Cucina Italiana Rome's Spaghetti Carbonara King Is Tunisian

Italy's award-winning creator of pasta alla carbonara is a Tunisian immigrant. While some conservative food lovers argue that only an Italian can capture the essence of national dishes, Nabil Hadj Hassen dismisses such prejudices as silly and petty.

Nabil Hadj Hassen is so thin that he almost seems two-dimensional. When he turns away from the stove, and you can see him from the side, he looks like he’s made of twigs. That’s how thin Hassen is. He is the exact opposite of “la mamma.” But he cooks better.

Italy is the home of the “slow food” movement, which has propelled local recipes, traditions and products back into fashion. The movement was founded by extreme left-wing gourmets from Piedmont. Slow food has risen to become omnipresent, chic and virtually the only thing that remains of the restless and radical sixties in Italy.

Once a year, the "Gambero Rosso" (or "Red Crab") -- a kind of Michelin Guide dedicated to the spirit of slow food -- presents its coveted awards to restaurants, vineyards and estates that preserve the traditions of la cucina italiana. And this year the award for the best spaghetti alla carbonara went to Hassen, a Tunisian immigrant. This has made him the guardian of the most Italian of all Italian dishes.

“…,” says Hassen, a very Roman expression that basically means “well…” He is the head chef at the Antico Forno Roscioli trattoria in the Via dei Giubbonari, between the Campo de' Fiori and the baroque church of San Carlo ai Catinari -- in the heart of Rome.

Hassen is certainly not the only foreigner working in the Italian restaurant trade. Almost every trattoria in the old city has at least one immigrant standing in the kitchen, although not necessarily doing the cooking. “Nearly all the pizza bakers come from Egypt. The Bangladeshis wash dishes, the Romanians knead pasta dough,” says Hassen. Incidentally, the award for the second best carbonara went to a Roman who originally hails from India.

Hassen is now 44 years old. He first arrived in Italy at the age of 17. “You didn’t need a visa back then.” The ship was called "Tirrenia," and on the island of Pantelleria it was every bit as hot as back home in Ksibet El Médiouni, 10 kilometers (six miles) from Monastir, Tunisia. But he had made it to Italy -- and Europe.

“I washed dishes in a Sicilian specialty restaurant. I’m very alert, so I quickly picked up how to make bistecca and fried olives.” He fell in love with the work, says Hassen.

His boss took him to Sicily, then later to Rome. “I met the right people,” recounts Hassen. “I made my way through the kitchen, worked and learned. After a while, things really started to take off.”

Fundamentalists among lovers of Italian food, the conservative connoisseurs of the peninsula, say that non-Italian cooks may be able to reproduce a recipe, but they will always lack the right feeling. That might be enough to whip up some dishes for tourists, but only a bona fide Italian mamma can really teach you how to cook. They say this has nothing to do with racism. It’s simply a question of culture.

Hassen dismisses such statements as silly and petty: “They should be proud when someone learns the art of their cuisine. It’s not a war after all.”

He says that there are even people who would turn around again and walk out of restaurants if they saw a Filipino in the kitchen: “Some of them eat Roman food out of a sense of insecurity. They want their matriciana, their cacao e pepe” -- traditional Roman pasta dishes -- “because they are afraid of other cuisines. They are uneducated.”

And then he reveals the secrets of his carbonara. “You need a sense for the ingredients, an understanding, just as you need a sense for a woman.” A key ingredient is the one-euro eggs from Paolo Parisi, the wonder farmer from Pisa, then there’s the mixture of pepper varieties, from Jamaica, India, China, a very specific brand of spaghetti, the art of blending in the cheese with an almost Asian minimalism, to allow it to be tastefully present, yet not overpowering, which is also incidentally true for the ham. All of this is “molto difficile” and more of a challenge for the mind than for the heart.

Hassen lives with his family outside the city, up on the hills where the air is better. No, he says, he would never want to open a pasta restaurant in Tunis. “I like my work too much. I’m not content with sitting around, chatting and drinking tea. That’s not easy for me.” So he intends to stay in Rome and continue to preserve Italy’s traditions.

Displayed in the window of Antico Forno Roscioli are bottles of truffle-infused olive oil, pasta from the Abruzzi Mountains, Modena balsamic vinegar and ham from Norcia. Outside, a number of tourists are passing by, you can hear a Vespa, and two old men are talking with emphatic gestures.

In the newspapers there is a story about an alleged shoplifter from Burkina Faso who was beaten to death in Milan. The government of Silvio Berlusconi wants to ban prostitution from public places, clear out all the Africans, Romanians and Brazilian transsexuals from the streets on the outskirts of town. The government intends to make it easier to expel foreigners.

Meanwhile, parched refugees from African shores continue to drift onto Italy’s islands, and the mayor of Lampedusa is quoted as saying that "negro flesh stinks, even after it has been washed." A church newspaper recently voiced its fears of a “new fascism.”

Italy is changing. In many ways coexisting with other cultures is becoming more difficult. Molto difficile. The art is in understanding the ingredients.


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