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From cappuccinos to carbonaras : Why Italians are so strict about their food ‘rules’

When is a panettone not a panettone? Italians are very serious about rules, says former Bake Off winner Giuseppe Dell’Anno, but it’s all a bit of fun, he tells Prudence Wade

Friday 29 December 2023 12:40 GMT
<p>Giuseppe Dell’Anno moved to England from Italy 21 years ago</p>

Giuseppe Dell’Anno moved to England from Italy 21 years ago

If you thought Italian food was just about pizza and pasta, think again.

It’s so “diverse”, 2021 Bake Off winner Giuseppe Dell’Anno says, that you’ll even see food rivalries spring up in next-door towns.

In Italy, everyone is “so parochial, it’s incredible”, he laughs. “So two places that are five miles from each other – each one claims that they’ve got the recipe for that cake, and everyone else’s is a mockery.”

He credits the diversity of the country’s food to its history, noting: “We’ve only been a country for [around] 160 years.

“Before that, we were just a collection of small states – Vatican state and small kingdoms. I think the reverberation of that reality into today’s culture is that there isn’t one Italian cuisine, there are many regional cuisines.”

This means dishes and ways of cooking “vary from city to city – you don’t even have to cross region boundaries”.

But one thing Italians all have in common? It would seem like they’re all very serious about rules.

‘Giuseppe's Easy Bakes’ is all about accessible, easy bakes and Italian and flavours

Take coffee – practically a religion in Italy, and one that you definitely shouldn’t desecrate by drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon. In Italy, milky coffees are for breakfast – anything after should be black.

And that’s not all: “I was reading this morning a recipe for ‘cheat pizza’ that doesn’t use any yeast, and I was like – that’s not right! It’s wrong on so many levels, because they were making a pizza with self-raising flour, they were cooking it in a frying pan,” Dell’Anno groans.

“It might be OK – just don’t call it pizza. Call it tortilla, pancake – whatever you want. Don’t call it pizza.”

For Dell’Anno – and presumably a lot of Italians – “It’s not that I’m being snobbish,” he says, it’s just about doing things right. For example, panettone – the sweet Italian bread studded with dried fruit, often eaten at Christmas – is notoriously difficult to make.

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You need to be an “experienced baker” to pull it off, Dell’Anno says, so the recipes he’s seen which use “lots of shortcuts” and can be done in a few hours won’t quite cut the mustard. “My gut feeling is that if you want to go for the complicated bake, by all means go for it. But if that’s not for you, and you do something [else] – don’t call it panettone.”

See also carbonara made with cream: “It’s delicious, but it’s not carbonara. Don’t call it that.”

The rules might seem a bit stringent, but Dell’Anno emphasises it’s all in good humour. Italians “enjoy” the light mockery, he says, adding: “As long as it remains good-natured, it’s a fun thing to keep going.”

Now 47, Dell’Anno moved to England from Italy 21 years ago – and he hadn’t done much travelling before that.

“The first time I left my country I was 18 years old,” Dell’Anno says. “That was the very first time, I actually crossed the border of Italy to go to France… I didn’t like what they served me for lunch. That was the first taste of something different from home.

The recipes in his book are inspired by traditional bakes from his homeland, but given an English twist here and ther

“Now, obviously, I love French cuisine as much as anything else, but it takes a while to appreciate things [that are] different.”

When he first arrived in England, Italian food wasn’t quite as mainstream as it is now.

“Back in the day, I struggled to find mozzarella in shops,” he remembers. “Now you can find it everywhere. But for me, I had to go to a special Tesco Extra to find the right mozzarella cheese. It was a culture shock – but at the end of the day, it’s so good because it does broaden up your perspective.

“Because if you always stick with the same view of reality and things, you can’t imagine any different way of doing things. That’s why I like to call myself ‘Britalian’.”

Baking was another thing Dell’Anno found completely different in England.

“While English baking is very often filled with warming flavours like butter, vanilla, spices – I’m thinking of a typical Christmas pudding with lots of cloves and cinnamon – Italian bakes are more often filled with refreshing, fresh flavours.

“Lots of fruit, there is the unmissable citrus flavour in there – either lemon peel or orange zest, you’ll struggle to find a bake that doesn’t include either of those. There are lots of nuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, mostly because they grow wild in Italy.”

If you always stick with the same view of reality and things, you can’t imagine any different way of doing things. That’s why I like to call myself ‘Britalian

Giuseppe Dell’Anno

These flavours are reflected in his second cookbook, Giuseppe’s Easy Bakes: Sweet Italian Treats – including the torta alle noci (walnut cake), sbriciolata alle ciliegie (cherry crumble tart) or tortine all’arancia (orange cupcakes). The recipes are inspired by traditional bakes from his homeland, but given an English twist here and there – such as a section dedicated to “cakelets” – cupcakes – which isn’t really a thing in Italy, but Dell’Anno accepts is a “very convenient format”.

Part of being “Britalian”, means embracing recipes from his adopted country – which he successfully did in the 2021 series of The Great British Bake Off, taking home that year’s crown – while still passing on Italian traditions to his three young sons, aged seven, nine and 11.

For Dell’Anno, this means traditional baking for the different religious holidays. Whether it’s pizzicotti al mandarino (clementine and almond cookies) or susamelli (honey cookies) for Christmas or the zesty ciambellone di Pasqua – Easter cake – in Italy, there are plenty of bakes to choose from.

“Every Easter, we make traditional biscuits,” Dell’Anno adds. “I think the reason why I’m so attached to these bakes is because the smells trigger lots of positive childhood memories. So I’m trying to do the same with the kids.”

‘Giuseppe’s Easy Bakes’ by Giuseppe Dell’Anno (Quadrille, £24).

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