If the results of the first Pasta World Championship are anything to go by, Italian food has never been more international – or authentically so.
In a large, sweltering kitchen in the historic culinary city of Parma, Italy, 26 top Italian chefs from restaurants abroad sweated it out this past weekend, preparing the dish of pasta most preferred by customers in their adoptive countries.
In bright, white aprons, Italian chefs from cities as far flung as Kiev, Jakarta, Cairo and Copenhagen moved deftly around a dozen or so shiny chrome cooking stations. Gone are the days when they were reduced to attracting foreign customers with bastardized Italian-American concoctions like spaghetti with meatballs – or horror of horrors – mushy, cream-soaked Fettuccine Alfredo.
Instead, simple classics with a foreign twist now dominate in good Italian restaurants abroad. Examples ranged from the peasant mainstay of pasta a fagioli, or pasta and fava beans with the unusual addition of mussels from Cape Town, South Africa, to spaghetti with shrimp and tequila from Mexico.
Gianluigi Zenti, who heads up Academia Barilla, the Parma-based food academy that held the event and whose mission is to promote and safeguard Italian gastronomy worldwide, said the goal was to monitor, and celebrate, what officially recognized Italian chefs are doing outside the country .
"Basically we want to see how Italian cuisine is evolving abroad and try to identify who has best interpreted the dishes, but according to an Italian jury that understands concepts like pasta al dente."
Gabriele Paganelli, owner and chef of Paganelli's in the St. Lawrence Market district of Toronto, represented Canada. Mr. Paganelli, a short, full-bellied man , who was raised in the Emilia Romagna region , prepared a local favourite called strozzapreti alla romagnola in camicia di Prosciutto di Parma. As he gamely wrestled with hot pans and boiling water, he mused aloud about how his Canadian customers' understanding of Italian food has evolved since he arrived in Canada 21 years ago.
Mr. Paganelli said he knew a true transformation had occurred when customers began to order ravioli al burro e salvia – ravioli in butter and sage – which he could hardly move out the kitchen door previously.
"It's a dish with few ingredients and people just didn't understand that Italian cuisine is a simple thing based on a balancing of flavours. In Canada, the mentality used to be, the more ingredients, the better the dish."
One of the few female chefs at the event, the towering Jakarta-based Orianna Tirabassi, opted out of the competition to head a squadron of Italian female chefs from Mexico, New York and India, who prepared the gala meal consisting of a medieval garden appetizer, ravioli with a mint pesto sauce, and rabbit baked with olives and marjoram.
Ms. Tirabassi, whose Rosso was ranked among the top 20 Italian restaurants in the world this year, said working in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country, is full of challenges .
"Every four hours my staff has to pray, and when the customers are waiting and you're busy, well, that's not very simple," she said.
Nearby, sliding around pans of scampi, calamari, clams and mussels, chef Yoshi Yamada was creating perhaps the most compelling evidence of the internationalization of authentic Italian food.
The only non-Italian competing, he won first prize among the jury of local Italians and culinary experts with his seafood and bavette (a long, flat pasta) dish.
One of London's top Italian-food chefs, at Tempo restaurant, Mr. Yamada was born in Tokyo and trained near Naples, and jokingly calls himself a "Japolitano" – a play-on-words of Japanese and napolitano, the Italian word for Neapolitan.
He said what won him over to Italian food was the culture as much as the tastes.
"I just simply love the slow life, the slow food of southern Italy," said Mr. Yamada . "In Japan, it's all about long hours and work. In Italy, chefs work hard, but then they also know how to relax and spend time with their family."
Special to The Globe and Mail