In a Nutshell
What are the main differences between French and Italian cuisine?
Even a 500-page tome packed full of meticulously researched scholarly citations couldn’t possibly begin to do this question justice, but here’s an attempt to put forth a simple answer.
In very broad strokes, a significant difference between these two Western-European cuisines is the over-representation of pasta dishes in Italian cuisine, and their near complete absence in French cuisine.
There are exceptions, of course, such as Raviole du Dauphiné, a regional specialty hailing from the Southeast of France.
What’s more, Auguste Escoffier, the father of modern haute cuisine, favored noodles and spaghetti as the preferred complement to be served alongside blanquette de veau, a type of veal stew representative of French cuisine and widely appreciated by gourmets and chefs worldwide.
Boeuf bourguignon, another dish representative of French cuisine, is also sometimes served with pasta as an accompaniment. (Julia Child’s recipe)
Still, pasta features nowhere nearly as prominently as it does in Italian cuisine, which features an astounding variety of pasta dishes, be it pasta al pomodoro, agnolotti, spaghetti aglio e olio, cacio e pepe, tortellini, ravioli, pasta carbonara, etc.
Same story with pizza: French cuisine has tarte flambée, a type of savory flatbread hailing from the region of Alsace–Moselle – near the border with Germany – but it doesn’t feature that prominently in the country’s gastronomic heritage, at least nowhere nearly to the degree pizza does when it comes to Italy.
France, on the other hand, is known for its stews, e.g., the aforementioned boeuf bourguignon, terrines, quiches, and soups, and indeed for aesthetically-pleasing and often complex styles of presentation associated with the traditions of haute and nouvelle cuisine.
Escargot Isn’t Exclusively A French Dish
“There exists perhaps no greater culinary rivalry than the one between Italy and France” – Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating
Despite this rivalry, there are striking similarities between the two cuisines – parallels and common ancestry which are undoubtedly the product of geography and the long-lasting cultural impact of the Roman Empire.
Take escargots, for example, which are often thought of as a uniquely French dish. While escargots are indeed part of the country’s culinary tradition, a passion for these tasty gastropods extends to other Mediterranean countries as well.
Escargot is a fairly common fixture on restaurant menus in Spain. Catalonians, I am told, have a particular fondness for the terrestrial mollusk.
Moreover, the elevated status of escargot in haute cuisine finds a parallel in ancient Roman times, when it was considered a delicacy for the elites, and edible snails are also consumed in Africa, Southeast Asia, etc.
Soupe au Pistou Is A Summer Dish; Minestrone Is Seasonal
Another interesting example is soupe au pistou. As the name implies, this dish refers to a soup made with pistou sauce, a sauce made by crushing and grinding fresh basil and garlic, which is then blended with olive oil.
This preparation is very similar to the Italian pesto, a key difference being that Parmesan cheese and pine nuts are entirely absent from the ‘traditional’ recipe for pistou.
The concepts might be similar, but each country, and indeed, each region, has different rules regarding what ingredients to use.
Pistou is similar to pesto, and soupe au pistou – a traditional Provençal dish – is similar to minestrone alla Genovese, but here, too, we find a decisive difference, in that soupe au pistou is a summer dish, so by definition, it shouldn’t contain fall vegetables like carrots, cabbage, celery, or leeks.
Minestrone, on the other hand, allows for a wider range of vegetables to be used, depending on what is in season and available.
Indeed, the examples cited above underscore the idea that the gastronomic landscape of Continental Europe should be viewed as a regional spectrum, as opposed to a discrete set of well-defined monolithic structures catalogued by country.
Bouillabaisse – Marseilles vs. Cannes
In light of the above, it hardly comes as a surprise that neighboring countries should have overlapping culinary traditions.
After all, there is only a finite number of ways in which to combine vegetables, herbs, and fish into a fragrant stew, and each country appears to have evolved slightly different versions of this base archetype: zuppa di pesce in Italy, caldeirada in Portugal, bouillabaisse in France, etc.
Bouillabaisse draws heavily on its Provençal roots and requires the use of saffron, but the use of this ingredient – and other herbs like fennel – isn’t restricted to bouillabaisse and also features in other fish stews found in Mediterranean cuisine.
The textbook taxonomic difference between bouillabaisse and, say, caldeirada, is the latter’s versatility, if you will, as it can include many different types of fish – cod, flounder, tuna, etc. – and also mussels, and even squid or octopus.
According to the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter, this Provençal delicacy must contain at least four of the following list of fish/crustaceans: scorpion fish, red scorpion fish, spider crab, red mullet, and conger eel. Spiny lobster is also allowed as an optional ingredient, as is john dory.
The variety is still there, but the traditional recipe calls only for lean fish, to the exclusion of oily fish like tuna or mackerel, as well as mussels, squid, and octopus.
This covers the difference between these two French and Portuguese dishes, but as I was writing this article, I remembered an old video by Deutsche Welle, which incidentally highlights intra-regional differences between Marseilles and Cannes when it comes to the preparation of bouillabaisse.
In other words, there are differences even within the same country.
In the video, a reporter with DW visits Le Caveau 30, one of Cannes’ oldest restaurants, dating back to the immediate post-war period.
The chef – Lahdan Amman – guides the camera crew through the preparation of the restaurant’s signature traditional bouillabaisse dish, but one thing that stood out to me is that the ingredients he lists deviate significantly from those enumerated in the Marseilles Bouillabaisse Charter.
More specifically, he states that: “Bouillabaisse always has the same ingredients: john dory, gurnard, sea bream, lungfish, and prawns. Together they ensure the perfect flavor.”
Well, not always, considering how the Marseillais recipe contains a radically different set of ingredients, so there’s that…
So, you see, even bouillabaisse itself isn’t a monolithic recipe, with variants emerging within the same region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where Marseilles and Cannes are located.
Besides, as YouTube chef Adam Ragusea points out, there’s no reason not to adapt these traditional recipes to make bouillabaisse “a little more reasonable for the modern kitchen if you reduce the amount of expensive and often not particularly sustainable seafood, and really just focus on the vegetables.”
In fact, the advent of vegan alternatives to salmon and even prawns has greatly expanded the potential for innovation. With time, we could even have plant-based solutions mimicking specific types of fish (or even lab-grown fish meat) allowing vegans to enjoy this traditional French stew.
Knowing the history and regional variants of a dish is extremely important, but preserving the past is in no way incompatible with forward-looking innovation.
– Bancroft, Colette; Tampa Bay Times; 10/16/2011 (On A.E’s status as the father of modern haute cuisine)
– Escoffier, Auguste; MA CUISINE (1934); p.268 (Blanquette de veau recipe)
– Child, Julia; Mastering The Art Of French Cooking; p.315
– Mah, Ann; Mastering the Art of French Eating (On soupe au pistou)
– Mourenza, Paula; The Comeback of the Catalan Snail; Culinary Backstreets