How the Doner Kebab Is Polarizing Italy's Palates and Politics
“If more people eat here, they’ll be nicer to Jews.” So my father was fond of saying, whenever he’d bring my brother and I to Guys and Dolls, one of London’s first Israeli fast food joints. The hummus was excellent, the shawarma was even better. 30 years later London is sprawling with falafel places. While Guys and Dolls no longer exists, in its former spot on the Kings Road sits a Maroush restaurant, part of a mid-sized Lebanese chain. Looking for a good plate of hummus, or a bowl of foul? You can still get it, but now it’s served to you by Arab waitstaff, not Israelis. Unsurprisingly, at all the locations I’ve eaten at, I’ve heard as much Hebrew as Arabic. It’s a reassuringly safe space for all Middle Easterners to congregate, and dine on the foods they share, without controversy.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” I remember telling my ex-bandmate Brock, as we prepared to leave London for Milan. “It will pretty much be only Italian food, from herein.” What I didn’t realize, however, was that in the country’s main economic centers— Milan, Turin, Genoa— you’ll encounter a sprawling, global foodie scene, the likes of which Italians could not have foreseen at the time Guys and Dolls first opened in 1976.
Triggered by mass immigration from the Middle East, South Asia, and China, for the last three decades, Italian food culture has been undergoing a huge transformation, leaving most Italians stumped for comparisons. Marco Polo’s introduction of Asian noodles in the Middle Ages? The arrival of hamburgers, after World War II? There’s something unprecedented about it. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these new foods is doner kebab. This shawarma-like meat mix, consisting of beef, veal and lamb, traditionally served in thick Turkish bread, has been repurposed by immigrants to form what might be best called Italian Muslim cuisine.
Initially made available in pizzerias, as though it were part of the same general family of western Mediterranean fast foods, “donerias,” serve a variety of adaptations of the dish, depending upon who runs them. Particularly in the northern city of Turin, which plays host to an especially diverse immigrant community. At Porta Palazzo’s pan-Middle Eastern Sindbad, for example, the results are fairly traditional. Doners are served arrotolato-style (in homemade tortillas, or yufka, as they are called in Turkish).
Head south, towards central Turin, and things start to get more complicated. Egyptian pizzeria El Pasha offers doner meat inside enormous Sicilian calzone shells, replete with the usual doner sandwich fillings: yogurt, lettuce, onions and tomatoes. Just up the street, Passage to India offers “Indian kebab,” which in this instance means grilled beef, or chicken tikka kebab sandwiches, wrapped in petite naan bread. Purists may scoff at either mix. However, even for the most diehard doner head, the results are killer. It may not be doner anymore, but who cares? The cultural remixing this all spells out is perfectly acceptable, at least to local Italians, who pack these places at lunchtime.
My favorite restaurant, though, is an inconspicuous Egyptian-run pizzeria, in Turin’s San Paolo district, called Kiromina. It’s their Doner pizza, that I go for. The ingredients? Kebab meat, french fries and a hint of mayo, on top of a traditional, if a bit heavy, Margherita pie. The results are, as you’d imagine a bit different. However, there’s something about that feels as Italian as it does Turkish, or in the case of the owners, Egyptian. This pizza is big with the locals.
Not all Italians are pleased with this melting pot cuisine, however. In recent years, rightists in Tuscany have repeatedly complained that the proliferation of kebab places was obscuring the country’s cultural heritage. One municipality, the picturesque Lucca, went so far as to ban new foreign eateries from opening in 2009, a move that was again repeated in the beachside resort town of Forte dei Marmi in 2011. Though doner was what the legislation was after, every other foreign cuisine, popular amongst Italians was on the target list, too—Chinese, Indian, and sushi, in particular. Italian leftists have frequently attacked such measures, rightfully dubbing them “culinary ethnic cleansing.”
Among Italian conservatives, the popularity of foreign cuisine signifies something far worse than the globalization of Iocal eating habits. It’s a sign of the threat immigration poses to Italy, as though the food confirms their replacement, by migrants of the sort that make the doner that’s popular in cities like Turin. Standing in line at a doneria near our home the other night, waiting to pay for two take out sandwiches I’d ordered, I surveyed the customers, wondering just how many foreigners were present. None, except myself, that is, and the Arabic-speaking staff.
There was, something curious about the setting, however. Nearly 2/3rds of the customers were eating pizza. I’d never witnessed such an Italian-foods emphasis before at a place like this. Granted, most of the pies were covered in doner. Still, I’d have a hard time imagining such a scene anywhere outside of Italy. These pizzas weren’t necessarily a replacement for Italian cuisine, as much as an adaptation. I thought back to the Israelis happily eating hummus at Maroush, on the Kings Road. I wagered that if they had a chance to compare notes, these hungry customers would discover a lot in common. Not to mention with the immigrants making their delicious-looking pizza.
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Original doner pizza image from Shutterstock