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Bruni and Beyond: Reviewing (2008)


Nathan
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Just because Bruni spent time in Italy and occasionally engages in grade inflation for Italian restaurants doesn't mean he has "knowledge." What is there about his review of Scarpetta, or any other Italian restaurant, that demonstrates a particularly high level of knowledge (or judgment)?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Just because Bruni spent time in Italy and occasionally engages in grade inflation for Italian restaurants doesn't mean he has "knowledge." What is there about his review of Scarpetta, or any other Italian restaurant, that demonstrates a particularly high level of knowledge (or judgment)?

He clearly has the perspective of having dined extensively in Italy. It's the only cuisine he writes about where you get the sense of broader experience than just eating out a lot in Manhattan. I suppose it's possible that he ate all those meals in Italy without learning anything, but I give him at least that much credit. Obviously, it's all relative. He's not the world's greatest expert on Italian cuisine, but to the extent he's knowledgeable about anything, he's knowledgeable about that.

I suppose his Italian expertise, however limited it may be, helps make his reviews of those restaurants more informed. It also has a warping effect, because non-Italian restaurants are at a disadvantage.

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I would say that his mentions of regionality, such as contrasting the Northern aesthetic of agnolotti filled with chicken, veal, pork, preserved truffles and sauced with melted fontina versus the Southern aesthetic of cavatelli with chickpeas and bitter greens, demonstrate a respectable level of knowledge. I could say the same about his rapturous attention to the most simple dish on the menu (spaghetti al pomodoro) as well as to his discussion (more developed in the slide show) of how Conant takes the Nobu-inspired "black cod with sweet glaze" meme and executes it within the Italian culinary aesthetic.

How else, in the context of this review, would you suggest that such knowledge be demonstrated? It's clearly not a restaurant that attempts to slavishly reproduce a microregional cuisine, so it's unclear to me how one would work any deep discussion of italianità into a 1,000 word NYT review.

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Just because Bruni spent time in Italy and occasionally engages in grade inflation for Italian restaurants doesn't mean he has "knowledge." What is there about his review of Scarpetta, or any other Italian restaurant, that demonstrates a particularly high level of knowledge (or judgment)?

Knowledge is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary variously as expertise and skills acquired by a person through experience or education...and awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.

Therefore, his time in Italy certainly gives him knowledge of Italian food through his experience.

Sam said the rest.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I don't see anything in his review that he couldn't have learned from reading books and articles about Italian cuisine. By contrast, his reviews of French, Japanese and other non-Italian cuisines often evidence a need to read some books and articles. If that contrast constitutes expertise in Italian cuisine, so be it.

Just to get a semi-random sample for comparison, I looked for reviews of Italian restaurants by Ruth Reichl. I searched the Times archive for the word "Italian" with "Reichl" in the byline and took the first result that came up, which was a September 1998 review of Da Silvano. So, pretty much 10 years ago, when Da Silvano was one of the better Italian restaurants in town, here's what the level of Italian-cuisine expertise was on the New York Times fine-dining beat:

Unlike the grander cuisines of the world, which rely on the chemistry of combination and transformation, Italian food is of the earth. People shop locally and cook with great simplicity: you find the same ingredients, prepared in much the same manner, again and again. The best Italian cooking starts with great raw materials and allows them to speak for themselves.
But if you really were in Italy, you would not find yourself quite so crowded or shouting quite so loudly. Arrive at Da Silvano with more than three people, and you are bound to miss half of what is being said at the table. You will, in fact, have a better chance of hearing what the celebrities at the next table are saying than of hearing your own companions.
A restaurant in Italy would undoubtedly cost less money: the bill here can quickly add up. On the other hand, a meal in a restaurant in Italy would probably end just as badly as it does at Da Silvano.

And so on. So there's at least something to be learned from Ruth Reichl's display of what strikes me as legitimate expertise.

Also worth noting, Frank Bruni reviewed Da Silvano in 2006. His review begins:

I have a bone to pick with Madonna. With Tom Hanks and Danny DeVito as well.

I definitely suggest reading both side by side. I think the strongest claim to be made in favor of Frank Bruni is that he knows sort of almost as much about Italian cuisine as Ruth Reichl did 10 years ago but isn't as good at distilling that knowledge and has only a fraction of her knowledge of every other cuisine. That's the most favorable reading I can come up with. Maybe someone else can do better.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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What you don't get from books is "taste experience," and I think Bruni has that for Italian cuisine. But that experience doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to write about it. What FG's post demonstrates is that Bruni is an awful food writer, with his Italian reviews being the better of a bad lot overall.

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The Reichl stuff all sounds trite and superficial to me, as though she feels that she has to "explain" Italian food for her readers. Saying things like, "the best Italian cooking starts with great raw materials and allows them to speak for themselves" is simply repeating something that we had already been hearing ad infinitum for years by 1998. I'd suggest that Bruni presupposes that his reader already know the basics of Italian cuisine by now, considering that it has been the most popular "ethnic" cusine in America for quite some time.

Reichl clearly starts out with the goal of teaching her readership a thing or two about Italian cooking. The first words from her pen are: "There must be thousands of Italian restaurants in New York City. Why are so few of them good? I think it is because most Americans do not understand the basic principles of Italian cooking." She also feels the need to remind her readers that she's spend time in Italy, by writing things like ". . . orata (sea bream) al forno reminds me very much of eating in a trattoria in Tuscany" -- which is interesting, since I wouln't say that this is a dish that particularly evokes Toscana. And some of the stuff she says is demonstrably untrue, such as "if you really were in Italy, you would not find yourself quite so crowded or shouting quite so loudly." If she believes this, I can only assume she's never been in a busy trattoria in one of the larger Italian cities. And she uses hackneyed descriptions of Italian restaurant cooking such as "straightforward goodness that characterizes the rustic restaurants of Italy." Really? What does that mean? How is this different from the straightforward goodness that characterizes the rustic restaurants of France? Or Spain?

Bruni, on the other hand, clearly does not feel the need to use this review to teach his readers about the Italian aesthetic and repeat such tired characterizations as "Italian cooking is about choosing a few pristine ingredients and treating them simply" that have been repeated a million times in post-Molto Mario America. And he offers tidbits that demonstrate a deep familarity of Italian foods without slapping the readers' faces with it in Reichl's self-aggrandizing manner. For example: "'Just like in Italy!' That's a fair tribute to the buffalo milk mozzarella, among the best in the city. It had a dead-on degree of the oxymoronic sweet sourness that this cheese is all about." He also puts it in the proper context of "Italian restaurants that are neither proudly hokey red-sauce joints nor stylized, self-conscious destinations" and explains how it has lost whatever Italian cred it once had over the thirty year process of devolving "from a trailblazing showcase for unadorned Tuscan cooking to something of a downtown Elaine's." Certainly there is nothing much on the menu there that requires much explanation, or that might benefit from Bruni explaining "how they do things over there in Italy."

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What FG's post demonstrates is that Bruni is an awful food writer, with his Italian reviews being the better of a bad lot overall.

But I disagree that this review of Scarpetta is awful food writing.

As Sam pointed out, there is a reservoir of knowledge, gained from his years of living in Italy and eating what people eat every day, that he is drawing upon for this review. For instance,

And what he’s adding to the sauce — the aforementioned basil, along with a red-pepper-infused olive oil and Parmesan cheese — contribute measures of zip (just a little), saltiness (a little more) and smoothness (a lot) that are inarguably right. I had this dish twice, and twice it stacked up against any spaghetti al pomodoro I’ve had in Italy.

and

for briny blasts of the sea, you can savor the mussels, clams, shrimp, squid and sea urchin roe entwined with calamarata, a thick noodle with a shape and weight that recall a squiggle of calamari, explaining the name.

tell me just what to expect when I order those pastas. Good writing. And the first paragraph of today's review is great, sort of poking fun at those of us who worry and fret over the NYC food scene.

If anything Reichl's writing is more informed by books and articles than Bruni's writing, which has come a long way since that review of Da Silvano in '06, for the better, imo. That's a good thing.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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gained from his years of living in Italy and eating what people eat every day

Just to be clear, he was Rome bureau chief from July 2002 until March 2004, in other words about 20 months. And we have no idea what he ate while there, no less if he ate "what people eat every day." We do know he lived in New York City for decades and never learned much about the restaurants here.

Did he eat spaghetti with tomatoes and basil often when he lived in Italy? The sentence he wrote allows for once or twice as possibilities. And did he eat the dish in restaurants or did he cook it like some people in Italy do every day? I get the point about his description of the spaghetti being sort-of evocative and certainly competent (nobody has said he's a bad writer) but "however Mr. Conant is choosing and cooking the Roma tomatoes with which he sauces his house-made spaghetti, he’s getting a roundness of flavor and nuance of sweetness that amount to pure Mediterranean bliss" is just lazy. He could have found out exactly how Conant chooses and cooks the tomatoes, by asking. Certainly, there was some discussion with the chef -- unless we choose to believe that Bruni's palate figured out red-pepper-infused olive oil on its own.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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am I the only one who thinks Bruni's review is the better one?  (especially when considering the intended audience is not the microscopic one of foodboard people)

Why do you think it's better?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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If anything Reichl's writing is more informed by books and articles than Bruni's writing

You say that like it's a bad thing. Reichl has both traveled extensively in Italy and familiarized herself with the written sources. Bruni has done the former (we assume he got out of Rome on occasion) but probably not the latter. My point was not that he's well-read on Italian cuisine but that his 20 or so months there haven't given him particular insight. I didn't think Ruth Reichl was the greatest reviewer ever, but now her tenure seems like the good old days.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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am I the only one who thinks Bruni's review is the better one?  (especially when considering the intended audience is not the microscopic one of foodboard people)

Why do you think it's better?

better written and it gives you a better sense of what it's like to eat at Da Silvano....which is the point of a restaurant review.

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simply repeating something that we had already been hearing ad infinitum for years by 1998

. . . . .

tired characterizations as "Italian cooking is about choosing a few pristine ingredients and treating them simply" that have been repeated a million times in post-Molto Mario America

Just to put some dates on all this:

- The Ruth Reichl review ran in 1998

- Babbo opened in 1998

- The first episodes of Molto Mario aired on the Food Network in 1997

So I hardly think Reichl was writing in post-Molto Mario America, where everybody allegedly knows the basics about Italian cuisine. She was teaching, in a way appropriate to her time and place. Bruni, for his part, is teaching pretty much nothing.

In addition, I think Reichl's teachings from 1998 are still not well understood outside of the gourmet community. Outside of a few dozen top restaurants, the Italian-restaurant cuisine that's popular in America today is just as bad as in 1998 -- probably worse when you consider the rise of Olive Garden etc. That's what Americans think Italian food is. So I think Reichl's statements are as true today as they were a decade ago.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think that, while Reichl is a better writer and comes off as more passionate about food, she also can be quite snotty about it. Often, I get the sense that she feels compelled to tell me that even the most basic of ideas (i.e. Italian cuisine = fantastic ingredients) need to be re-explained to me because she can do a better job of it than anyone else who could have possibly taught me.

ETA: I posted this while Fat Guy was posting his last... And he has a fair point that many Americans misunderstand Italian food. However, I still think that the way she explains things makes it seem as though she were ordained by God to enlighten the dimwitted earthlings about food.

Edited by MikeHartnett (log)
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am I the only one who thinks Bruni's review is the better one?  (especially when considering the intended audience is not the microscopic one of foodboard people)

Why do you think it's better?

1. It's less focused on the self-aggrandizement of the writer.

2. It's not preachy (which Reichl's is).

3. It's not full of trite, meaningless conventions about Italian food (which Reichl's is).

4. It has more to say about the actual quality of the cooking, what was good what was not good.

5. It lets the cat out of the bag with respect to how the restaurant has devolved into "Elaine's South" (which was no less true in 1998 than it is today). I would argue that this was the main thrust of the review.

6. Reichl's review, while ostensibly more narrowly food-focused, is full of weasel words (crostini toppings are "assertive"; broccoli rape is "satisfying"; pastas "beautifully cooked") and in many cases consists of simple recitations of dishes on offer ("anchovies are marinated and served, all by themselves"; "the grilled and roasted meats, or the vitello tonnato, or the orata (sea bream) al forno . . . have the straightforward goodness") without saying much more.

7. Reichl's review seems to be at least as much about telling her readers about how much she knows about Italy and how many times she has been there than it is about the restaurant ("most Americans do not understand the basic principles of Italian cooking"; "he best Italian cooking starts with great raw materials and allows them to speak for themselves"; "slow-cooked veal ragu that tasted just the way it would in Italy"; "reminds me very much of eating in a trattoria in Tuscany"; "if you really were in Italy, you would not find yourself quite so crowded or shouting quite so loudly"; "a restaurant in Italy would undoubtedly cost less money"; "a meal in a restaurant in Italy would probably end just as badly"; "it was exactly like the panna cotta I was served on my last visit to Florence"). None of these things particularly add to the reader's understanding of the restaurant, but they certainly do hammer home that Ruth's been to Italy. Meanwhile, it's not like Da Silvano is particularly noteworthy for its authenticity today, nor was it in 1998.

8. Bruni's review has more information as to whether the food is particularly good (Ruth's "assertive" crostini "tasted like pet food"; osso bucco was "overcooked and over-flabby, with nightmarishly liquefied marrow"; "entrees include roasted pork shoulder (flavorful enough to rise above a surfeit of salt), vitello tonnato (hugely flavorful despite leathery meat), a breaded veal chop (too oily)"; "I can't forget the bitterness of fava beans, served with pecorino, or the rubbery disgrace of the overcooked broccoli").

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simply repeating something that we had already been hearing ad infinitum for years by 1998

. . . . .

tired characterizations as "Italian cooking is about choosing a few pristine ingredients and treating them simply" that have been repeated a million times in post-Molto Mario America

Just to put some dates on all this:

- The Ruth Reichl review ran in 1998

- Babbo opened in 1998

- The first episodes of Molto Mario aired on the Food Network in 1997

So I hardly think Reichl was writing in post-Molto Mario America, where everybody allegedly knows the basics about Italian cuisine. She was teaching, in a way appropriate to her time and place. Bruni, for his part, is teaching pretty much nothing.

In addition, I think Reichl's teachings from 1998 are still not well understood outside of the gourmet community. Outside of a few dozen top restaurants, the Italian-restaurant cuisine that's popular in America today is just as bad as in 1998 -- probably worse when you consider the rise of Olive Garden etc. That's what Americans think Italian food is. So I think Reichl's statements are as true today as they were a decade ago.

That doesn't make those characterizations any less trite. It's not like Mario Batali was the first one to say those things. People had been saying that sort of thing on Italian cooking shows for years and years.

Meanwhile, at the time of Reichl's review, Felidia had been open since 1981; Po had been open since 1993; etc.

More to the point, I don't think that any of the things she said were particularly edifying in the context of that review, nor do I think that the context of a restaurant review is necessarily the right place for that kind of "teaching."

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That doesn't make those characterizations any less trite.

I don't think her comments are trite under any circumstances. They're still worth repeating, even today, but especially needed to be said as often as possible a decade ago. I think her summary of the Italian culinary aesthetic is accurate and helpful in explaining the problem she's addressing. Again, as has been pointed out already, the audience for New York Times restaurant reviews is a general readership. Educated in general, but not necessarily an all-gourmet audience. The basics are appropriate for such an audience.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Even if I were to concede that her characterizations of Italian cooking are not trite (which I don't), I would still point out that they were certainly not her own, they didn't necessarily demonstrate a deep understanding of Italian cooking other than the ability to read and repeat phrases and ideas that had been in circulation for years from other writers (Marcella Hazan? Paging Marcella Hazan?), nor do they present this information in any particularly edifying way, and they don't meaningfully contribute to an understanding of Da Silvano in 1998. And there are the other mainfest weaknesses in her review.

I'm not going to stand up and say that I think Bruni's Da Silvano review is a great piece of restaurant criticism and food writing. But I also don't think that this Reichl review evidences a deeper understanding of Italian food.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Bruni's review has more information as to whether the food is particularly good (Ruth's "assertive" crostini "tasted like pet food" . . . .

"Assertive" is a worthy flavor adjective, whereas the description "tasted like pet food" is trite even by the standards of CitySearch reader comments.

People had been saying that sort of thing on Italian cooking shows for years and years.

And in books, for even longer.

So if I catch either of you repeating the notion, any time post-1998, that Italian cuisine is ingredient-driven, minimalist, etc., it's okay for me to label those statements as trite? If so, I think I have an appointment with the eG Forums search engine. Seriously, though, Reichl is not making a claim to originality any more than a critic explaining a basic point in any other field is making a claim to originality. She's explaining a tradition and she's explaining it in an accurate distillation. In other words she's doing her job well.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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