On "La Cucina Americana"
Laurel Evans on the growing popularity of American cooking in Italy
The first McDonald’s in Italy opened its doors on March 20, 1986 in Piazza di Spagna. It was not warmly received. Roman politicians, celebrities, and even fashion designer Valentino protested the opening and warned of the “degradation” of Rome and the “Americanization” of Italian culture. There were numerous efforts to shut it down. I was working as an intern at the Associated Press’s Rome bureau and remember being sent out to report on a bomb scare targeting the restaurant (no bomb was found).
The protests did not shutter the 450-seat fast food joint (the world’s largest at the time); it’s still there. Nor did they stop the march of McDonald’s (and other fast food chains) across Italy. On the other hand, that first McDonald’s, just steps from the Spanish Steps, inspired the birth of the Slow Food movement, dedicated to the preservation and promotion of locally produced Italian food and wine. That, too, is still around, and in the decades since its founding by Carlo Petrini it has grown into an international organization preserving local food ways around the world.
These two forces pretty much sum up how Italians have long felt about American food—a sort of mix of curiosity and disdain. But while the ambivalence about fast food remains (plenty of Italians still deplore it), many Italian cooks are wholeheartedly embracing American cooking.
I follow a lot of Italian food social media accounts, and more and more, my feed is filled with photos and reels of burgers, cheesecake, key lime pie, and muffins, among other classic American dishes. On May 28, La Cucina Italiana, Italy’s oldest cooking magazine, sent out an e-blast titled “Hamburger Day: come preparare il panino più buono al mondo” with links to 30 burger recipes (albeit many with an Italian twist). Yesterday morning, Sale e Pepe, one of my favorite food magazines, posted a reel and recipe for pancakes. Angela Frenda, editor-in-chief of Cook Corriere, the food section published by the Milan-based newspaper Corriere della Sera, has posted appreciations of Edna Lewis and Laurie Colwin, two iconic American women in food.
This trend isn’t new. The first time I encountered muffins in Italy was at an agriturismo in the Garfagnana, in northwestern Tuscany, back in 2008. They were served as part of the breakfast spread. (They were lemon sponge cake muffins and they were better than any American muffin I’d ever had). But it has continued apace. I was curious to find out more about it, so I turned to someone who is, in part, responsible.
Laurel Evans is a seventh-generation Texan who is married to an Italian photographer and has lived in Milan since 2004. She and her husband, Emilio Scoti, have a long-running bilingual blog called “Un’ Americana in Cucina.” Her first cookbook, Buon Appetito America, written in Italian, was published in 2009. She has since published three more American-themed cookbooks in Italian. Though her most recent cookbook is about the food of Liguria, the region her husband Scoti is from, she is known as an authority on American food in Italy, and works as a recipe developer and menu consultant. This summer, she is collaborating with Alice Delcourt, a British-born chef who was raised in North Carolina and owns a restaurant in Milan called Erba Brusca, on a series of six al fresco BBQ dinners. They’ve already sold out.
Below are excerpts from our conversation, in Q&A form.
Buona Domenica: You’ve taught Italians to look at American cooking in a different way, and to embrace it. Can you talk about how you managed this feat?
Laurel Evans: I had this huge inferiority complex when I moved here in 2004. I’ve always loved to cook, but I had moved to Italy, the mecca of food in the world. When we started having other couples over and doing dinner parties, I was terrified of Italians’ judgement. I viewed them as having these kind of extremely perfect palates, and they talked about food in such a passionate and knowledgeable way—just the way they would talk about olive oil or cheese or how many months their Parmigiano was aged. And so I started out trying to completely erase any trace of American ethnicity from myself. I wanted to learn how to make the perfect risotto.
But after a couple of years, when I realized this [relationship with Emilio] was going to be a more permanent situation, I started to find my identity. I decided to start making brownies or macaroni and cheese and sometimes having friends over and serving those things. And what I found out was that Italians were enamored with American cuisine.
BD: What do you think accounted for this food crush?
LE: I mean, it’s not surprising because they are so enamored with American pop culture. They love the music, they love the movies, they love the TV shows, and in all of those things food comes through. The skeptical response that I expected wasn’t there. I found that they were very open minded and kind of ready to experience this new food. They wanted to like American cuisine. They hadn’t had a lot of good examples. Because, as you know, back in the ‘90s and 2000s we only exported the worst of ourselves to the rest of the world. It was only McDonald’s and fast food. There was no Alice Waters going back across the pond, showing what we could do. But Italians were really curious.
BD: Is that how you came to write your first cookbook?
LE: Yes. When I proposed the book to the publisher, he was already curious about the subject. I was a little bit worried about how it was going to be received because there was a lot of that stereotype of Americans eating only junk food, and there were a lot of jokes here in the media. I expected to be made fun of a little bit. Even Italians who vacationed in the U.S., in Florida or in the parks in the Southwest, had a stereotypical view. Because they’re on road trips, and where do you eat on a road trip? Chipotle? Subway? The chain restaurants.
But I have to say when the book came out it was a big success; people were honestly very curious and they kind of understood immediately that there was more to American cuisine than just hamburgers and hot dogs. The question I got most often was, ‘What do you really eat in America?’ And they were surprised to find out that we had regional cuisines and that we had these deeply rooted recipes that came from Europe and were mixed with our local ingredients, and that we had something to offer to the world table.
Something else that helped change the mindset or just gave a jump start to the promotion of American cuisine in Italy was the 2015 Expo. Milano is very cosmopolitan; a lot of foreigners live here, and there was a lot of emphasis on the food of different countries at Expo 2015. Every country had their own pavilion. That was when the U.S. pavilion approached me. They were having to represent America on the world stage and were dealing with problems like, where do you find hamburger buns, and we need Hellman’s mayonnaise to make the lobster rolls, so they approached me to curate the food part of the pavilion. The Expo had a huge impact on the city. A whole bunch of new restaurants opened; there was a Poke revolution, a lot of burger joints opened up. Gourmet ones, with local ingredients.
BD: Is this just a Milan thing, or does it extend to other parts of Italy?
LE: My vision of American cuisine in Italy is very Milan-centric, because I live here. If you go to Calabria and talk to a housewife, she might have a very different perspective. On the other hand, I think it does extend beyond Milan and that’s because of bloggers and Instagrammers. That’s another thing that has helped revolutionize the way that people think. A lot of popular Italian food bloggers are creating content, but they’re following a lot of American influencers and content creators and so they’re taking those recipes and translating them for Italians. For example, think about the folded tortilla cooked in a pan that went viral on Tiktok. In Italy, I saw influencers do that, but with a piadina [a flatbread from Emilia-Romagna]. Food online is quickly becoming something that really does have no borders.
BD: What are some of your most popular recipes among your Italian audience?
My most popular, it’s been on my blog for years now, has been hamburger buns. I just have this kind of bomb-proof recipe that has a lot of yeast and sugar in it and so it works well every time. A hamburger doesn’t have to be junk food; you can use good meat and good cheeses and homemade bread. I think Italians really like that concept, you know, making something from scratch.
Macaroni and cheese is really popular. It’s one of the recipes I was very wary about sharing because it has pasta. But people love it. I use Italian cheeses, because you don’t have cheddar here. So I use Fontina, Gruyere, and Parmigiano.
Also, cheesecake. They love it, they LOVE it. Lots of people like the no-bake version, even though I try to steer them towards New York-style.
And brownies are a huge hit. They’re so chocolatey, so buttery, and a lot of the desserts here are lacking butter and lacking salt. I think that’s one of the reasons my desserts go over especially well here, because they have a lot of butter and a lot of salt.
BD: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Laurel. Viva la Cucina Americana!
READERS: What are your thoughts on the popularity of American food and cooking in Italy?
RECIPE: Laurel’s Italian Macaroni & Cheese
“Macaroni and cheese is one of the recipes I was very wary about sharing,” Laurel says. “But people love it.” In her Italian-ish version, cheddar is replaced by a trio of Italian/European cheeses: Fontina, Gruyere, and Parmigiano.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
6 tablespoons (90 g) butter
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (70 g) flour
4 1/2 cups (1100 ml) hot milk
1/3 cup (70 ) cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups (250 g) shredded Gruyère or sharp cheddar
1 3/4 cups (200 g) shredded Fontina Val D’Aosta
1/2 cup (50 g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 lb (454 g) pasta of choice, such as shells or rigatoni (I used penne rigate)
1. Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Slowly pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil, stirring, then lower the heat and let simmer, still stirring, until the sauce thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add the cream cheese, salt, nutmeg, pepper and 3/4 of the grated cheeses. Set aside.
3. When the water boils, salt it generously and add the pasta. Cook until al dente (about 2 minutes less than the package instructs). Drain, reserving a cup of the pasta water.
4. Combine the drained pasta with the cheese sauce in a large bowl and add a small splash of the pasta water. Pour the mixture into the buttered dish and sprinkle the remaining grated cheeses over the top.
5. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the surface browns and the cheese bubbles. If desired, broil for a couple of minutes to add an extra crisp to the topping (but be careful not to burn it!). Transfer the dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
RECIPE: Laurel’s Nutella Brownies
Laurel says there is magic in these three-ingredient brownies (four if you count salt). And she’s right. They’re among the best brownies I’ve had, with beautifully crackled tops and a fudgy hazelnut-spiked center. The “magic” ingredient? Nutella.
Makes 9 brownies
Nonstick cooking spray
2 large eggs
13-ounce (371 g) jar of Nutella
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (70 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly spray an 8×8″ (20 x 20cm) baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Beat the eggs on high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or hand beater) until combined and frothy. Add the Nutella and beat until smooth. Add the flour and salt and beat slowly, scraping down sides of bowl as needed, until combined. Pour into the prepared dish and smooth the surface with a spatula.
3. Bake the brownies until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan, then cut into 9 pieces and serve.
COOKING CLASS FUND RAISER UPDATE
A huge thank you to everyone who signed up for the pasta cooking class to raise money for March For Our Lives. The class will be held on Saturday, June 18, and we have one spot left. Please join us and learn how to make these unique hand-rolled fusilli from Italy’s Campania region. Find out more and register here.
PICTURE ITALY: Milano, 2021
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