Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Italians may be Europe’s greatest gastronomic hardliners, but this time they’ve gone too far.
Eat a sandwich on the steps of our cathedral and we’ll turn a hose on you. That’s the warning from Florence this week, where Mayor Dario Nardella is sick of visitors picnicking on the steps the Cathedral of Santa Maria Dei Fiore.
Tuscany’s capital gets packed with tourists in high season, and, especially during busy lunchtimes, the cathedral square can become carpeted with munching visitors. Nardella’s response to this congestion—and visitors’ distinctly un-Italian casualness about eating—is to hose down the cathedral steps and sidewalks just before lunchtime so that they’re too wet to sit on. If anyone has already sat down to eat when the hoses arrive, they’ll get sprayed.
The idea, Nardella told newspaper Il Post, is:
to douse the cathedral close, and in the future some particularly crowded sidewalks, in order to avoid the bivouac of tourists who eat [and] drink dirtily on the steps as if they were in a restaurant. They are not restaurants, the closes of our churches, they are religious places but also cultural ones, to be respected and loved.
This level of intolerance toward the visitors who pump up the city’s economy is pretty mind-blowing. Camping out on impassable sidewalks is one thing, but eating in the general vicinity of a monument is not itself a sign of disrespect. It’s easy to sympathize with citizens of tourist cities who object to outsiders who pee on monuments, who carouse noisily through the streets late at night, or who, by patronizing Airbnbs, dry up the supply of rental housing available to locals. What Florence’s mayor is railing against, however, is people sitting down and eating a sandwich.
This isn’t the only way Florence has intervened to control how visitors snack. Bylaws introduced last year require 70 percent of food sold in the city center to be produced near the city. Similar moves have recently been adopted by Venice as well, meaning that city stores will now be barred from selling pizza by the slice or non-artisanal ice cream. On one level, these bylaws are a bold defense of local tradition and food production that could bring some benefits. They nonetheless highlight another distinctive feature of Italian culture. When it comes to food, Italians have literally zero chill.
Italian attitudes to food make the gastronomically exacting French look positively experimental. While there are always exceptions, Italy is a country that frowns on eating in the street, and where ordering a milky coffee after breakfast time marks you out as hopelessly eccentric. It’s a country where culinary adventurousness means daring to try out a restaurant that serves dishes from an adjoining Italian region. When it comes to embracing new ideas, Italians can be profoundly skeptical. A friend of mine from Milan once scowled at an excellent dish of pasta he’d ordered because they’d served it to him in a bowl—I quote—“like a f***ing American.”
Don’t take my anecdote as sole corroboration of this attitude. The Twitter account Italians Mad At Food gathers a weekly trawl of social media comments made by Italians (in English) complaining about some offense against pasta or pizza. Typically, they blend impeccable food knowledge with white hot fury.
Still, it must be said: Italians have a point. The sheer variety and quality of their regional food is a wonder of the world, and they need to be vigilant about protecting it from the rest of us. It’s easy to understand why Italians would be baffled or enraged by foreign versions of local dishes. Italian fare in America is typically bombed with inappropriately vast mounds of sauce and meat, while Germany’s version is predictably heavy on the cheese and cream. Britain is arguably the worst, with most Britalian food essentially a form of trolling, mocking the idea of pasta by cooking it to a comforting, infantile mush.
But at some point, this prescriptive, dogmatic attitude can slide over into mean-spirited intolerance of difference. That point is when a city’s mayor orders people eating their locally sourced lunch in a public square to be attacked with a water cannon. Seriously, Dario, it’s time to calm down.