We hunger for authenticity. But how often do we get it?

The first Italian restaurants I ever came across were hovels and were called greasy spoons
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The Independent Online

Grumpy old men score again: the Italian ambassador denounces Anglo-Italian restaurants for not being Italian enough. He looks askance at the British innovation of dog food on a deep pan base; he thinks our Newcastle pasta made out of pea gravel is simply too regional. There are no words to describe his reaction to the leek and anthracite bolognese that has sustained Welsh rugby in its wilderness years.

Grumpy old men score again: the Italian ambassador denounces Anglo-Italian restaurants for not being Italian enough. He looks askance at the British innovation of dog food on a deep pan base; he thinks our Newcastle pasta made out of pea gravel is simply too regional. There are no words to describe his reaction to the leek and anthracite bolognese that has sustained Welsh rugby in its wilderness years.

So call him pedantic if you will, but Luigi Amaduzzi insists that because their service isn't Italian, the owners aren't Italian, the cooks aren't Italian, the recipes aren't Italian, the ingredients aren't Italian - that the vast majority of our Italian restaurants should refrain from calling themselves Italian restaurants. Those high street franchises called Bella Lugosi or Prego Puccini - they're like the 60-Minute Dry Cleaner that takes a week to do your laundry, explaining: "It's just the name of the shop."

Mind you, it's been a two-way street: the first Italian restaurants I ever came across were hovels in the alleys behind Bond Street and were called greasy spoons, no one knew why. In the one behind our office they had Gina Lollobrigida moonlighting behind the counter and Pavarotti practising in the corner. There was only one thing on the Veronese menu: the All Day Breakfast of chips, beans, sausage, bacon, double egg, "four slice" of toast, tea, and the split bun filled with cream so thick you had to chew it. We had breakfast for lunch and dinner as well, and went to bed blessing Garibaldi.

Now the ambassador seems to imply that Italian restaurants have become no more Italian over the years. This is not grumpiness in its pure state. There are 60,000 Italianate restaurants in the world and they turn over £17.5bn a year, so there's something at stake other than national identity.

We like ambassadors who base their commercial strategies on a philosophical premise: it has a certain - I don't know - whatever the Italian for je ne sais quoi might be. In practical terms, then, the Italian government is launching a sticker that Italian restaurants with certain minimum Italian components will be entitled to show off.

We grumpy old men surely have to support this. Modern marketing and the modern media have combined to fly past our entire mental environment with fakes, imitations, reproductions, simulacra - we need authenticity. How we hunger for it. But how often do we get it?

Now that their engine blocks are made in Korea, the seats in Brazil, the tyres in China - is there still a sense in which BMWs are Bavarian? Is there a sense in which we'd care whether they were or not?

More important, then: the pre-Columbian, antediluvian, flesh-eating, blood-drinking Aztec gods - when their ferocious statues are cast in Polish steel in Gdansk, do they still command our obedience? Would we still eat our children if they told us to? Speaking for myself, I'm not sure I would.

Don't we recognise the authentic, the indigenous, the cultural power of ancient identity? I think we do, in principle. It's why we vaguely support the European Union's efforts to give local intellectual property rights to food and drink. Cornish pasties will no longer be made in Prague, nor Parma ham in Sunningdale. Frankfurt is looking forward to a tremendous boost to its economy, and good luck to it.

In the wider scheme of things it's why we go to proper French restaurants: to be sneered at and despised and ignored by the superbly trained waiters. Order a medium-rare steak in a proper French restaurant and each side is seared for eight seconds by the chef's hot breath. Complain and they report you to the police. You can't fake this. You can't act like this unless the culture is resonating within you. You wouldn't dare.

Proper Italian restaurants offer us the opposite - the hushed "Perfetto" when you order - as if no one could have chosen quite so brilliantly. That huge phallic mill they put over your companion's plate ("Don't stop," she says, annoyingly as he grinds away, "Please don't stop!"). These are authentic national characteristics; it's like going on holiday. It's like travelling instead of watching a travel programme. We feel in touch with some ancestral, tribal reality. It's the monstrously overcooked vegetables that help us along.

But it has its dangers as well; not very far down the road of authentic national identity we find some very odd folk talking about their mystical bloodlines and wondering whether they might have another go at invading Abyssinia.

Perhaps for that reason, the ambassador's point doesn't work the other way: maybe it is our innate sense of caution and low national self-esteem. It wouldn't occur to us to disapprove of Italian waiters in Simpson's, no matter the flair with which they carved the roast beef.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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