Restaurateurs around Empoli, a town about thirty kilometers west of Florence, recently asked local officials to curb the sagre selvagge cropping up in the area now that sagra season is in full swing. Selvaggio, which means ‘wild’ or ‘uncivilized’ in Italian, here refers to the ‘uncontrollable’ way Italian sagras have been expanding of late. According to an article on La Nazione’s Empoli page, the group claims that these unchecked sagras, with their low prices and non-stop weekend occurrence the summer through, present unfair competition to restaurants, particularly during this period of economic stalemate.
Aggravating frustrations is the continued disregard by sagra organizers of the collectively-recognized purpose of a sagra—to ‘celebrate’ a particular crop or traditional dish. While no one expects sagra organizers to arrange a menu entirely of, say, porcini mushroom dishes, many Italians remember a time when sagras were at least ostensibly about honoring the porcini (or polenta, or tortelli) above all else. These days, however, commonplace foods wholly unconnected to the star ingredient, such as french fries and grilled sausage, often dominate sagra menus at prices restaurants simply cannot compete with. Confesercenti, an association representing tourism and commercial sectors, has sent letters to 11 local government seats on behalf of the Empoli restaurateurs asking for increased monitoring of area sagras.
The controversy surrounding illegitimate sagras tends to hibernate winters and stir again with the arrival of summer, not coincidently. From May to October, Italy hosts millions of visitors from around the world, many of whom opt for vacations in the sagra-saturated countryside. Countless Italians escape to rural retreats this time of year as well, where they’re sure to seek out the locally-hosted sagra. This seasonal, stop-and-go pattern of finger-pointing, together with sagras’ odd jurisdictional circumstances, make redressing breaches with tradition somewhat challenging. As place-centered events, sagras are usually organized either by a town’s pro loco, or by local non-profit cultural associations; and officially sagras fall under the jurisdiction of the municipal government, the comune. With close to 300 comune seats in Tuscany alone, each home to several smaller towns known as frazioni, and each frazione a potential sagra organizer…You get the picture.
Those familiar with Platform 17 might recall a post last year on sagra reform in my municipality, Borgo San Lorenzo. In response to restaurant owners’ same complaints of unfair competition, the Borgo municipal government instituted a set of reform measures in effort to restore some balance to ‘wild’ sagras. The new regulations included enforced recycling, establishing a sagra ‘season’ (April 15 to October 30), and limiting each organizing association to one sagra per calendar year. At the time I saw the reforms as a needed step towards reconciliation; now, with the sagra reform movement growing, I suspect the commercial interests of restaurant owners have begun to skew the overall perception of sagras. Even those of us who adore the sagra experience know that they can be disappointing at times. Nonetheless, singling out the sagra tradition as the cause of the restaurant industry’s economic woes is dubious.
Do sagras really present unfair competition to Italian restaurants? Or are anxious restaurant owners looking for a scapegoat? Consider that sagras do not operate in cold-weather months, meaning restaurants have an opportunity to conduct business for almost half the year free of sagra ‘competition.’ Savvy restaurateurs would use this to their advantage, during the winter holidays, for instance, a time when Italians eat out often. What’s more, the presumption that a restaurant meal is by default a better meal—one of the common accusations launched at sagras is that they offer low quality, generic foods—is false. Overpriced, second-rate restaurants run by people who care little about the food they serve abound in Italy.
For these mediocre restaurateurs, I see what scant competition a sagra could potentially pose as a good thing, if it means sub-par restaurants will stop taking their superiority for granted and face up to the realities of the competitive sector in which they’ve chosen to operate. A restaurant that offers fine food at the appropriate price will never truly be threatened by the existence of sagras, in short, which is one reason why I’ve grown skeptical about the ongoing calls for reform. I will continue to cheer reforms if they are similar to those Borgo San Lorenzo instituted last year, not to serve the interests of restaurants, but to protect the sagra’s reputation.
Sagras offer a vital outlet to Italians. As a socially-sanctioned venue in which the average ultra-image-conscious Italian can forget about bella figura for an entire evening, a sagra functions not unlike the carnevale or mummers traditions—traditions whose spirit of playful upheaval, in acts of feigned defiance and the flouting of established roles, were once essential to maintaining social equilibrium. Perhaps in no other communal ritual in this country are status-consciousness and etiquette so readily cast off (that this happens for the sake of a plate of home-made pasta says a lot about Italians, I think). A man may wear shorts and sandals at a sagra, unthinkable for most Italian men, save a day at the beach. A woman might have that second glass of wine, something she only rarely allows herself. Children run wild and no one minds; a level of cheery chaos is expected at, even requisite to, a sagra meal. And while in almost every other eating ritual it would be considered rude, at a sagra diners of the same party do not wait for each other’s food to arrive before digging in. I see sagras more and more as a kind of conduit of social liberation for a people who, very generally speaking, do not easily shed their everyday established personas.
Back to the business of restaurants. I can sympathize, but no more than I do with the many artisans and craftsmen put out of business almost daily the world over by commercial giants. It occurs to me that a simple, friendlier way to end the sagra-versus-restaurant debate might be for the two to work to distinguish themselves from one another rather than compete. As eating experiences, a sagra and a restaurant meal could not be more unalike—putting a sagra and a restaurant side by side is a lot like comparing a hayride to the Orient Express. Sometimes we need the hayride.