Stirring the pot on Italian food in America

Okay, so I know I am probably going to open up a can of worms with this post, but what the hell!  A lot of what I am writing is my personal views, opinions and what I have read and observed.  This post stems from a recent debate I had with one of my good friends.  Debating amongst friends is a good thing.  It keeps you on your toes.  So here is goes.

For the most part, Italian food in the United States of America is a bastardization of the regional cooking of the Mezzogiorno or Southern Italy.  When we walk into a typical Italian restaurant here in the States, we are greeted with a menu that looks nothing like a menu from Italy.  Italian-American mainstays include spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, pizza, etc.  Now, understand that I have absolutely no problem with these dishes.  In fact, I am addicted to pizza, however not American style pizza, but Neapolitan style pizza. 

These mainstays are a little over 100 years old.  Let’s be honest, tomatoes did not become a part of the Italian culinary repertoire until the late 1700s-early 1800s.  So when we think about it Pizza Margherita is a baby in the food world.  However, pizza as a general idea of baked dough with topping minus the tomato sauce has been around for centuries.

So as Italian-Americans, it is fine and dandy to say we love Italian food, but remember our idea of Italian food is totally different than what is presented on a plate in Italy.  On my visits to Italy, I do not remember seeing spaghetti and meatballs on any menus.  Often, I did see pizza.  However, I believe that you could find spaghetti and meatballs on Italian menus in areas that are predominantly touristy.  The reason for this development is because of the popularity of all things Italian that has encompassed the globe.  Again I believe this popularity is based mainly on what us Americans consider Italian food, not what Italian food really is.

Growing up, I ate tomato sauce with macaroni every Sunday, so I am not knocking the institution of the Italian-American family dinner.  These dinners were necessary to hold together a newly arrived family here in America with no extensive familial support system like back in Italy.  And it was great how this tradition carried on for generations.  But I believe that it was these Sunday dinners that gave rise to what we now unanimously consider Italian food.  So yes these Italian-American dishes are obviously Italian but by way of the United States.

Don’t get me wrong, there are more and more restaurants opening across America that are preparing the traditional and regional cuisines and products of Italy.  I think it is pertinent to consider the cuisine of Italy as not being national, but instead as being regional or even diocesan.  So for example, it is possible to step into a Roman style trattoria in New York City and order cacio e pepe (Pecorino cheese, black pepper and a little pasta water) and get a true cacio e pepe without cream, vegetables, etc.  It’s also possible to visit a Neapolitan style pizzeria that follows the strict guidelines set forth by L’Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani (the Association of Neapolitan Pizza Makers).  You can even find salumerie dotting the landscape from the East to the West Coasts.  A salumeria is similar to a delicatessen, only better.  It carries all kinds of dried, salted and/or cured pig and beef products, for example Prosciutto di San Daniele or Guanciale.  So “true” (if I could use such a word) Italian food is becoming more and more accessible in the United States.  This is thanks in part to people such as Cesare Casella, Michael Chiarello, Scott Conant, Mario Batali, Marc Vetri, Luca Corazzina and Efiso Farris to name but a very few!  Like I always say, it is important to try the cuisines of different cultures.  For some us, Italian-American or otherwise, we should open our stomachs to trying the “other” cuisines of our ancestral home.  I hope this opens your eyes a bit to the foods of Italy.  There is so much more to taste and see.  Enjoy!

P.S. If you are in the New York Metro area, this Tuesday, August 31, 2010, don’t forget about the opening of Eataly NYC.  It will be showcasing the food and products of Italy through its restaurants and shops.  This project is being opened by Chef Mario Batali, his partner Joe Bastianich, Joe’s mother Chef/Host of “Lidia’s Italy” Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Oscar Farinetti (the founder of Eataly).  It is also being overseen by Slow Food, which is a movement that preserves the products, foods and traditional preparations of cuisines and cultures.  This has the makings of something BIG!  I’m so excited!

Living to eat,
Tony Mangia

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