Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones
Italy's festivals celebrating local produce are loved by visitors and residents alike, but are some trying too hard to appeal to tourists? (File photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 


When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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OPINION: Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

An article featuring the claim that tiramisù, carbonara and other iconic Italian dishes were “invented” in the postwar period has gone viral online and caused uproar in Italy. Silvia Marchetti explains why the debate has touched a nerve for so many Italians.

OPINION: Why claims Italian cuisine is a 'modern invention' have angered Italy

If there’s one thing Italians do not accept, it’s messing around with the culinary traditions which reflect our identity.  So it’s no surprise that food historian Alberto Grandi’s theories on the origins of several iconic Italian foods, which in his view aren’t really Italian but made-in-the-USA, have caused such a stir in Italy and made the national headlines after they were shared in a Financial Times article published this weekend.

READ ALSO: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Television talk shows have debated his controversial theories. Farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti and trade union Unimpresa issued statements slamming Grandi’s words as an “attack” against Made in Italy products, saying they risk favouring counterfeit Italian-sounding goods made abroad.

Grandi’s claims that tiramisù, panettone, pizza, and carbonara pasta are either recent products born after the second world war or inventions made by Italian emigrants to the US have also triggered mayhem on social media. Readers of online news outlets condemned his views as “preposterous”, “based on ignorance”, the “product of envy” and an attempt to “start the third world war”. 

Tiramisu: not ‘traditionally’ Italian? Photo. Kasturi Roy/Unsplash

What shocked me most is that Grandi is Italian, as is the writer of the FT article. To say that Italy’s food tradition is an invention which mainly kicked off during the post-war period is either a lie or just historical ignorance which erases millennia of rich food heritage.

The idea of Italian food today comes both from experience (people taste and remember it) and from globalization, which hails all the way back to the Ancient Romans’ conquests. Cicero in one of his works writes about laganae, the ancestors of lasagne and pasta, while another Roman writer about savillum cake made with cheese, very much like the US-style cheesecake with which it likely shares a common gene.

READ ALSO: Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

As for panettone, christmas cakes with raisins and candied fruits were made during the middle ages and in the Renaissance, when many recipes were exported by the Medici family to European courts. Pilgrims, travellers and monks also did their share as ‘food ambassadors’.

And Grandi’s argument that pizza didn’t exist beyond the streets of “a few small southern cities” because there weren’t any pizzerias until the post-war period misses a key point: Pizza was born as a street food and take-away meal, and has been made in bakeries or sold by vendors in town squares since at least the 1600s. As is still the case nowadays, pizza al taglio (sliced pizza) was savored al forno.

Pizza al taglio in Rome. Photo: sarahcreates/Unsplash

Pizzerias as actual establishments became popular in Naples from the early 1800s and later spread to the rest of Italy, only reaching Sicily and Piedmont at a much later stage – because pizza is neither Sicilian nor Piedmontese. Surely, the reason why those American soldiers who according to Grandi were amazed to find no pizzerias in the land of pizza was probably because most shops and bakeries had been shut, raided or bombed during the war.

Traditional food has always existed in family homes in Italy. Just because in the 1950s Romans did not eat carbonara every single day doesn’t mean they hardly ever ate it at all. Farmers’ simple, traditional dishes have also always been around, and even after the postwar economic boom Italian families kept eating these even though they were wealthier and could afford to raid the supermarket shelves. 

My mother for example kept indulging in home-made gorgonzola blue cheese with crawling maggots at her granny’s farm in Cuneo, even when her father was a top-ranking military general. Money or newly acquired social status doesn’t change eating habits if one is anchored to them by a long-standing family tradition handed down across generations.

READ ALSO: Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?

Also, the idea of grandmas serving frozen lasagne back in the old days in Italy is pure fiction. There were no freezers, and my granny still recalls when ‘ice men’ roamed the countryside selling blocks of ice from the mountains.

Emigrants indeed played a great role in exporting and advertising Italian dishes abroad, but they adapted these to local tastes and ingredients, thus paving the way for alternative, non purist versions of a dish. Take Mac ‘n’ Cheese, a twist on ‘maccheroni con formaggio‘ with Cheddar – a dish you will never find in Italy.

It is a product of emigration, as decades flew by many emigrés forgot their ancestors’ real recipes. Original Italian gelato brought to America and the UK by Italian ice-cream makers who later built an empire has little to do with artisan Italian gelato made today in Italy. In the same way, the iconic Philly Roll born in Philadelphia, invented by a migrated Japanese chef, is an American product rather than a pure sushi dish.

Grandi’s words have uncanny timing. The Italian government is planning to propose Italian food for UNESCO world heritage status, which will boost the fight against Italian-sounding products such as parmesan made abroad. His view is seen by many in Italy as an attempt to sabotage this candidature by suggesting that Italian food is the end-result of a contamination or mix of several different cultures, that it is not entirely the merit of Italy. 

With no real proof, arguing that Italian cuisine is not traditional is to fight a losing battle.

Do you agree or disagree with the opinions expressed in this article? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.