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• Though both cuisines begin with a soup, the countdown really starts with the next course. The French call it entrée, the Italians call it antipasti or starters. You can enjoy a few antipasti standing up at a bar, accompanied by a drink, but you cannot eat an entrée anywhere else but at a dining table.
• The Italians have a primo piatto or first course which is an entirely starch course. Pasta, risotto, ravioli, gnocchi, etc. all make up the first course. There is no equivalent in France. Pizza would have been considered a primo piatto, except that pizza is not considered a part of a meal in Italy. Rather like chola bhatura, it is a dish to be eaten in between two meals, on its own.
• Italian food is extremely regional as well as seasonal. French food is just as regional – from Normandy, the dairy centre of France, comes cheese and cream that dictate the cuisine; from Marseilles comes prime seafood, whence bouillabaisse, etc., but there is no sense of haute cuisine in Italian food, the way it is in France. To put it another way, cucina povera is an Italian term that means ‘poor people’s food’ but there is no corresponding French equivalent.
• The biggest difference between the two cuisines is in the sauces. French cuisine has a few historically important sauces like bechamel, hollandaise, veloute, etc. They are classics whose recipes are set in stone. The dish determines the sauce in French cooking, whereas in Italian, the sauce is made from meat or fish stock.
• Finally, it’s a question of marketing. You cannot enjoy an entrée of snails from Burgundy baked with garlic and butter because snails have almost become extinct in Burgundy. But you can order a deep dish pizza with chicken tikka on it or a pasta with makhani sauce and pretend you’re having Italian food. It’s all about the perspective!