Local food, to the extreme

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.

“We are dead against franchises moving in, like hamburger joints and pizza parlors,” said Anna Paolinelli, who with her Irish husband Desmond runs “Evelina,” a traditional-style guest house in via Streghi in the heart of Lucca’s historical center. “On the other hand a genuine Indian restaurant would be most welcome.”

The ban has in fact provoked accusations of gastronomic racism and aroused considerable controversy in Lucca and beyond. Councilor Alessandro Tambellini of the center-left Democratic Party accused the council of giving a “sign of closure” to different cultures (read: “Middle Eastern”). The daily newspaper La Stampa called it a new crusade against the Saracens, reflecting suspicions that the prohibition was really to discourage Arab immigrants selling kebabs.

The ban in Lucca has also caused some confusion as Di Grazia announced that a French restaurant could be allowed to open because it used ingredients “typical of the province,” but that a Sicilian establishment might not be permitted as Sicilian food often used “Middle Eastern” ingredients.

As the example set by Lucca was followed in other conservative Italian towns and in parts of Milan, it won support from the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi.  The Italian minister of agriculture, Luca Zaia, lectured ethnic restaurants in Italy about importing loads of meat and fish “from who knows where” and said they should use only “Italian ingredients.”

Taken to its extreme this of course would mean banning ingredients like tomatoes, chickpeas and olives — which were introduced to Italy from Peru, Lebanon and Greece, respectively.

In any event, travelers to the walled city who feel an urge for a Big Mac and fries after a week of penne pasta only have to walk out through one of the half-dozen gates to the “non-historical” Lucca suburbs. There, in Viale Europa, they will not be able to miss the familiar golden arches, beneath which they will find one of the biggest McDonald’s on the European continent.

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