Italy has a long tradition in street food, which ranges from arrosticini to fried pizza, from the fish cuoppo to the piadina flatbread. Michele Crippa, who teaches history of Italian cuisine at Alma cooking school and is co-founder of Gastronomist, tells us how U.S.-style food trucks have brought new life to Italian street food and created exciting new job opportunities for young people.
Because, as Gualtiero Marchesi, the Maestro of Italian cuisine says, street food is the simplest and most direct way of getting to know the history of a country, because it incorporates the country’s values and traditions and represents a people’s vision. Each region in Italy has its own street foods, all creative and delicious, made from local specialty products. I am grateful to the United States because their food trucks have given us Italians a new way of seeing and selling street food.
First of all, the piadina, which is a specialty from Emilia Romagna, a flatbread served with cured ham, creamy fresh squacquerone cheese and rocket. Next I would say the Ascolana-style olives, deep-fried, sweet green olives stuffed with mixed minced meats, and arancine, balls of boiled rice mixed with ragout and caciocavallo cheese, which are a Sicilian specialty. Then we have the arrosticini from Abruzzo, little bits of lamb grilled on wooden skewers, which are a similar idea to gnumareddi and liver, except that the latter two are made with liver and offal. And we should not forget fried pizza from Campania and focaccia with mortadella (a soft pizza-like bread used as a sandwich with a pork cold cut).
Street food was created precisely to use products that would not otherwise have been eaten: think of pane ca’ meusa, a Sicilian specialty sandwich filled with fried spleen, a part which is normally discarded when the animal is butchered. Again, the cuoppo di pesce, a paper cornet filled with fried fish, originates from “reusing” the least valuable fish, which was not sold in the market.
Originally, street food was made at home, as a private initiative. Women in Naples cooked fried pizza and sold it from their front door or their kitchen window. Over the years, some of these kitchens became actual shops and delis, and the women had “invented” a new job for themselves.
The revolution came in 1986 in Rome, with the arrival of the first McDonald’s, the same year in which Petrini founded the Slow Food movement. Those were the glory days of paninari (sandwich bars) which sold low quality food: that is why street food was mostly considered of low nutritional value - what we now call junk food. But, look what was happening elsewhere: in Cesena in Emilia Romagna there was another revolution: one of the largest manufacturing centers closed down and the locals started opening little kiosks along the coast, which propped up the local economy. These days it can cost as much as 500 thousand euro to buy up a license for a piadina stand.
The same thing is happening again now, and street food is a significant driving force for the economy. As always happens during a crisis, street food brings back life and strength to the economy and offers a new way of living and eating. Thanks to the influence of the United States, we are now living the food truck revolution, which means high quality street food served on wheels. It ranges from the classic food - fried pizza, arancine and kebabs to the most innovative, who sell vegetarian and vegan street food. And it is also a work opportunity, especially for young people.
In 2014, there were just 15 food trucks cooking street food based on quality and design, now there are almost 120. Their number has exploded in under a year. That is why I call it the “food truck revolution”. Most of the models are Ape cars, which are already an Italian icon. We can divide them into 4 categories: traditional, selling regional specialty street food; innovative, selling unusual and trendy food; fine dining, for those looking for a gourmet experience and branded, managed by globalized brands which have decided to invest in this new way of distributing food.
Farinel on the Road, selling miasse, basically cornmeal wraps like a polenta flatbread, filled with specialty salami and cheeses from the Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont regions. And Ape Scottadito, selling arrosticini (grilled lamb cubes on a skewer) and fried stuffed olive all’ascolana to tourists in San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic coast; then Pizza & Mortazza, with a pink Ape vehicle with white spots, which drives round Rome selling mortadella focaccia sandwiches. And I must mention LuBar: Ludovico, its inventor, is 24 years old and came to Milan to go to university, but now he has several food trucks serving granite (a semi-frozen ice dessert), cannoli (sweet pastry) and all typical Sicilian specialties. These are examples of how, thanks to street food, with a bit of imagination one can come up with big opportunities to set up in business.
Bello&Buono, one of the most famous pizzerias in town, the first Italian food truck, which sells fried pizza, cuoppo di pesce, Parma-style aubergines and traditional dishes from Campania region. The really great thing is that they choose their ingredients and food producers personally, and know each one by name.
Cucinando su Ruote (Cooking on Wheels), from Turin, does on the road vegan cooking using hemp; Matilda - traveling food based on Medieval recipes from the 13th Century, and also Monaka, a bicycle selling azuki-bean ice cream sandwiched between rice wafers.
The Michelin-starred chef Mario Uliassi, who started Italy’s first fine dining restaurant food truck, with the aim of offering an outstanding culinary experience through a food truck. But one of the most incredible is Zibo, the brainchild of three Alma cooking school graduates, which opened just two months ago, and gives the impression of being in a gourmet restaurant, although the backdrop is the street. Zibo’s specialty is pasta, and one of the dishes which has dazzled customers the most is the egg-pasta tortello filled with crunchy bacon carbonara, which is fun because, when you bite into it, the ingredients combine, giving you the impression you are actually eating a spaghetti carbonara. Food trucks can come up with big surprises!