Doña Tonita emerges from the kitchen into the wood-paneled dining room of her namesake restaurant to greet me. She supports herself with both hands on a dark-blue and white-streaked melamine tabletop that looks like a constellation. Over her shoulder and out the window, I can see the outline of the Andean hills that hug the town as the sun drops behind them, briefly tinting the sky rose and copper.
“Today,” she announces gently while scratching the short curls on her head, “we have beef empanadas and Swiss chard canelones with bolognesa and white sauce.”
I am in the town of Belén in the northwest Argentinian province of Catamarca, which is marked by the influence of pre-Hispanic Indigenous cultures. Just 20 minutes up the road are the Shincal ruins, an Incan outpost built in the 15th century, and Argentina’s second colonial town, Londres, a significant site of struggle during the century-long Calchaquí Wars between the federation of the native Diaguita people and Spanish colonizers. The people of Belén and the surrounding towns are mostly Criollo, or of mixed Indigenous, Spanish, and African descent, with bits of Arab and Western European ancestry peppered in.
On the weekends, like many other women in town, Doña Tonita prepares mote, a pre-Hispanic stew of meat, hominy, and beans, originally enjoyed during community harvests. Today, the dish is a staple at Saturday family lunches. But, “during the week, people around town eat what everyone eats,” she explains. “Milanesa, ñoquis, noodles, stuffed pasta.”
The Italian cognates for Doña Tonita’s diet — canelones like cannelloni, ravioles like ravioli, ñoquis like gnocchi — might lead you to believe these are mimetic Italian dishes. But the flavors are layered on top of Belén’s many historic foodways. Just give her bolognesa a whiff. Like her fried empanadas, the sauce smells of paprika, or pimentón, made with red peppers that are grown, dried, and ground into a powder at the start of every year in the valleys surrounding Belén. At another restaurant down the street, servers balance plates of potato ñoquis and jigote, a local potato and beef casserole. Although distinct in origin, the dishes are united under obligatory mountains of cheese, the jigote covered with sheets of mozzarella, the ñoquis drowned in a creamy four-cheese sauce.
Argentina is often described as if it were a European nation that got lost in Latin America, and there is a grain of truth to that narrative. When Buenos Aires — designed in the image of Paris with imported materials — was proclaimed the seat of government in 1880, the city was built on the backs of a little more than half a century of mass immigration, mostly from Italy. Today, the exact number of Argentines with Italian ancestry is hazy; estimates of Argentines with any amount of Italian lineage range from 50 to 70 percent (compared to 60 percent with Indigenous ancestry, according to an exhaustive genetic census conducted in 2005).
Across the country, old-school, white-tablecloth bodegones serve a mixture of dishes with European origins plated like a page ripped out of a 1970s Cordon Bleu magazine. It isn’t out of the ordinary to see a table filled with gambas al ajillo, noodles tossed in creamy leek salsa, and pork with plum sauce and mashed potatoes. The imprint that Italian immigrants especially had on Argentina’s food is undeniable: pizza, pasta, and milanesa are home and restaurant staples.
But many conflate those lasting culinary influences to argue that Argentina’s cuisine never grew into its own, or that it shouldn’t. In a 2021 article in Argentinian daily Infobae titled “Is Italian Food in Argentina just a Criollo Illusion?” Italian journalist Nunzia Locatelli writes, “In Argentina, Italian food continues to be linked to the memory of a plump grandmother that woke up at dawn to prepare ragú (tuco) or make pasta dough.” For Locatelli, everything that isn’t made by a nonna who recreates recipes exactly as they are made 7,000 miles from her home kitchen is an aberration of Italian cuisine. “Pine nuts are required for a good pesto,” she says, breaking down recipes into European old-country dogma — despite the fact that many Argentinian cooks use local almonds and walnuts for pesto, which are far cheaper than imported pine nuts. Locatelli paints a portrait of an immigrant that longs for home, that must never fully settle into the country that has adopted them.
This kind of sweeping, one-dimensional narrative — often parroted in international media coverage of Argentine foodways, including an episode of Somebody Feed Phil in which host Phil Rosenthal calls Buenos Aires a city of Italians and Spaniards before dining at one of the city’s few traditional Italian trattorias — upholds a murky, Eurocentric definition of authenticity. What needs to happen to validate how Italian immigrants wove their food culture into Argentina’s diet and the ways diners of all backgrounds have repurposed Italian techniques and ideas to feed themselves? When does food in any diaspora divorced from its origin become “authentic” to another culture?
In the 1990s, influential editor and restaurant critic Fernando Vidal Buzzi, who covered dining in Buenos Aires from the mid-1970s until his death in 2013, began to define “tipo Italiana,” a food culture in Argentina that isn’t Italian but Italian-ish.
“A tomato isn’t the same tomato wherever you go and neither is the flour,” he wrote. “The famous milanesa a la napolitana is a completely porteño [of Buenos Aires] creation. Just the idea of a milanesa napolitana would provoke a nervous breakdown in any inhabitant of the city of Duomo. How could someone possibly think to create such an aberration of culinary nomenclature, subversive of all regional traditions of Italian cuisine?”
The dining scene during Buzzi’s tenure was bougie. Restaurant culture turned its back on Latin America to bow down to Europe. He was monumental in recognizing that Argentinian cuisine had become its own thing. Pasta and its derivations were, according to Buzzi, expressions of nostalgia adopted by the masses — including immigrants from all over the world — until they became Argentinian.
The standard tale of the evolution of diasporic foods goes like this: Homesick immigrants seek comfort by rebuilding flavors of home with the available ingredients of the new one. Yet “home” is only one side of immigration; the other is the experience of a new place. The realities of a new life leave an imprint on the nostalgia of the old life.
At the turn of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Like the U.S., it was sold as a land of opportunity to immigrants from all over Western and Eastern Europe, East Asia, the Levant, and the Caucasus. But these new arrivals encountered a nation run by an elite that hoarded wealth and opportunity, and an economy plagued by constant inflation, which blew up in the 1940s and never went away. Since 1944, average annual inflation is around 190 percent, and in 1989, it hit a ceiling at 20,000 percent. In Argentina, economic instability is a fact of life. The only constant is that things are always changing. People say that you could leave the country for 20 years and return to find everything is different and everything is the same.
Milanesa a la napolitana is the archetype of cooking in this environment. The dish was created in the 1930s or ’40s when a cook burnt a milanesa and camouflaged his error with ham, tomato, and cheese. That origin story is about more than a cook caught in a lunch rush. Argentinidad is the shared experience of creativity among chaos. Just like the cook that couldn’t afford to toss a single piece of breaded beef, Argentinian Italian food is a reflection of many peoples who constantly draw from what they know to make impossible circumstances work. It’s this collective culture of resourceful inventiveness that’s validated when diners recognize that milanesa a la napolitana is completely Argentine.
Italian-ish recipes live on a spectrum at various distances from their Italian counterparts. There are simple ingredient substitutions, like using inexpensive local almonds in pesto. Further away, there are recipes that have turned into unique cultural creeds, like fideos con tuco — a cheap fix to get through the end of the month which only requires a bag of noodles, a box of tomato sauce, and a few pantry staples — that has made it nearly impossible to hear one word without immediately thinking of the other. Even further away, there are the oversized stuffed ham and cheese sorrentinos invented by the Vespoli family to set their restaurant apart in a sea of pasta joints. And finally things that adopt only the vague shape of an Italian food.
“There are a lot of dishes that appear to be of Italian origin but beyond the form have nothing to do with Italian cuisine,” says Carina Perticone, a local historian and food scholar. Perticone points to canelones de humita, which repurposes a pre-Hispanic corn dish found up and down the Andes mountains. Instead of the original corn paste stuffed into husks, fresh corn kernels are mixed with pumpkin before being rolled into a canelone shell, frequently topped with gratinated cheese or white cream sauce. The dish uses the Italian format but comes entirely from the Argentinian spirit: chaotic, self-assured, resourceful.
“The pasta that we eat isn’t Italian and we have no reason to pretend that it is,” Perticone says. “It’s ours.”
Today, immigrants from around Latin America, particularly Paraguay and Peru, make up nearly 80 percent of foreign residents in Argentina. The Eurocentric culinary ideology has begun to reverse in the last decade, opening the door for more chefs to express their version of tipo Italiana. Buenos Aires was once the epicenter of European sentiment (separatists among Genovese immigrants in the La Boca neighborhood attempted to secede the barrio to the Italian Crown in 1882), yet there are few Italian restaurants left today — but there are plenty of restaurants that serve Argentinian Italian food.
Even among restaurants with clear Italian heritage, the flexible cuisine reflects the ways Italian dishes have been remixed and remade in Argentina. “My grandmother Maria lived in the restaurant. Her bedroom is now the administrative office,” explains Rosario Ranieri, the third-generation owner of Spiagge di Napoli, a nearly century-old pasta restaurant in the neighborhood of Boedo. “We aren’t even from Nápoles. We’re from Peschici which is on the Adriatic Sea. My grandparents thought [no one would] come to a restaurant called Beaches of Peschici.” The restaurant’s claim to fame is their hand-rolled fucciles that can be ordered by the kilo. But diners can do a lot more with the pasta menu, which is designed like a bingo card, with a column of 12 pastas and a row of 14 sauces to be combined however guests see fit. Dishes are awkwardly crammed between warm bread, plastic packets of cream cheese, mounds of grated parmesan, and bottles of wine with siphons of soda water to make spritzes. “We are a traditional Buenos Aires restaurant,” says Ranieri. “So we are defined by our generosity.”
In the last few years, that canon has begun to shift, particularly in fabricas de pasta (literally pasta factories, the local term for a fresh pasta shop) that are exploring traditional Italian pasta shapes with varying degrees of “authenticity.” Del Pratello has a fridge filled with items like caramelles stuffed with broccoli rabe and Tomme cheese, or tortellonis with panceta, potato, and sardo cheese. Mad Pasta makes weekly pasta drops including cappellaci with peas, mascarpone, and lime, or parsley cavatelli tossed with clams, gochujaru, and cured lemons.
There are also plenty of young chefs playing around with Argentinian pasta shapes and traditions. Maria Antonieta Brignardello is a third-generation pasta-maker from the Mesopotamia region of Entre Rios in northeast Argentina. In Buenos Aires, she runs the vegan pasta business Potoca. Among her most-popular dishes are her potato ñoquis, which sell out on the 29th of each month, a day that Argentinian folklore dictates that you must eat ñoqui with money underneath your plate to bring fortune.
“If I am being completely sincere with you, the Italian side of my family didn’t teach me anything about pasta,” Brignardello explains. “It was my mother’s side of the family. Her dad was a Polish and German Jew, and my grandmother was part Criollo, part Syrian. They made pasta to order and then my mother opened a factory on the side of the house that my brother continues to run.” Growing up, Brignardello remembers eating canelones stuffed with Swiss chard, hard-boiled egg, beef, and ricotta, and cow brain and vegetable raviolones with stewed chicken at home. She sprinkles bits and pieces of these recipes into her line of pastas: pumpkin sorrentinos spiced with turmeric, a nod to her Syrian grandmother, and sauces layered with onion and paprika, like the food of her German Polish grandfather. “Maybe Italians introduced the custom of eating pasta but Argentinians turned it into something else,” Brignardello concludes.
Last year, I visited her grandmother María Luísa’s home on a frigid winter weekend in the town of San Salvador, where there was little more to do than play cards, drink beer, and cook. From a kitchen the size of a small closet, Brignardello and her grandmother cranked out dough with the family pasta maker to make mushroom-stuffed pasta, and rolled mashed potato and flour into a long cylinder to slice into ñoquis while Brignardello taught her grandmother how to make the right dough without using eggs (it’s all in the temperature of the water). Her brother waltzed into the kitchen from the pasta factory next door to offer cardboard boxes of ham-and-cheese sorrentinos for the meat-eaters. On the stove, a pot of crimson goulash sent steam upward into the cold air.
We set the table and squeezed pots of food between plates and glasses of beer and soda as best we could, the contents of the dining table like pieces of the people that surrounded it. The same thing is happening in homes across the country, as families filled their tables with their own idiosyncrasies and plates of pasta that belong to them all.