban it should be passed both because of a lack of “scientific studies yet on the effects of synthetic foods.”
At a press conference pushing the legislation forward, Schillaci also added: “We want to safeguard our nation’s heritage and our agriculture based on the Mediterranean diet.”
Lollobrigida, whose Agriculture Ministry supported the UNESCO bid, also said the idea behind the ban was the protection of Italian “culture and our tradition, including food and wine.”
He added at a press conference: “Laboratory products, in our opinion, do not guarantee quality, wellbeing and the protection of our culture, our tradition.”
But if you ask Grandi, neither does the Made in Italy label.