Howard Jacobson: Italian food is a wonderful thing – as long as you eat it in England

Regional food is almost invariably peasant food and I am not a peasant
Click to follow
The Independent Online

God, I love this country. I am not saying that to cheer myself up in a time of national disgrace. It's just that sometimes you go away and when you come back you realise in a flash how wonderful this place is. The green of an English field can do it. Horses leaping. Mists slipping like wispy lingerie down a sun-warmed hillside. Country graveyards. A floating duck house. A renovated moat.

Most of all, the ease with which you can buy a sandwich from a sandwich shop. "That one," you say, and the person to whom you point it out is also the person who reaches for it, puts it in a paper bag, and takes your money. That person might not always speak your language, might not know the word for sandwich though she is working in a sandwich shop, and might need you to repeat what you have just said – "That one ... that one ... that one, for Christ's sake!" – but at least the transaction is confined to the two of you, and at last, if you persist, you will end up eating the sandwich of your choice.

This is not the way of it in Italy. I was at the Turin Book Fair last weekend, reading to people who are more passionate about literature than we are and in many cases speak better English. (The two are not unconnected.) I praise the Turinese so that you won't think my complaints about them in the sandwich department are motivated by crude nationalism. Fine city, highly cultivated people, just don't eat there.

It's that business of having to go to a cashier at the other end of the shop, describe to him or her the particular panino you fancy – prosciutto crudo, tomatoes, no mozzarella, on ciabatta not baguette, not toasted, oh and tea, by preference Earl Grey, per favore – then return to the counter with a receipt and hand it to someone who stares at it as though she has never seen such a thing before, tears it up, and gives you a doughnut filled with Nutella and a cappuccino. So now what do you? Either you infuriate the queue by summoning back the person behind the counter, explain to her with much gesticulation and lip-smacking what it is you really want – which might then result in a return journey to the cashier who is too far from the panino in question for you to point it out ("That one ... that one ... that one, for Christ's sake!") – or you dip the Nutella doughnut in your cappuccino and consume it in a rage.

Nor is it only in bars and sandwich shops that this happens. Passing an elegant colonnaded café and noticing they sold ice cream to take away, and what with the afternoon being hot and Italian ice cream being the best in the world, I did what any other traveller would have done and went inside. And there, reader, he was – the cashier. But what a cashier! Aloof, intimidating in a grey Armani suit, austerely bespectacled and resembling in arrogance the managing director of one of Turin's great car manufacturers. Did I dare even allude to what I wanted? OK, it was his job, but I was unable to believe he cared to hear a perspiring Englishman with little Italian itemising the contents of a €3 ice cream – "Zabaglione, coffee, stracciatella, in a single cone, with the stracciatella at the bottom, per favore, followed by the zabaglione, and then the coffee, no, no make it orange, unless you have lemon, si, limone." Easier, on both of us, for me to change my mind and go drink water from a municipal fountain.

God, I love England. The ice cream might be crap, the person serving it might have dirty hands and no manners, and you are expected to throw the wrapping on the pavement, but at least buying it isn't like being interviewed for a senior management position in a major financial institution.

The other thing I love about England is how good Italian food is here. I am not saying I did not eat well in Turin once I found somewhere without a cashier, but it was not Italian food as I want Italian food to be – not red, not covered in cheese, not English Italian food. What I ate when I was in Turin was authentic Piedmontese food. Now I am biased against all regional food, regardless of the region. Though I am a convinced regionalist in matters of literature and art, I am unapologetically metropolitan when I eat. This is because regional food is almost invariably peasant food and I am not a peasant. Neither, as a rule, are the people cooking it in city restaurants. Regional food when it is rural food is an affectation of poverty and why eat as the poor once ate when you don't have to?

Trouble is, my Italian publisher, Stefano, who is possessed of immense charm and generosity but also an indomitable resourcefulness when it comes to finding a regional restaurant even where one doesn't exist, assumes I will wish to sample the specialities of the area and I don't have the heart to disillusion him. How can I tell him – a man I revere and love and who only means to give me pleasure – that all I want is a spaghetti with the reddest of bolognese sauces (never mind that we are not in Bologna) and a kilo of grated Parmesan snowstormed over it, when he has brought me to a famous and expensive Piedmontese restaurant whose signature dish is lard laced with more lard on a crust of stale bread accompanied by boiled pig's brains served on deep-fried artichoke?

I should be grateful. I am grateful. The restaurants my publisher takes me to I would never be able to find by myself, assuming I would want to. They are at the furthest end of whatever city we are in, down cobbled lanes and invisible to the naked eye no matter that the taxi in which we've been travelling for an hour drops us right outside. It's the distinctive smell that tells us we are at the right place. Braised tonsil of wild boar in a pork fatback soup. The smell of white food. Cucina Stefanese. His nostrils twitch. I have never seen a man so happy. He is in gourmand heaven, already tasting the little fried balls of offal rolled in larded barley with which the meal will begin. While all I can think of is a pizza.

Ah, pizza. The smell of home. God, I love England.