More than 50 since years after Italian dining came to British shores, top chef Gennaro Contaldo reveals how our knowledge and approach to his country's cuisine has changed dramatically.
By Diana Pilkington.
Half a century since a wave of Italian immigrants set up the first trattorias across the UK, Britain's love affair with this cuisine shows no sign of stopping.
But our understanding and appreciation of Italian food has changed dramatically over the years.
Celebrity chef Gennaro Contaldo, who first came to Britain in the late Sixties, says: "At the beginning, a lot of immigrants came to England but there were very few chefs. But because almost every Italian can sing and can cook, they used to open a little restaurant.
"They wouldn't necessarily cook something very Italian. They would cook what we call 'Britalian' food, something between British and Italian."
In fact, many of the dishes that we consider typically Italian today are actually an adaptation and not entirely authentic.
"The spaghetti bolognese in England nearly gave me a heart attack!" says Contaldo.
"It was full of mushrooms, peppers, some different vegetables and perhaps bits and pieces of meat.
"But the original dish, ragu bolognese, is made with tagliatelle and is so simple. You just use carrots and onion, and then pork and beef in equal parts."
Though 'Britalian' cuisine can still be found in thousands of restaurants, more authentic Italian food is far easier to find these days. Contaldo is an ambassador for the Bertolli Spread Olive D'Oro Awards, which have been searching for the UK's top Italian delis and trattorias.
The winners were announced on June 20, and include eateries across Britain, from Cardiff to Cambridge (for the full list visit www.bertolli.co.uk).
With traditional delis now a common sight on many British high streets, it is easier than ever to source the right ingredients to make simple, authentic Italian food at home.
"I remember when you wanted olive oil, the only place you could buy it was in a chemist. It was rubbish," Contaldo says.
"Today all these ingredients, you can usually find somewhere local."
Contaldo has created some recipes to reflect modern Italian dining in Britain today. Try these for size...
(For all of these recipes, Bertolli Spread can be substituted with any quality olive oil-based spread) Risotto alle fragole (strawberry risotto) (Serves 4) 70g Bertolli Spread 2 small shallots, finely chopped 250g arborio rice 500g strawberries, hulled (half quantity quartered and the rest roughly chopped) ½ glass white wine 1-litre vegetable stock, kept hot 50g parmesan cheese, freshly grated, and extra to serve Salt to taste Heat 30g of the Bertolli Spread in a saucepan, add the shallots and sweat on a medium heat. Stir in the rice, coating each grain. Stir in the white wine and simmer until evaporated. Add a ladleful of stock, stir and simmer for a minute, then stir in the roughly chopped strawberries. Gradually add the remaining stock, stirring all the time between additions. When the rice becomes al dente, remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 40g of Bertolli Spread and grated parmesan. Add salt to taste if desired. Leave to rest for a minute, then top with the quartered strawberries and some more grated parmesan, if desired, and serve.
Porri con pancetta (leeks with bacon) (Serves 4) 60g Bertolli Spread 100g pancetta or bacon, finely chopped 1.2kg leeks, finely sliced 120ml hot vegetable stock Salt & pepper to taste Melt the Bertolli spread in a frying pan, add the pancetta or bacon and stir-fry on a medium heat until crispy. Stir in the leeks, season with salt and pepper and stir fry for a couple of minutes. Add the vegetable stock, lower the heat, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 10 minutes until the leeks are soft.
Remove from the heat and serve immediately.
Pollo arrosto con burro bertolli all'aglio ed erbe (roast chicken with a bertolli spread, garlic and herb paste) (Serves 4) Small head of unpeeled garlic 5 large sage leaves, finely chopped 2 sprigs of rosemary needles, finely chopped Handful of mint, finely chopped Handful of marjoram leaves, finely chopped Juice of 1 lemon (keep the lemon halves) 1 large lemon, cut in half 100g Bertolli Spread Salt & pepper 1 chicken, weighing approx. 1.5kg ½ glass of white wine 1 glass of vegetable stock 4 carrots, cut lengthways in half Place the unpeeled garlic cloves in a hot oven for about 15 minutes until soft. With the help of a tea towel, remove the skins while still warm. Place the Bertolli Spread and garlic in a small bowl together with the chopped herbs, lemon juice, butter, salt and pepper. Mix together well until you obtain a smooth paste.
Take the chicken and carefully ease the skin away from the breasts, taking care not to tear it, but don't remove completely. With your fingers, spread the paste evenly all over the breast under the skin. Fill the cavity of the chicken with the lemon halves.
Line the bottom of the roasting tin with the carrots, arranging them in two lines like a railway track. Place the chicken on top of the carrots - this is done to prevent the bird from sticking to the tin. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil, rubbing well all over. Pour in the wine and stock.
Cover with aluminium foil and roast in the hot oven for about 1 hour and 30 minutes until the chicken has thoroughly cooked through. Remove the foil 20 minutes before the end of cooking time. Remove from the oven, leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving.
Torta paradiso (italian sponge cake with creamy filling) (Serves 6 - 8) To make the sponge: 4 eggs, separated 200g Bertolli Spread, extra for greasing 200g sugar 150g plain flour 50g cornflour 1tspn baking powder 1 sachet of vanilla powder Pinch of salt Zest of 1 lemon Sifted icing sugar 1 round cake tin 22cm in diameter - lightly greased and lined with baking parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
Whisk the egg whites until stiff and set aside. In another bowl, whisk the yolks until well amalgamated. In a larger bowl, cream together the Bertolli Spread and sugar, then gradually add the yolks. Gradually fold in the flour, cornflour, baking powder, vanilla powder, salt and lemon zest. Gently fold the stiff egg whites into the mixture with a metal spoon until well combined.
Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake for about 30 to 35 minutes until golden and springy to the touch. You can check if it is cooked by inserting a wooden skewer in the centre; if it comes out dry the cake is ready. Remove, tip out onto a wire rack to cool, then with a sharp knife carefully cut horizontally into two layers.
To make the creamy filling (makes approximately 300g): 50ml water 150g sugar 6 organic free-range egg yolks (make sure they are very fresh!) 175g Bertolli Spread Seeds of 1 vanilla pod or 1 sachet of vanilla powder Combine the water and sugar in a small pan and place on a low heat, stirring from time to time until the sugar has dissolved and you obtain a syrupy consistency.
In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and gradually add the syrup. Leave the mixture to cool. Then add the Bertolli Spread and vanilla seeds or powder, and continue to whisk until you obtain a creamy consistency. Place in the fridge to use when required.
Spread the creamy filling over the cooled cake layers and sandwich together. Sprinkle with lots of sifted icing sugar and serve.
Tip: For a really tasty filling, mix some strawberry or raspberry jam into the creamy mix. For a lighter cake, the sponge can be eaten without the filling.