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Italian Garlic Debate Raises a Culinary Stink

Innovations in Italian cooking have spurred a campaign to rid Italian cuisine of garlic.
Innovations in Italian cooking have spurred a campaign to rid Italian cuisine of garlic.

In Italy, a debate is raging among chefs and diners about eliminating a pungent staple of the Italian diet: garlic.

Critics say the bulbous herb stinks and overwhelms more delicate flavors. Garlic aficionados say it enhances every dish it touches.

The debate starts in the center of Rome at La Trattoria restaurant, one of the city's trendiest restaurants known for its innovative Sicilian cuisine. La Trattoria's chef, Filippo La Mantia, has shunned garlic as the basis of his dishes in favor of other natural ingredients such as citrus and other herbs.


La Mantia says that garlic is a leftover from when Italians were poor and used it to flavor their meager victuals. He says the average standard of living is high enough today that people can do without it. Italians consumed 108 million pounds of garlic in 2006, a 4 percent increase over the previous year, according to Coldiretti, Italy's leading farmers association.

La Mantia's innovations have triggered a campaign to rid garlic from the Italian dining table. Supporters include a prominent TV journalist, who is writing a guide to garlic-free restaurants, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was known to insist that his staff have mint-scented breath.

But the campaign faces an uphill battle from average Italians who say they have history on their side. The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes advised athletes to eat garlic to increase their endurance during competition. The classic Roman poet Virgil said garlic increased sexual potency, and many central European cultures believed garlic offered protection against demons and vampires. The bulb has also been considered a rustic antibiotic.

At the outdoor market in Campo dei Fiori, Claudio Zampa's market stand features long braids of garlic nestled among colorful fruits and vegetables. Zampa supplies some of the most renowned restaurants in Rome, and he says the anti-garlic campaign is a product of culinary snobbery.

"What are we supposed to eat, shallots? Will that make us more elegant? More French?" he asks.


Indeed, garlic does carry a stigma says Anna Maria Tozzi, owner of Rome's Montevecchio restaurant. She says the herb should be used in moderation, despite its odiferous aftereffects.

"There are lots of prejudices that people who eat and smell of garlic are second class, backward, unsophisticated," Tozzi says. "It's a class thing for many people."

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