Look around the kitchen of Filippo La Mantia’s hip restaurant in downtown Rome and you’ll see oranges, fresh basil, olive oil.
But no garlic.
“I will never use garlic,” declares the Sicilian chef as he demonstrates how to make a flavorful pasta dish — octopus linguine with orange juice and almond pesto — without the ingredient he hates.
A quintessential element of traditional Italian and Mediterranean cooking, garlic is at the center of a gastronomic dispute in this nation that prides itself on its food. To critics, it is a stinky product that overwhelms more delicate flavors. Admirers say garlic enhances taste, gives a dish an extra punch and is also good for the health.
“Garlic is the king of the kitchen,” says Antonello Colonna, another prominent Italian chef. “To eliminate it is like eliminating violins from an orchestra.”
Critics have started a ferocious campaign for garlic-free dining, and the debate has moved out of culinary circles. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s top daily, devoted a page to the matter, listing celebrities in each camp under the headline: “The Crusade of Garlic Enemies.”
They have a high-profile campaigner in former premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose aversion to garlic and obsession with minty breath are legendary. During his five-year stint, Palazzo Chigi, the premier’s palace, was rigorously garlic-free.
“He considers garlic very dangerous for the environment, his personal environment,” said Carlo Rossella, who heads the news department for one of Mr. Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels. “Berlusconi doesn’t like bad smells. Garlic is considered by Berlusconi a bad smell.”
Mr. Rossella, who says he is allergic to garlic, has been compiling a list of garlic-free restaurants and hopes to persuade distinguished restaurants to come up with separate garlic-free menus.
“Garlic, for me, is a sort of persecution,” he says. “They put garlic in almost any dish: With meat, with fish, everywhere. It’s not politically correct to impose garlic on everybody.”
Food critic Davide Paolini counters that certain dishes — such as the aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, oil and hot peppers) pasta — simply cannot be cooked without it. He has launched a survey on his Web site to ask readers where they stand on the debate.
“It’s nonsense dictated by people who want to keep their breath under control,” he says. “But it’s a real, genuine smell. It’s not stink.”
The bulbous herb has long been a mainstay of Italian cuisine, from steaks in Tuscany to dishes of the poor south, where cooking is traditionally less rich in butter and cream and garlic’s pungent flavor often accompanies simple vegetable dishes.
Garlic’s therapeutic qualities — including for heart disease, cancer and infections — also have been proclaimed, but there’s no agreement in the scientific community. A study published in February in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that garlic had no effect on cholesterol in people whose levels already were elevated.