When an Italian friend mentioned "pasta sushi" for the first time, I thought he was either mistaken or messing with me. Maybe it was a quirk of the language—something that didn't quite translate for a pretty much monolingual traveller like me?
But it turns out that the cuisines of Italy and Japan have been making babies for some time now and that, in fact, pasta sushi is quickly becoming the Mediterranean's latest food trend.
Sitting in the airy confines of Clandestino, an acclaimed sushi bar overlooking the Adriatic Sea in Portonovo, I get my first taste of this peculiar invention: raw salmon wrapped in spinosi pasta. There's an explosion of tangy, salty freshness on my tongue, followed by a slightly disconcerting sliminess as the spaghetti-like pasta casing makes itself known. It's not completely unpleasant, but I find myself far from convinced.
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Other offerings include a maki of quinoa, tuna sauce and campari, a carbona made with veal cheek and katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna), and red shrimp served with ear-shaped orecchiette pasta and an Italian caciocavallo (horse cheese) salsa.
While some of the dishes are undeniably delicious, the lines between the Japanese idea of sushi and traditional Italian flavours seem, for the most part, almost completely blurred in the restaurant's collection of pasta sushi dishes.
Moreno Cedroni, the double Michelin-star chef who runs Clandestino and has authored two books about Italian sushi, is widely credited with inventing the idea of pasta sushi in Italian fine dining.
"I started to create recipes using raw fish and cold pasta many years ago now," he explains. "It's very simple to replace the typically used rice with different kinds of pasta in these [sushi] dishes."
Cedroni views his decision to experiment with sushi-style cuisine as a natural progression from other more traditional dishes, given the good availability and immense popularity of seafood in Italy.
"Of course, though, the method is a little different when I am using pasta," he adds. "I tend to cook it with vinegar, salt, and sugar, then top it with extra virgin olive oil, or with a 'colatura' [literally 'colouring'] of anchovies or fish sauce."
I'd wager that most people don't visit Italy for its Japanese-style cuisine, but food historian Francine Segan thinks that an Italian take on sushi is not only natural, but inevitable.
"It's really not surprising once you think that raw seafood is very much a Mediterranean tradition and a part of Italian cuisine dating back to Ancient Rome," she explains. "It's logical when you consider that Italy has access to lots of high quality seafood and has wonderful ways of presenting that seafood raw. Why not make sushi using pasta as a base?"
"Pasta sushi is really not surprising once you think that raw seafood is very much a Mediterranean tradition and a part of Italian cuisine dating back to Ancient Rome."
But can these dishes really be called sushi in the same way as Japan's most legendary foodie export? According to Osamu Nishida, head instructor at the Tokyo Sushi Academy cooking school in Japan, the use of pasta instead of rice technically means that pasta sushi isn't sushi at all. The word actually refers to the vinegar-soaked rice rather than the use of fish, raw or otherwise.
"Rice is very important for sushi," Nishida explains. "If the food doesn't have any rice or vinegar, then it is not sushi for the Japanese people. Both rice and vinegar are essential elements of sushi in Japan."
Despite this, Nishida thinks mixing up the ingredients of sushi is a positive move, and is keen to encourage other overseas chefs to experiment with and spend time developing non-traditional dishes inspired by Japanese cooking.
"I had not heard of this pasta sushi trend in Italy, but I really like the idea of such a unique style of sushi," he tells me.
Cedroni agrees that pasta sushi should be thought about separately from Japan's culinary traditions.
"Pasta sushi is only an Italian food. It is not Japanese," he says. "I tend to use only Mediterranean ingredients, and I produce [Italian] recipes with raw instead of cooked fish. So it is not so different from other kinds of Italian cooking."
There's an explosion of tangy, salty freshness on my tongue, followed by a slightly disconcerting sliminess as the spaghetti-like pasta casing makes itself known.
Although a number of upscale restaurants across Italy have begun offering pasta sushi dishes on their menus, the trend hasn't filtered down to the country's high streets on a noticeable scale. Many chefs have heard of it, but the casual seafood restaurants and relaxed sushi bars of Italy's north seem nonchalant towards the idea when I mention it.
"Maybe we would consider making it if we had more people asking for this kind of food," a waiter named Giacomo tells me during lunch in a laid back Perugia restaurant.
Interestingly, though, pasta sushi is becoming more and more popular in home cooking in both Italy and other countries, something that Segan has observed firsthand in the response to her book Pasta Modern, which offers a user-friendly recipe to introduce the pasta sushi concept.
"Pasta sushi is probably the single most popular recipe in my book. I get so many emails and it's gotten so much attention," she tells me. "Home cooks have trouble with sushi rice. It can be unwieldy in making the rolls or even forming them. Pasta is something that's just so homey and so easy, and people can do their own creative riffs on the idea of pasta sushi. The shell shape in particular is such a no-brainer of simplicity."
While pasta sushi itself may not be enough to tempt foodie visitors over to Italy, the concept is definitely an interesting take on Japanese and Italian fusion food—and a good trick for impressing friends at dinner parties.