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Local food, to the extreme

Is Lucca, Italy's ban on "ethnic" restaurants gastronomic racism?

A view of Lucca, Italy, where in January, 2009 the city council banned new ethnic restaurants. (Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

LUCCA, Italy — In my travels as a foreign correspondent I witnessed the opening of the first McDonald’s in Moscow (1990), and the launch of the first Starbucks in Beijing (1999). I began to wonder if any place in the world would remain free from creeping culinary globalization.

Then I discovered Lucca. During a recent week-long stay in this ancient Tuscan city, I found that there were no non-Italian restaurants in the narrow streets and squares. Within the immense medieval walls that enclose the historical center there were no Chinese, Indian or Japanese restaurants, nor any fast-food outlets or Seattle-style coffee shops.

There were a couple of kebab stands and a restaurant on Via san Paolini with an old — and misleading — sign advertising cucina libanese, which was serving pasta instead of hummus. But that was it.

I learned that in January the council in this ultra-conservative city — many of the inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to the Etruscans — had issued a controversial regulation to make sure things stayed this way.

The law banned the opening of any new ethnic restaurants, “with a view to safeguarding culinary traditions and the authenticity of structure, architecture, culture.” It also prohibited the opening of any commercial premises serving food and drink “whose business is related to different ethnic groups. If an established restaurant owner decided to produce a non-Italian menu, it must include “at least one traditional Lucca dish made exclusively from ingredients commonly acknowledged as being typical of the province.”

City spokesman Massimo Di Grazia explained at the time that the measure was needed to protect Tuscan products and cuisine. The few existing kebab stands could remain but there would be “no new Thai, kebab or Lebanese restaurants,” he said.

For tourists like me, seeking an authentic Italian experience amid Lucca’s narrow streets and little piazzas, this was not a problem. I dined in restaurants with names like Buca di Sant’ Antonio and Ristorante Giglio, and thoroughly enjoyed the Lucchese specialities such as risotto flavored with slices of white truffle, and the full-bodied Tuscany wines. This is what I came for.

People living in Lucca, however, were ambivalent about the ban, which is catching on in other Italian town centers.