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Authentic Italian Food is Not What The Internet Thinks It Is
A trip to the unlikely places where the soul of Italian cuisine can be discovered
Looking for Italy’s culinary soul in unremarkable, sometimes ugly towns seems counterintuitive. While the Internet squabbles over the authenticity of carbonara, the genuine regional cooking of the Italian hearth is done by a dedicated few in places that tourists don’t even know exist.
I’m confronted with this when Mario Stellato, chef at Borgo La Pietraia, takes me along on an errand to pick up wine, with a stop for lunch at Zi’ Pasqualina Valleverde in Altripalda. He uses his phone to navigate, and nods toward a road sign embedded in one of the modern buildings — Via Appia. I’m surprised for a moment: The Via Appia is the ancient Roman road that connects Rome to Brindisi, and this town looks modern in the most uninspired way, a consequence of having been wrecked by the 1980 Irpinia earthquake and rebuilt. I don’t see a pretty church or piazza, though there are 2,000-year-old ruins of the Roman city of Abillinum (ancient Avellino) here. Roman ruins seem even more absurd as we pull into an American suburbs-style parking lot in front of a Maury’s, a discount home goods store, next to a large supermarket. The trattoria is directly across the street.
Inside are the characteristic red and white tablecloths. Named Zi’ (aunt) Pasqualina for the founder, Pasqualina DeBenedictis, her descendants prepare dishes much like they have since 1953 when the trattoria was a place to get a plate of inexpensive, filling, home-cooked food in the middle of a work day. Today, fast food or quick-serve restaurants serve the same function, but without the emotional or physical benefits of food made from local ingredients and traditions.
It isn’t easy to run a traditional trattoria like this because it relies on loyal customers who remember how food tasted before it became mechanized, and on sourcing only the best local products. As food journalist Luciano Pignataro writes, you will eat better at Zi’ Pasqualina than you can at a 5-star hotel because ingredients are chosen by the people who cook, not accountants in a corporate office seeking the highest possible profit margin.
We settle into our table, and Mario asks which salumi are available because Irpinia’s chestnut-filled mountains are known for excellent cured meats. The waiter tells us they only have local prosciutto right now, so we order that along with a side of potatoes and peppers cooked together. I ask for the ravioli with a walnut and pecorino cream sauce, and Mario gets cotica, a rustic sausage served with cooked greens. Everything tastes homemade which is to say not overly fatty, or fussy, or salty. Too often restaurant food tries to blast your tastebuds with temporary pleasure, to the detriment of your digestion and health.
Those Days Are Over in Naples
Twenty years ago, finding an authentic trattoria meant wandering the dark alleys of the Spanish Quarters in Naples, and choosing a place with a cluster of Padre Pio prayer card scotch-taped to the wall, and one single lightbulb dangling over the table from a frayed wire. Those days are over.
Mass tourism has officially arrived in Naples and most trattorias in the Spanish Quarters serve nostalgia to tourists. Obesity is the plague of the neighborhood’s poor children who eat fast food and pizza topped with hot dogs and french fries. The best and most famous of them, Trattoria Nennella, open since 1949, has left the narrow alleys of the Spanish Quarters for a bigger spot in Piazza Carità. And good for them! It’s a wonderful place and the pasta with potatoes and provola cheese will always be on the menu. But it’s a different scene now that is more a performance of traditions rather than an experience of how people really live — a paradox of authenticity.
A Modernist Dreamscape in Melito Irpino
Not far from Altripalda is Antica Trattoria Di Pietro in Melito Irpino; open since 1934. You’ll find it in its second location, the first having been condemned along with the entire village after an earthquake in 1960. The Italian government built a new Melito Irpino, and the historic trattoria relocated to a Brutalist strip mall.
My first visit there coincided with a vintage car meetup, making the piazza feel like a Modernist dreamscape. The inside of the trattoria is also an ode to the early 1960s, but one that looked like a home, with framed pictures, heavy wooden furniture, and ineffable coziness.
I was led to the kitchen, where Teresa showed me the large pot of ragù she was looking after, simmering over a low flame. Nothing is more emotional to a daughter of the Southern Italian diaspora like me than Sunday ragù. (The Internet also likes to argue over sauce vs. gravy. It’s ragù.) Suddenly, I was choking back an unexplainable sob. I felt like I had tripped into a realm where my grandparents and parents are all alive and well, and the world before and after Sunday dinner doesn’t exist.
Today, Anita Di Pietro is responsible for Melito Irpino's culinary traditions. She is stern about the fact that she is “no chef” but instead a faithful steward of the traditions in which she was raised. Anita lives in the modern world, has studied, traveled and worked abroad, speaks English, and could undoubtedly do easier work that requires fewer sacrifices of her time and physical labor. But as she writes in a small book she recently published about handmade pasta, she is attached to this cooking of simple flavors and ingredients and recipes of poor people who had only “the supermarket of the earth” available to them.
Di Pietro’s minestra maritata with shredded beef, sausage, abundant greens and crunchy polenta to soak up the broth isn’t a photogenic dish that will ever trend on Instagram, but I can’t think of anything that is simultaneously so satisfying and healthy.
There’s a movement within Italy better to publicize restaurants like Trattoria Pietro and Zi Pasqualina. The 2023 edition of the 50 Top Italy list includes a section dedicated to traditional trattorias because they “should not be abandoned, but modernized according to the new needs of the public, following above all the concepts of environmental and economic sustainability.”
In simpler terms, we need the emotional and nutritional wisdom of traditional Italian cooking now more than ever.
Cook With Mario and Anita in Spring 2024
As the world roils, I have grown increasingly more interested in the wisdom of simple Italian food. Over the years of leading tours in South Italy, I have met heroic cheesemakers, farmers, foragers, winemakers, and home cooks who I will bring together for three food and wine workshops in 2024. They have so much to teach us and we have so much to learn.
The first workshop will be held the week before Easter, at Borgo La Pietraia, with Chef Mario Stellato leading the way. The weeklong experience includes foraging for wild asparagus and truffles in the mountains of Cilento, making traditional Easter pies with local women, and a full-day cooking class with Anita at Antica Trattoria Di Pietro.
This workshop is open to anyone at any skill level though you must have a deep love of food and wine. I also encourage families to join us because we must keep that flame underneath the ragù pot lit.