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Fat Guy

Does Italy lack culinary relevance?

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Bux - My point was that the people in the countries I mentioned have developed a taste for French food. But the Italians don't see to have developed a taste for it the same way. Witness Fancesco's tale of Ca Leivi and the locals calling it "French" when he thinks it's the perfect Ligurian restaurant.

Good point when clearly stated, but have the Germans really incorporated French cuisine into their own food and palate. The British have, if only to fill a vacuum, but I'm not so sure about the Spanish either except at haute cuisine levels. Perhaps more locals eat at haute cuisine restaurants in Catalonia and the Basque area than in Italy. I'm not sure. I've seen a lot of tourists in those restaurants, but my knolwedge of Itally and its restaurants is rather weak.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Oh dear, oh dear.

Steve, you're so tactful: "But you raised another good point. Not only are they provincial as a nation, they are provincial by region. Do they have cars there?" Er, Fiat? Ferrari? Alfa Romeo?

And I think that, given the gargantuan menus which typified French cuisine pre-Escoffier - and which were simplified by Escoffier only to a scale which seems rich and heavy to modern eyes - the presence of a pasta course can hardly be significant.

One point I didn't see in the preceding posts, and apologies if I overlooked it, is this: I wonder with what frequency Italians dine at restaurants in comparison with the French? And I don't mean just city-dwelling Italians today, but Italians from the city and country, north and south, over the last one hundred and fifty years. I suspect a dramatically smaller market for restaurant food has existed in Italy over that period, both for social (family) and economic reasons. If so, this would seem to be a decisive factor. But of course, I have no data; I am speculating.

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Bux,

I'm afraid I have a sneaking suspicion that you read what you want to read and then make your own assumptions accordingly.

...

Does that clear this up once and for all?

I don't object so much to where you find Michelin less than most helpful, even in France I use other guides to temper my dependance on Michelin. In Italy, although my experience is limited there, I found it even more useful to have an Italian guide for reference although my comfort with Michelin's style made it useful too. I just object to speaking of a "Michelin restaurant" as if it implied a "Michelin starred restaurant."


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Because the taste of real Italian food is dependent on the ingredients being from the terroir. Why Babbo is more successful at it is they go out of their way to try and replicate that taste, sometimes to the point of importing handpicked ingredients. I remember I once went to the Italian Wine Merchant when they first opened. They were serving as hors d'ouvres for their customers a soft salami that Bastianich brough in from Trieste less then 2 hours before. The stuff was phenomenol. The best salami I ever tasted. And one of the reasons is that it tasted of being there.

This theme of "local ingredients' is a major theme that runs through all aspects of European cooking. Take carnoroli rice. What makes it so good when you eat it in Italy? Is it the water they use in Lombardy? . Is it the butter they use that makes the risotto be rich and creamy? Or what are the cows are fed? Because when you get it to NYC the quality of the risotto it makes isn't anywhere as good.

I think Italy exported their cuisine to the best of their ability, save for the concept of local terroir which they couldn't replicate here. And because they couldn't replicate the terroir, we ended up with the style and not the substance. A lot of food that walks, talks and feels Italian but isn't really Italian.

But I think that chefs like Collicchio and Alice Waters are correcting this mistake on the part of the American food business. But now that they have found that appropriate ingredients are available, there is no need to copy Italian cuisine because we are well on the way of developing a local cuisine that is indiginous to America. It's that point that makes the "relevency" of Italian cooking strategy, and the question of why it never flourished a relevent question. And unless someone who is a champion and innovator appears on the scene, they will be relegated to the delicious, but more like home food category.

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You 've got to learn how to use smilies, or stop eating out with Plotnicki.

Never had the pleasure of eating out with Mr. Plotnicki, Bux.

When you get an "obvious-sacasm-that-might-be-being-cute-or-might-have-an-edge" smilie then I will use it.

:biggrin::wink:

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...Italian is the most popular cuisine in the United States according to every statistical measure I've seen, yet Italian food in the United States -- minus a few atypical joints like Babbo -- is quite bad. ...

I have to take your word for that blanket assessment of US Italian food. I've eaten at several Italian restaurants in NYC, and although I can't say that I found any of them (except Babbo) excellent, I would say the general standard was perfectly good.

I think we also have very large numbers of Italian restaurants in Britain, although we probably have a higher proportion of Indian and Chinese than the USA. Here I find the general standard of Italian restaurants is good. Outside the haute cuisine establishments in Central London, my guess is that most of the high quality restaurants are Italian.

Maybe their apparently better performance in the UK is to do with market positioning, since Chinese and Indian initially took the low-quality cheap ground, leaving the higher ground for the Italians and (in lesser numbers) French. I can't believe it's related to the inherent cuisine.

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...Italian is the most popular cuisine in the United States according to every statistical measure I've seen, yet Italian food in the United States -- minus a few atypical joints like Babbo -- is quite bad. ...

I have to take your word for that blanket assessment of US Italian food.

I suppose we should do a reality check there. Experienced diners, is my assessment of US Italian food correct? Is it on the whole "quite bad" when compared to Italian food in Italy?


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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Experienced diners, is my assessment of US Italian food correct? Is it on the whole "quite bad" when compared to Italian food in Italy?

FG - I'm not sure I would say "bad." I would use the phrase "not authentic."

Even Babbo, while excellent, falls into the "NA" category. As was mentioned (I think by Steve), it's probably the ingredients, but most places also have problems with concept.

No one (at least I haven't seen it) serves Lamb's Head (capazelle sp?) in a restaurant. Yet, as a kid, this would be served all the time and the honored guest(s) were presented the eyes for consumption. This is just one example, but there are many - tripe, eels, lungs etc.... A majority of Italian restaurants just don't serve them.

While the above are extreme examples, Chicken Parmagiana is not authentic Italian cooking.


Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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FG -- Your assessment of US Italian restaurants is basically right on point, at least from my experience. I had one absolutely dreadful experience at Babbo, but there are so many good reports to the contrary, I will take those as evidence that Babbo is indeed an exception.

In recent years, I have had some very good meals at Scalinatella, Il Postino, Il Nido, Lusardi's and some other UES joints (a lot like Zianni in London). But these restaurants smack more of NY than Italy. I describe them as being like a decent trattoria in Venice at twice the price. Draw your own conclusions.

Rich -- I am reminded of Marriah Carey's comment when asked by the Roman press what her favourite Italian dish was. "Chicken Parm," she replied. :wacko:

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Experienced diners, is my assessment of US Italian food correct? Is it on the whole "quite bad" when compared to Italian food in Italy?

Outside of a few examples, it is mediocre, and partially for the reasons Steve states above- I don't think it's a cuisine that you can replicate well without the freshest, most local (sic) ingredients. Lupa's a very authentic Roman tratorria and succeeds partly b/c they have their won salumeria downstairs.

Other "Italian" restaurants are pan-Italian, or try to use technique/too many ingredients- I was taken to the "best" Italian place in Minneapolis and served an heirloom tomato salad with EVOO- very Italian, except they also added basil and arugula, and croutons, and mozzerella, and parmesan, and vinegar, and bits of proscuitto- it wasn't bad, but it wasn;t Italian either.

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Steve S., If you define modern gastronomy as “dining in today’s world”, I would have to say that the essence of it does not revolve around “cutting edge” or innovation, but what I have described previously as “gourmandness” or the immersion of oneself in the gastronomic life. In that regard, Italy has no competition. What strikes me as the reasons for this are the sheer number of not only delicious restaurants (and how often do you hear it said that for eating day in and day out, Italy has it all over France; and to add my personal take, I have yet to cry “uncle” when touring gastronomically in Italy) that one can simply walk into without any prior knowledge. But not only is the average restaurant delicious, but the people who own it are likely to be all related, and thus more entrepreneurial-spirited and caring. Add to this the seemingly-endless number of gastronomic resources in terms of specialty stores, markets, and vineyards and the geographic rapidity in which gastronomic zones come and go, I don’t think there is any other country that can compete.

Modern gastronomy in the sense of innovation and experimentation I admit is not a hallmark of Italian cuisine; but that hardly implies that it does not exist. I believe there are many chefs, unheralded or otherwise, who take a posture toward classic Italian cuisine not unlike the “Nouvelle Cuisine” chefs did in France in the late 1960s through the 1980s. Take such guidebooks as “La Guida de L’Espresso, “Gambero Rosso”, or the Veronelli, and you will see dozens upon dozens of highly-rated restaurants whose chefs put their own spin on traditional Italian cuisine. It may not be as extreme (or as in often the case, misguided) as what one could find in France, Spain or parts of the Anglo-Saxon world, but it exists in what I find to be in a more sober and disciplined form. I believe however that what motivates the situation (perceived or otherwise) that Italian cuisine, or eating in Italy, suffers because of lack of innovation or risk-taking on the part of chefs is in reality indicative of the triumph and immutable nature of classic Italian cuisine that is part and parcel of a nation whose omnipresent great art, architecture and music can never be accused of superficiality or trendiness. French cuisine, on the other hand, shares some of the attributes of French decorative art, which in French culture has played a relatively larger role, particularly in the 20th century, compared to fine art. The two main attributes are its ephemeral nature and preoccupation with decoration at the surface, the latter of which is apparent in the presentation of food on the plate and the design of certain savories and desserts.

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The rice is for tourists.

Plotnicki - we should go fishing, as you are so good at baiting hooks. Two bites today! :biggrin:

Isn't Steve the guy who doesn't like sushi?


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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Robert - Are you trying to say that the French raised the concept of fashion into being a form of art? It sounded like that was what you were saying. And if that's the case, isn't that a function of their catering to the bourgoisie? You know more about this then I do but, doesn't it all come down to the fact that Italian cuisine is based on the notion of food as sustenance and the French have added frivolity(is that the right word) and fancifullness to the equation? And if this line of thinking is correct, where does one put Italian opera in the mix, a discipline that mixes the most frivolous themes with the most profound technique? How come the Italians didn't evolve their cuisine like they evolved their arias?

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However the Japanese often eat informally and then break all their own formal rules (from a western viewpoint, it can be seen as a dichotomy) and eat sushi or donburi. The latter is a dish of food over rice, much like the cheap workman's meals in Chinatown. There is little to be learned about Japan by visiting most Japanese restaurants in the west because the Japanese can be so adaptable.

Or, chirashi--seafood over a bowl of rice.


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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It's not a matter of disallowing pasta, it's a matter of it being injected into every meal as it's own course. And what do you mean that the Japanese use starch. Are you speaking of the rice in sushi? Real connoisseurs of Japanese food only eat sashimi. The rice is for tourists.

Not according to Yasuda. He said the fish is an afterthought, it's the rice that counts. And that sushi is where it's at.

I don't personally agree, but it's somewhat of an authorative opinion.


beachfan

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Laser beam thinking. :laugh:

I wonder why German food isn't as complex as Beethoven's late quartets?

:raz:

(C'mon, Steve, I've been agreeing with you too much recently.)

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Isn't dissing Italian food by comparing it (or just about any other fare) to French cuisine unfair? The French are like the Yankees. They always win. Oops! Guess they don't sometimes. And, I'd say risotto is one of those times.


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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Steve P., Concerning Italian opera, that's what happens when you make a generalization and someone comes along and asks about the specifics (or the exceptions). My main concern or connection is the French involvement with decoration (of which frivolity is a major component such as in the 1920s). It would be interesting if to know if someone ever studied any correlation between the decorative concerns of a country during a certain time and how it influenced cuisine. (There is a matter of national character at work here as well.)

On one of your previous concerns, don't you think (as Bux alluded to) that pasta is the driving force of Italian cuisine? I fact I said to my wife just this summer that it was presence of the pasta section that made Italian menus and restaurants as varied as they are. And hasn't whatever innovation that there has been in Italian cuisine taken place mostly with pastas/risottos (mainly outside of Italy, too)?

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Steve-

Italian opera, and when I say this I mean Verdi, is full of themes that could not be further from frivolity. His operas are full of political themes that make significant comment on the times in Europe from 1850-1900 or so.

Puccini and Rossini may be frivolous, but not Italian opera on the whole.

Robert-

well said.

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Does it not also have something to do with Italy's failure to export its cuisine effectively? I mean, Italian is the most popular cuisine in the United States according to every statistical measure I've seen, yet Italian food in the United States -- minus a few atypical joints like Babbo -- is quite bad. Why is that, and whose fault is it?

Would this also be the case with the second most popular ethnic cuisine in the US, Chinese? Even though the 2 countries are vastly different sizes, their internal divisions and regions make classification of a codified national cuisine difficult. This being the case I can't see that it is anyones "Fault," it's just that such variable cuisines that depend on fresh authentic ingredients are hard to duplicate well elsewhere.

Also, as the Chinese/Italian "molds" of what constitutes these cuisines in the US were being cast, they tended to be directed at the lowest common denominator (cheap filling food) wheras French has always aimed higher. I believe this was all hashed out in the thread comparing French to Chinese a few months ago.


=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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Maybe it's me, but it seems that some of what is written on this site regarding Italian cuisine is quite informative but most of what is written is a lot of bigoted, uninformed trash.

Now I'm used to everyone ignoring and/or trashing me BUT when someone, Robert Brown, finally comes along and says it exactly as it is he is totally ignored.

Thanks Robert anyway.

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Robert - But what about the Italian arostocracy? As was nicely demonstrated on one of those history of French cooking threads, the aristocracy supported people like La Varenne and his peers and somehow that evolved into French cuisine. Is there no Italian equivelent other then Catherine di Medici? Did the Italian noblemen eat peasant food? I find that hard to swallow. I happen to agree with you about pasta. The concept of a pasta course has subsumed the entire Italian meal.

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All of the Italian (and most of the Italian-American) cooks I know want to cook like their Grandmothers. Most of the American (or other) cooks want to cook like Ferran Adria. Who has the more admirable goal? Who has the more difficult task?

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Robert - But what about the Italian aristocracy? As was nicely demonstrated on one of those history of French cooking threads, the aristocracy supported people like La Varenne and his peers and somehow that evolved into French cuisine. Is there no Italian equivelent other then Catherine di Medici? Did the Italian noblemen eat peasant food? I find that hard to swallow. I happen to agree with you about pasta. The concept of a pasta course has subsumed the entire Italian meal.

Steve - the various regions that make up modern Italy have a long history of cooking for the aristocrats. It changes from period to period, but international scale books have come out of the Papal courts, Venice, Milan. Please try to find an English translation of Artusi's book, so that you can make a comparison to Escoffier. Maybe the answers you seek are contained in why this author is known as the father of Modern cooking and the other is regarded highly in his own country, but unknown elsewhere.

At the time when Catherine went to the French court it would seem that Venetian Chefs were in vogue and it was many of these that went with her. One hundred odd years later some of the French chefs went to Venice, where the Venetians complained that they had ruined good Venetian cooking!

In 15-18th C. British cookbooks there are many references to the Italian style of cooking. In an early English cookbook (Robert May, who cooked for toffs) there are several recipes for ravioli and other pasta types.

In Modern Italian cooking, I'm not sure where this historical upper class food fits in. Certainly, some of the Festival food seems to be directly taken from this tradition (some of it is even obviously medieval), but could it be that the case in Italy is similar to what is the case in Modern China? A long tradition of Aristo. cooking that was wiped out on the mainland due to changes in the form of government.

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