To shelter its cuisine, Italian city bans foreign flavors

New eateries that serve kebabs, couscous, and even pineapple are no longer welcome in Tuscan town of Lucca.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Foreign invader? Tomatoes originated in South America, but are permitted under the ban.
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    BELLA TUSCANY: A butcher salts meat in a traditional shop in Panzano, Tuscany. Many of Italy's foods have origins from abroad.
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    Italian eaten here: The picturesque town of Lucca is popular with tourists. Its ban on new ethnic restaurants has angered some chefs, who say cuisine must stay open to the world.
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Until recently, Italians overwhelmingly ate Italian food, but a decade or more of immigration has seen a surge of new foreign food eateries.

Now, one city has declared that enough is enough. The walled, medieval bastion of Lucca, in the heart of Tuscany, wants no more of the kebab shops and Chinese restaurants that have sprung up along the cobbled streets of its centro storico, or historic center.

Lucca, a tourist hot spot that lies 40 miles from Florence, has declared a ban on the opening of any more "ethnic" food outlets in what it says is a campaign to preserve authentic Italian – or more specifically, Tuscan – culinary traditions.

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The initiative, announced by the city council last month, has sparked an intense debate about whether it amounts to legitimate cultural protectionism in an age of rapid globalization, or an ugly manifestation of gastronomic racism.

Lucca's center-right council, which passed the measure by 23 votes to 11, says ethnic restaurants betray Tuscany's culinary heritage.

Kebabs, curries, and couscous are now out, in favor of such local specialities as zuppa di faro, a grain-based soup, and torta di spinaci, a tart made with spinach.

The ban is staunchly supported by Italy's agriculture minister. "This is not a battle against anything or anyone, but a defense of our culture and our agriculture," said Luca Zaia, a member of the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League, which campaigns for greater autonomy for Italy's rich north. "In Italy we have available 4,500 typical food products. Every one of these represents the culture and history of our country," he added.

Others are embarrassed by what they see as a case of extreme parochialism.

The new law is "an absurdity," said an opposition MP, Andrea Marcucci, because it would "make it impossible to open in Lucca not only a kebab shop but also a high-class French bar serving oysters and champagne." The legislation had damaged Lucca's image and was a big mistake, Mr. Marcucci added.

Critics of Lucca's new law point out that many of the staples of Italian food have foreign origins – tomatoes, for instance, were introduced from South America, and pasta is widely believed to have been brought from China by Marco Polo.

And what of food from Sicily, which has a heavy Arab influence – should couscous, a staple of Sicilian dishes, be classed as foreign or Italian?

Vittorio Castellani, a television chef and author of cookbooks, says there is "no dish on the face of the earth" that is not derived from a mélange of different ingredients and a fusion of culinary styles.

The influence of other styles of cuisine is fundamental to the development of food, says Roberto Burdese, the president of Slow Food, a movement that campaigns for the use of locally grown food in regional recipes.

"The enemy is not so much ethnic food, but food of poor quality," Mr. Burdese says. "A bad Tuscan trattoria does more damage than a kebab shop."

The national debate is reflected online, where a Facebook group, the Cous Cous Clan, has been formed to protest the ban.

But it is not just Lucca that is concerned with the invasion of foreign food. The Lombardy region, also run by the Northern League, said it, too, would campaign for Italians to eat Italian.

The number of kebab shops in Milan, the biggest city in the north, has come under particular scrutiny, leading one Italian newspaper to declare that politicians were unleashing "a new Lombard crusade against the Saracens."

Italians are concerned that other countries are muscling in on some of their best-known gastronomic treasures.

Low quality olive oil from Greece, Turkey, and Tunisia is often passed off as extra virgin Italian oil, while truffles are imported from China, much to the disgust of Italian gourmets, who say they are far inferior in taste to those sniffed out by hogs and hounds in Italian forests.

The protectionist instinct appears to be on the rise – at Christmas, Dr. Zaia, the agriculture minister, called on Italians to forgo one of their festive favorites, pineapples.

Millions of Italians regard a couple of slices of pineapple after a heavy Christmas lunch as a cleansing dessert, but the minister appealed to his countrymen to shun the foreign fruit and instead opt for Italian delicacies such as panetone, a type of sponge cake.

Rejecting imported food would help Italy's 1 million farms, Zaia said, which together contribute more than $80 billion to the country's gross domestic product.

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