Food & Drink

6 Reasons Italy Is the World's Greatest Food Mecca

italy food map
Shutterstock / Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

Despite sharing my surname with a bevvy of Portuguese & Hispanic Infantes -- no relation -- my family is completely Italian on both sides. As such, I was raised in a kitchen, and spent my formative years under the assumption that “good” food came from Italy, and nowhere else. Kids say the darnedest things, amirite?!

Now that I'm a very mature, handsome, well-traveled adult, who likes to eat a lot, I've realized I was wrong: good food comes from everywhere, but the best food -- the most delicious, innovative, influential, world-changing edibles -- hails from Italy. The Boot is the world’s cradle of culinary excellence, and it has contributed more to the practice of “humans eating things” than any other single nation in this wide world.

Allow an admittedly biased paisan to make the case for Italy's unparalleled epicurean excellence.

Italian chefs are consistently world class

You probably know the name Mario Batali -- or at least, you probably should. After years of training in London & Northern Italy, the legend led a resurgence of American appreciation for orange Crocs and Italian food via Babbo, the New York City restaurant he opened with Joe Bastianich in 1998. In addition to a bunch of also-incredible, not-Italian establishments, Batali also later opened Del Posto -- both Babbo & Del Posto hold Michelin stars -- and Eataly, a many-storied market/monument to the sheer diversity of Italian food and drink. By most yardsticks (including ours), Molto Mario is one of the world’s most successful and influential chefs, and the Italian culinary tradition is his foundation.  

But there are roughly eleventy-bajillion (give or take a few, of course) excellent Italian chefs beyond Batali, and they rarely enjoy the same spotlight. Obviously, we’re talking about Giada De Laurentiis. Kidding! She has gracefully marshaled Italian food onto TV screens and into kitchens across this nation for over a decade, and that’s indisputably important. But let's look beyond this nation, dammit, to The Boot itself, where, for over a millennium, chefs have been driving forward the culinary narrative of the entire world.

We’ll dive deeper into Italy’s history (cook)books later. In the here and now, though, Italy’s food destiny is manifest at the masterful hands of its international powerhouses. There’s Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant, Osteria Francescana, sits comfortably in third place worldwide in the World's 50 Best's latest ranking. Or Massimiliano Alajmo, whose wizardry at La Calendre in the late ‘90s/early aughts made him the youngest chef ever to notch three Michelin stars. He was 28 at the time. Enrico Crippa studied under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and did a stint in Kobe, Japan before opening his own restaurant in Italy (which would earn its third star in 2012). These are just three standouts from the talent-rich pool of Italy’s contemporary chef class, whose sourcing rigor and determined innovation have made the country’s food culture nearly infallible.

Decades before Italy’s current generation of chefs grabbed their toques, though, there was Gualtiero Marchesi, an 84-year-old Milanese chef widely credited with elevating Italian food to its world-class level. Put another way, Marchesi “single-handedly dragged Italian cooking out of the humble trattoria and into a high-end restaurant near you,” explained Edward Reeves in his 2010 Wall Street Journal profile of the chef. He is, to use the cheapest available metaphor, the godfather of the country’s culinary narrative both at home and abroad.

In addition to his two principal restaurants, Marchesi founded Euro-Toques, a sort of chef trade-union whose ranks have swelled to include almost 4,500 continental restaurants. He’s also a wildcard in the grand Italian tradition -- one minute he’s designing custom burgers for McDonald’s on a lark, the next he’s denouncing the Michelin-starring system as nepotistic and narrow. (That’s not just bitter grapes, either. He was the first non-French chef to earn three stars when his eponymous restaurant won the coveted status in 1985.)

Italy's restaurants shine brighter than Michelin stars

But wait a minute. Italy and its 360-ish Michelin stars trail the guide's two giants, France and Japan, whose restaurants have both notched over 700. By that yardstick, Italy doesn't exactly scream "world's greatest food mecca," huh? No, that's true. But does that yardstick matter for this discussion? Eh. The reality is that Michelin’s faults have been widely discussed, and Italy falls foul to several of them. In other words, Michelin stars alone do not a mecca make. Here's why:

First of all, there’s a small-but-growing cohort of international chefs who have spoken out against perceived nationalist bias in the vaunted Red Guide, and Marchesi & Ezio Santin, a fellow Italian legend who also spurned his stars, are two of the movement's strongest voices. Marchesi “complained that the guide favored French restaurants over Italian ones and publicly withdrew from participation,” reported Reuters in 2009. (A complaint to which the guide responded by revoking all his stars, releasing a statement that his food wasn’t good anymore, and urging him to retire. Which, like... petty much, bruh?)

Western European in-fighting aside, others around the industry have raised a brow at Italy’s relative underrepresentation in the Red Guide’s pages. “Italy has absurdly few three-star restaurants, apparently because the criteria of complexity and presentation aren’t up to Michelin -- French -- standards,” wrote A.E. Hotchner in an unflattering 2012 overview of Michelin for Vanity Fair.

But what about Japan? It’s got the most three-star spots in the world, so surely the guide can’t be accused of rote French favoritism, right? Ahem, Hotchner writes, “The city with the most stars is Tokyo, but then... most [of its restaurants] benefit from the Gallic reverence for O.C.D. saucing and solitary boy’s knife skills.” It gets uglier, and not just at the defense of Italy's restaurants, but of its foreign food ambassadors, too. “[W]hy oh why, do you so obviously hate Mario Batali,” demanded Robert Sietsema, the prolific, former critic for the Village Voice, in a 2009 upbraid to Michelin for its arbitrary and (in his opinion) less-than-useful reviews of NYC’s restaurants. “Is it because he doesn't give a [expletive] about French food?” Yikes.

I’ve got a lot of respect for the Michelin system, but in the case of Italy at least, I tend to agree with Marchesi, Hotchner, Sietsema, and other detractors. The strength of the Italian plate is equally dependent on sourcing, preparation, and presentation. Contrast that with Hotchner’s observation that “Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.” Whether the guide is generally valid is not for me to say here, but, in Italy’s case, it’s clear that its rigid criteria fails to properly reward the country's real-world culinary innovation.

Pasta: Italy's gift to the world

Who invented pasta? When you’re a kid, you learn it was the Italians. When you’re a slightly older kid, you’re told that actually, it was probably the Chinese, and that it only became an “Italian thing” when Marco Polo returned from the Far East with these far-out things called "noodles." Whether this is true, or the ancient Etruscans had the formula figured out way in advance of this, or Arab invaders brought a pasta-predecessor to The Boot in the 8th century, or Greek settlers in Naples adopted “macaria” before Polo was even alive... well, it’s a damn rabbithole, really. One full of pasta.

But whether Italians invented pasta is not the point. No, the point is that once Italian Nonnas got their hands on pasta, it was game over. A favorite of Italian peasants & aristocrats alike, it spread like wildfire through Italy, and then beyond its boundaries. The International Pasta Organisation reports that in 1914, the country’s macaroni exports to the US alone totaled 70,000 tons. That sounds like a lot of pasta, especially given the available shipping, manufacturing, and agricultural technologies.

Fast-forward almost a century, to 2011, when Dow Jones Newswire warned that Italy’s 3.25 million-ton pasta output threatened to outpace the country’s wheat supply. Italy produces the most pasta in the world, and exports so much of it that the country’s main agricultural body has expressed concerns that the entire Italian economy rests too squarely on the fate of pasta prices.

Put aside the potentially grave pasta-nomics for a moment, though, and consider where all those exports are going and why. The world loves pasta. Like, it love, loves it. It’s a staple food of households across the Western Hemisphere because it’s simple, affordable, and so damn good. Hell, in a 2011 study, Oxfam determined it was the world’s favorite food, flat-out. It’s the classic high-low food, and Italy’s responsible for making the world fall in love with it.

Pizza: Italy's gift to the universe

At the risk of sounding glib, pizza is pretty much the most important thing Italy has ever done. Ever. Plus, unlike pasta, it’s an undisputed (for the most part) Italian invention. Incredibly nimble, unspeakably delicious, and, most importantly, easy to produce, the classic Neapolitan pie is the philosophical urtext of the entire category of food -- a fast-casual street staple that has the range & nuance to accommodate as much preciousness as a pizzaiolo is willing to put into it. I would write more about it, but frankly, there’s no need. Plus, it’s making me hungry.

Delicious diversity from Venice to Sicily

Italy isn’t a huge country. It has 60 million residents, and 116,350 square miles to call its own. (For US context, California alone tips the scales at about two-thirds its population and only has 40,000 more square miles.) But thanks to its natural resources and demographic influences, Italian cuisine boasts staggering diversity that many larger countries can only salivate over.

Up North, there’s Venetian risotto, polenta, hearty stews, and the cotoletta, a slice of fried Milanese veal that fathered every cutlet you’ve ever eaten (chicken, eggplant, and more), plus the similar South American staple, called -- yep -- the Milanesa. Then there’s Parma, a food mecca within a food mecca that’s given the world such indisputably versatile treasures as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese & prosciutto di Parma.

In the East, the foods skew Teutonic, a result of centuries of immigration/emigration from Northern neighbor Austria-Hungary. To the Northwest, you’ll be knee-deep in origin-protected cheeses (figuratively, though literally would be pretty great), pesto, and seafood. Oh, and also Nutella, which was invented in the Piedmont by parent company Ferrero, which is still doing business there.

Southward, the hits keep coming with Tuscany’s extra-virgin olive oil, aged Florentine beef (which later turns into disturbingly soft leather wallets for sale on the Ponte Vecchio), and white-bean everything. There are truffles and pastas and even more cheeses! Oh my God, the cheeses! Naples gave the world its thin-crust pizza, and Sicilian-Americans fattened us with deep-dish and gelato.

This is the sort of diversity you expect across entire continents, not a single country. Italy’s variety is downright incredible.

Italian food has gone global

The thing about Italian food these days is that it’s everywhere. Mostly, that has to do with its winning combination of easy preparation, accessible/affordable ingredients, and nearly unimpeachable flavor palette. But Italian food also owes its ubiquity to the diaspora of its sons and daughters. There’s a Little Italy -- either by that name, or otherwise -- on five out of seven continents. (Asia & Antarctica are missing out.) The United States alone has dozens. Driven by economic promise, ethnic persecution, and all manner of other immigration-incentivizing factors, Italians covered the globe, and brought their cuisine with ‘em.

There’s an Italian sub on most deli menus, just like there’s an Irish pub in most towns. Mozzarella sticks, cannoli, Hawaiian pizza -- all permutations of and innovations on Italian foods by communities that adopted them. Italian-style cuisine is flexible, familiar, and supremely attainable, and the world has welcomed it with open arms.

Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist Food & Drink, and an unabashed fan of all foods -- but especially his Grandmother's veal cutlet. Follow @dinfontay on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.