I once had to take a train trip from Pisa to Florence. I was in Italy for the first time, I had stupid hair and was being very South African about it all, which generally meant being sweatily uncomfortable about anything that wasn’t Mrs Balls Chutney or songs about beer. Needless to say that for the first couple of days I was there, I permanently looked like someone who’s just realized that they’ve tripped on something and are about to fall down in front of people who will judge them.
So, I duly got on the emptiest carriage available, because that way I could just get on with being awkward in as much privacy as possible. It turned out however that the emptiest carriage actually had someone already in it, a wistful and darkly beautiful girl of about my age sitting in the corner. Naturally I sat as far away from her as I could and proceeded to furiously ignore her, because that of course is Universal Guy Language for, “Wow, you look fascinating – fancy a coffee or perhaps a Spicy Christmas Nut?” Of course about two minutes later, a smallish, balding fat guy with a moustache stepped in, looked around, saw the girl … and without any hesitation whatsoever, made an infectiously enthusiastic beeline for the seat right next to her.
Of course. He was Italian – and that’s how they do.
Within about twenty seconds, they were having the most animated conversation ever, and I’m pretty sure he got her number when she got off the train about three stops down the line and that right now they’re up to their elbows in olive oil, babies and mamma’s secret recipe for tuna sauce. And that could have been me (maybe without the babies), if I’d just had the balls.
If Italian food were an animal, from an evolutionary perspective it’d be the annoying furry things that mopped up whatever was left of the dinosaurs after they’d gotten the crap beaten out of them by the giant meteor. So successful has the exportation of Italian food and culture (same thing really) been over the years, that in many ways it’s superseded the national cuisines of a lot of the countries it’s been exported to. And no-one’s complaining about it, because they’re all too busy smashing their faces full of thin crust pizza and laughing at Eddie Izzard jokes about Penne al Arrabiata (youtube it).
You can go on about pasta, ciabatta, parmesan, tinned tomatoes, capers, salami, pizza, pesto, expensive cappuccino machines – or any number of amazing contributions the Italians have made to the global food landscape (arguably more than any other nation on the planet), but I’d say that none of those things are actually what’s made their food so popular. For me it’s more the unimaginable and endless ocean of rampant enthusiasm they have for food and eating that’s done it. It’s a stupid cliché – but one that has basis, because if the rest of us got half as passionate about whatever it is that we do as the your average Italian is about sausage – we’d have figured out how to make gold from the bits of hair that get stuck in the shower-drain ages ago. This probably explains a lot about the fact that there are more Italian restaurants in the world than research-centers dedicated to Teleportation and/or Immortality. It’s infectious – and you can’t help but wanting at least some of that in your life, and so we rhapsodise about prosciutto and mozzarella. Weirdly all it really requires at the end of the day, is turning on the stove.
Without resorting to joining the endless ranks of people determined to fetishise food (thanks El Bulli), I like the idea that more kitchens become rooted in a genuine awareness and love for the pillars of Italian cooking: the best possible fresh ingredients, simplicity and good times (also, possibly some shouting and talking with your hands), all of which are dead easy and don’t require expensive kitchen gadgets designed by a depressed Swede.
At the moment, by virtue of where most of us end up eating out at least once a month, we’re all a little bit Italian, but I reckon that in spirit it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more (except maybe for Silvio Berlusconi, because he’s about as appealing as a dead dog sock puppet), because at the end of the day, no-one ever got anywhere by being too shy to speak to the pretty girl on the train.