Not long ago, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that piqued my interest. It seems a bunch of Italian food producers are becoming increasingly upset with manufacturers and purveyors of food products in other countries – particularly the US – who slap Italian flags and Italian or Italian-sounding words on their products in an effort to market them as authentic Italian goods. Collectively, they have launched the “Italianissimi project,” the overall objective of which is to educate American consumers about the importance of geographic origin for Italian food products and the concept of authenticity and guarantee.
The food culture of Italy is, by and large, the culture of Italy, second only to its artistic status as the birthplace of the Renaissance. It is a source of national pride, and people tend to get a little prickly when you poke them in the pride.
And it’s not only a matter of national pride. Economics also enter the equation. According to Italian government statistics, “Italian sounding” products cause serious damage to the country’s food producers to the tune of more than 60 billion Euros, a figure which represents more than half the total value of Italian agricultural and food production and three times more than Italy’s exports in this sector.
The heart and soul of Italian cuisine are found in the quality of its ingredients and that quality has long been assured by tightly controlled and regulated production standards. These standards fall within the jurisdiction of European Union law under the auspices of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). In Italy, these terms translate to Denominazione di Origine Protetta or DOP and Indicazione Geografica Protetta or IGP. (Another system, known as the Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC is Italy’s system for ensuring quality wines.) For the sake of consistency, I’ll refer to the Italian designations throughout this article.
These laws and regulations are intended to protect the names and standards of locally and regionally produced food products. According to the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, Italy has the greatest number of DOP and IGP products of any European nation. Only products that meet the vigorous criteria imposed under these systems qualify for protected status. There are also a variety of consortia dedicated to preserving the authenticity and integrity of their products.
DOP identifies a product that is made, processed and produced in a specific geographic area that has been thoroughly surveyed. The DOP designation is applied to products from a particular region/country having features that are primarily or exclusively attributable to the geographic environment (including natural and human elements) and that are produced and processed within the defined area.
In the case of IGP, at least one stage of production or processing of the product takes place within the designated area. In addition, the product has a certain reputation. IGP designates a native product of the region/country whose qualities/reputation/features can be attributed to its geographic origin, and whose production and/or processing take place within that area (at least one stage of production must take place within the designated area).
Consumers need to look for the DOP or IGP seals on authentic Italian products. In use since 2006, new regulations regarding color were introduced in May, 2010. A red and gold seal denotes a DOP product while a blue and gold seal is found on IGP products.
Needless to say, the United States has no such standards. That’s why manufacturers can get by with making up words that end in vowels, pasting little bandiere on packaging, wrapping products in green, white and red, or employing phrases like “Italian-style” to entice gullible consumers into buying goods that they assume are authentic Italian. And that’s why the Italians are understandably upset.
You can buy authentic Italian food products in the United States. They’re everywhere nowadays. Much more so than in the not too distant past when you had to seek out an Italian specialty shop in an Italian neighborhood in order to buy a bottle of olive oil. My son lives in Italy and was lamenting on the phone the other day about how difficult the culinary transition will be when he eventually returns to the States. “Not so,” I assured him. The ethnic shops in the ethnic neighborhoods are still thriving and one can easily find authentic Italian ingredients in most high-end supermarkets these days. You just have to know what to look for.
With that in mind, let’s take a safari to my local supermarket to hunt for a few authentic Italian staples. Now, I am not an Aldi shopper, okay? I routinely shop at higher end markets. A little pricier perhaps, but you get what you pay for.
First stop, the cheese section. How can you even consider Italian food without Parmesan cheese, right? And to 99.6% of Americans, this means reaching for the grated stuff in the green cans.
According to the biggest manufacturer of this cheese-like substance, their product is “100% real grated Parmesan. No fillers. No fillers means we use only real Parmesan cheese, not imitations or substitutes. Aged 6 months.” But then you take a look at the ingredients listed elsewhere on the label and you find “Parmesan Cheese (Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk, Salt, Less than 2% of Enzymes, Cheese Culture, Cellulose Powder to Prevent Caking, Potassium Sorbate to Protect Flavor).” This stuff is not even remotely related to authentic Italian Parmesan cheese.
What Americans refer to as “Parmesan cheese” is produced only in a specific area of Italy; the area around Parma. The word “Parmesan” is actually the French word for that area. It is also the generic term under which cheap imitation cheeses may legally be sold in the United States.
The only true, authentic, Italian “Parmesan cheese” is Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is a DOP designated product produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and certain restricted areas of Bologna and Lombardia. It is made from raw, whole cow’s milk, not the “pasteurized part-skim” product foisted off by the cheap imitators. The only additive permitted in Parmigiano-Reggiano is salt. There are no chemical preservatives employed to “protect flavor” or “prevent caking.” It must be aged for a minimum of 12 months. The really good stuff is aged from 24 to 36 months. So how does the crap in a can proclaim itself as “real Parmesan” and then admit in the next line that it is only aged for 6 months?
Now, real Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered a “part skim milk” product because of the way it is processed. The cows are milked twice a day; morning and evening. The evening’s milk is left in large shallow vats to allow the cream to separate before being mixed with the whole milk from the following morning’s milking. Since this natural separation process constitutes a form of “skimming,” it may be said that the resulting product is a “part skim mixture.” But that’s where the resemblance ends.
Cow’s that produce Parmigiano-Reggiano are completely grass fed. No silage or concentrated feed of any kind. Although the milk from these cows is heated during processing, it is not pasteurized. Only natural whey culture and calf rennet are allowed as starters. American imitators use manufactured enzymes and non-animal rennet. The curds for real Parmigiano-Reggiano are hand cut to a fine, rice-like consistency, allowing for more effective drainage. Imitation Parmesan is moister because the machine-cut curds tend to be larger and drain less effectively. Whereas real Parmigiano-Reggiano is allowed to drain and compact naturally, American Parmesan is mechanically pressed. As noted, true Parmigiano-Reggiano is brined in a Mediterranean sea salt solution and then aged for at least a year. Two years is average. Imitation cheese is often aged for just six months. Cheap Parmesan is usually a milky white color. Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is yellowish or straw-colored. The real cheese is dry and hard textured and possesses a distinctive buttery, nutty, fruity flavor. Cheap processed cheeses are often moist and slightly bitter. Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano is sold in wheels that weigh approximately 80 pounds. American imitation cheese usually comes in 20 pound wheels. Because the size difference matters in terms of salt saturation during the brining process, real Parmigiano-Reggiano contains up to two-thirds less salt than its cheap imitators. The rind on each and every wheel of good quality Parmigiano-Reggiano is imprinted with the words ” Parmigiano-Reggiano” as well as the production plant’s number and the month and year of production. The Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano allows lesser quality cheeses to be sold, but the markings are either struck through with lines or crosses or are removed altogether. The seal of the Denominazione di Origine Protetta and either the seal or the words Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano appear on any and all authentic Italian cheeses. If you don’t see ’em, you’re buying a cheap substitute.
The real stuff doesn’t come in a can, it comes in a wedge, which usually weighs in at around a pound. Look for the seals and, more importantly since some stores hand cut wedges from whole wheels, look for some part of the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” on the rind. They have to be there in order for the cheese to be the real thing.
There are more than 400 varieties of cheese produced across the Italian peninsula. At least 34 have been accorded DOP status. Besides Parmigiano-Reggiano, several other authentic Italian cheeses are available in supermarkets including Asiago, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano, Provolone, Fontina, Taleggio, and Grana Padano. These are all DOP cheeses and should be identified as such. Many are domestically produced, so examine the labels carefully. Remember, Pecorino cheese comes from sheep’s milk, so if the package you’re looking at says “moo,” put it back.
Before we move on, let’s talk about mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. All mozzarella cheese is not created equal. And it’s not all created Italian. If you want real, authentic Italian mozzarella, look for Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. Good luck. It’s not impossible to find, but since there are not a lot of herds of water buffalo grazing in American pastures, most of what passes for mozzarella in this country comes from cows. Technically, this makes it a fiore di latte, but it falls under the general category of mozzarella. There are some good fresh cow’s milk mozzarellas in supermarkets, but they are not authentic Italian. One thing that is most definitely not in any way authentic is the hard, waxy blocks of part-skim “mozzarella” cheese-like product found on store shelves and its packaged shredded counterpart, usually found hanging above the blocks. But it’s what most Americans have come to accept as mozzarella, so there it is. I have found Mozzarella di Bufala in the supermarket, but it’s rare. If you have to substitute, at least use a good, fresh cow’s milk mozzarella. It’s the stuff that comes in moist little balls, not hard dry bricks.
Ricotta is literally the “recooked” byproduct of mozzarella production, so what you’ll find on store shelves is closely related to the mozzarella found there. There are DOP ricottas – i.e. Ricotta di Bufala Compana – but I’ve never seen any on common store shelves.
My preferred supermarket has both real Parmigiano-Reggiano and the cheap substitute. The real thing is three or four times as expensive, but it’s well worth the price. I also found DOP Asiago, Grana Padano, and Pecorino Romano. Mixed right in with the Italian looking stuff. Caveat emptor.
Moving on to the canned goods section, let’s look at another staple of Italian cuisine, tomatoes. Tomatoes are tomatoes, right? They’re round and red and grow on vines and you make spaghetti sauce out of them, right? Wrong. If you want an authentic Italian taste from an authentic Italian product, look for canned tomatoes that are specifically labeled as “San Marzano” tomatoes.
San Marzano tomatoes are a delicate, thin skinned variety of plum tomato grown in an area near the Italian village of San Marzano sul Sarno, which is located southeast of Naples in the fertile valley of Mt. Vesuvius. The DOP certification area actually involves 39,540 acres in three of the provinces of the Campania region, including a rough triangle formed by Salerno, Naples and a small part of Avellino.
It is said that San Marzano tomatoes owe their unique flavor to the rich volcanic soil in which they are grown. They have a deep red color and an unmatchable sweet taste. They are sought after and preferred by cooks and chefs around the world as the absolute best tomato for use in a tomato sauce.
There are dozens of brands of San Marzano tomatoes. The tomatoes packed by Cento are the ones I usually use, mostly because they are the most widely marketed in my area. I’ve used several other brands as well, depending on availability. Don’t be fooled by “Italian” or “Italian-style” tomatoes. Authentic San Marzano tomatoes will bear the DOP seal on the label. Most will also carry authentication from the Consorzio di Tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano – Agro Nocerino Sarnese , a consortium dedicated to the protection of San Marzano tomatoes. If you want authentic Italian tomatoes, this is it. If you don’t care, buy Hunts.
While we’re right there, let’s take a look at the tomato paste. You’ll see lots of little cans of tomato paste. Some sound really Italian. One such can is labeled “tomato paste product ” made from “Roma style tomatoes” and containing “Italian herbs.” Oh, and catch the ingredient list: Tomato puree (tomato paste, water), high fructose corn syrup, salt, dried onions, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed), spices, hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy & wheat gluten proteins, grated Romano cheese made from cow’s milk (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), garlic, citric acid, yeast, soy flour.” Wow! You think this is going in my tomato sauce?
Actually, I prefer my tomato paste in a tube rather than a can. Easier to use, easier to store. My choice is Amore Italian Tomato Paste. Now, Amore is not DOP or IGP or anything of the sort. It is labeled as a “product of Italy.” What this means is that some component of the overall product comes from Italy. It may be the cap on the tube for all I know. But the company’s literature says the tubes contain “fresh Italian ingredients,” and the ingredients listed are tomato paste and salt. So is it certifiably authentic Italian? No. Is it kind of Italian? Yeah, probably. Is it better than the chemistry set in a can? Definitely!
Next to the tomatoes, of course, is the pasta. Can you find authentic Italian pasta on American grocery store shelves? Kind of yes and kind of maybe. If you go to the Italian specialty stores alluded to earlier, the answer is a definite yes. If you just buzz down to the nearest megamart, you get into the gray area. De Cecco and Barilla are both noted Italian pasta makers. Both are headquartered in Italy; De Cecco in San Martino, Barilla in Parma. Each has a corporate presence in the United States. The difference is that while Barilla bills itself as “Italy’s #1 Brand of Pasta,” its products are produced all over the world from local ingredients grown all over the world. In the US that means central Iowa or western New York. De Cecco, on the other hand, generates more than one-third of its total revenue through export. There are also a blue million off-brand products on the shelves that claim to be a “product of Italy,” but we’ve already discussed what that means. Pasta is not a DOP or IGP product. Short answer; De Cecco is probably the closest to authentic Italian pasta available to the average supermarket shopper.
There are dozens of protected Italian olive oils. You won’t find many (if any) in your neighborhood supermarket, but they are available in specialty shops and online. Burgeoning olive oil sales worldwide and extensive governmental fraud have led to increasingly complex issues over grades and qualities and distribution and sale and packaging and you name it. Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece. Italy, however, is the largest exporter of olive oil to the United States. So if you want real Italian olive oil, check the label for country of origin.
Close by, balsamic vinegar is a DOP product. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is DOP and consortium regulated and sealed. It is produced in either Modena or Reggio Emilia. Only artisan balsamic vinegar from these regions may legally be described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. The real stuff comes in very small bottles and is portioned out by the drop because it is very expensive. The balsamic vinegar found on most supermarket shelves is condimento grade and is a blend of various commercially produced vinegars. There are no official production standards or labeling requirements to designate condimento balsamic vinegars, although many of them are produced in the same area as the tradizionale varieties. Unless you see the seal, quality and authenticity are a crap shoot.
Surprisingly, among about a dozen brands and varieties on my store’s shelves, I found a bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena at a very reasonable price. Note the word “tradizionale” is missing. This is an IGP product rather than a PDO. But it is, at least, authentic.
Last stop is in the deli section, where we’ll pick up some meat. There are about 22 DOP meats and another 10 that are IGP. Here are a few of the protected Italian meat varieties you’ll want to look for at the supermarket: bresaola, sopressa and sopressata, capicola, cotechino, and mortadella. You won’t have to look for real authentic Italian pepperoni; there is no such thing. Pepperoni is an entirely Italian-American creation.
In addition to the aforementioned meats, the two you’ll probably encounter most frequently are pancetta and prosciutto. Pancetta is an Italian dry cured meat similar to bacon, except that it is not smoked. There are a couple of DOP pancette, but you are unlikely to find them outside of import or specialty shops. Boar’s Head makes a decent supermarket pancetta. It’s not authentic, but it is pretty good.
Prosciutto comes two ways, cotto and crudo, or cooked and uncooked. Different recipes call for different applications. Prosciutto crudo is the most commonly used and t here are two basic prosciutti of this type familiar to most Americans; prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele. Each reflects the specific area where it is produced. The pigs in Parma dine sumptuously on the leftover whey from the processing of Parmigiano-Reggiano, so the meat produced there tends to have a little nuttier flavor than that which comes from San Daniele, where the meat is a little darker in color and sweeter in taste.
I did not find any authentic prosciutto – or any other Italian meat item – at my usual supermarket. The prosciutto my store carries is labeled “prosciutto contadino” – which just means “country-style” – and is a product of Germany. If you can’t find the real thing, it’s better than substituting something like American country ham. But I have purchased authentic prosciutto at other markets, so I know it’s out there. Just look for the seal to guarantee authenticity when you buy.
In general, your best bet for authentic Italian meats is a salumeria. New York’s got ’em. Boston and Chicago, too. And Atlanta and St. Louis and…you get the picture. If you live in small town America, just try to find the freshest and best quality available.
None of this should infer that every Italian-made product is superior to its American counterpart. That’s usually the case because of America’s sad proclivity for cheap and fast manufacturing. That said, if you buy an artisinal sausage made by the Italian guy in the shop down the street, you’re undoubtedly buying a great sausage. But it can’t be represented as an authentic Italian product – even if it’s made by an authentic Italian – unless it meets the established criteria.
For the purposes of this article, the crux of the matter lies in the fact that Genoa City, Wisconsin is not Genoa, Italy and you are not going to find stacks and piles of authentic, DOP or IGP sealed products on its grocery store shelves. If you want to be shocked and awed by the variety of authentic Italian food products available in the United States, head to Manhattan’s Flatiron district and worship at the temple that is Mario Batali’s “Eataly.” If you just want to prepare a decent Italian meal for family and friends, stop by your neighborhood supermarket. But watch what you buy. Not everything that says “Italy” is Italian.
Learn more about the Italianissimi project and how to identify real Italian food products at http://www.trueitalianfood.it .