ROME Top Italian chefs are clamoring for the resignation of a junior minister who dismissed the country's cuisine as a poor copy of trendy French cooking, poking a sore spot in a long-held kitchen rivalry between the two nations.
"I have a negative judgment of the skill of Italian chefs," Italian Culture Undersecretary Ilaria Borletti Buitoni told weekly magazine Panorama.
"In Italy, we haven't been able to eat well for a long time, unfortunately. We are trying to do what's trendy, what's French, moving away from our concept of cuisine."
Restaurateurs were outraged at the betrayal by a person whose job is to promote Italian culture, including the culinary kind whose regional diversity has given the world famed pasta dishes, risotti, pizza, fine wines and gelato.
"I read this statement in disbelief," Raffaele Alajmo, owner of the three Michelin star restaurant Le Calandre ranked 27th best in the world, wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Enrico Letta questioning if the minister was in the right job.
"What parallel world does Mrs Borletti Buitoni live in? What restaurants has she eaten in to declare the total collapse of Italian cuisine?"
Her words stung all the more because she comes from food aristocracy in Italy: she takes her name from her husband, the former heir to the Buitoni pasta and sauce empire, now owned by Nestle.
"If she comes to my restaurant, I'll ignore her," Rome chef Filippo La Mantia told Panorama.
The snub was seen as an own goal in a historic rivalry between the two countries.
"In France, butchers and pastry-makers are awarded prizes every year from the government as the best artisans in the country. In Italy, far from recognizing our value, our institutions are actually against us," said two-starred Michelin chef Moreno Cedroni.
Others lost no time in slipping in a jibe at the culinary prowess of their Gallic rivals.
"She accuses us of aping the French. She should know that their cuisine is outdated," said chef Chicco Cerea of northern Bergamo.
Behind the bile lies a serious concern about support for a tourist industry that accounted for 8.6 percent of Italy's gross domestic product in 2011, a mainstay of an economy mired in its longest recession on record.
Both France and Italy are in the top five most-visited countries in the world, but France has remained persistently more popular with tourists, according to the world tourist organization.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary, editing by Paul Casciato)