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Fat Guy

Does Italy lack culinary relevance?

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

LOL! :biggrin: I'll use that the next time I'm in Germany.

But, seriously, this comment and Steve P.'s Gagnaire post on the France board raised a question:

Is food art?

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Peter P., what Robert B. has done -- or at least the way I read it this is what he has done -- is offered a defense of Italy, Italian cuisine, and Italian restaurants. I have no reason to disagree with him. His is the view of many of my most food-knowledgeable acquaintances.

But the question here is relevance. And to the rest of the world it seems that Italian cuisine lacks the kind of relevance that French cuisine has. At the higher levels of the industry it seems to lag behind Spain, Japan, and at this point it probably lags behind the United States.

I think this disconnect is pretty obvious, though I'd certainly listen to arguments challenging it. But as someone who hangs around with food-media people, chefs, and internationally experienced diners, I can say with some authority that while lots of people love Italy and Italian cuisine and the Italian dining experience, it somehow lacks relevance commensurate with its excellence.

Now what I want Robert B. to do is explain why that is. For the purposes of this thread, I don't care how good, innovative, or worthy the Italian dining experience is. I want to know why, if it's so good, it lacks relevance.


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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Mogsob - Are posts on eGullet art?

Adam - I have a copy of the Artusi. I was just laying in wait for you so I could come out of the bushes. The theme of the book is also to eat in a healthy manner correct?

My question wasn't about was their cooking for the aristocrats. Obviously if there were aristocrats they would get hungry everyday :wink:. My question was, like France, how come aristocratic cuisine in Italy didn't convert to a local version of haute cuisine like it did in France? If I can Plotnickiize the answers in three parts (sounds like a sonata doesn't it.)

1. No centralized seat of power

2. Not a great restaurant culture (which is a wealth distribution issue and probably is partially caused by number 1)

3. Stuck with a pasta course at every meal

The pasta course, as Robert alluded to is really the cornerstone of Italian cuisine, and it's also the weight that hangs around its neck. It is really an ingenius invention of the poor. It takes the smallest amount of meat, braises it either in or to make some sauce, and then flavors the paste. There are unlimited variations. Every single thing on a menu that can be served either on their own, or as a side dish can be cut in a shape and prepared in a way where it can be spooned atop the right shape and thickness pasta. So I think there is a fourth reason

4. They spent too much time making the pasta

I know that is sounds funny (I am actually laughing out loud) but it's sort of true. About ten years ago when there was some type of buzz in the foodie community about novina cucina, one of the food magazines in Italy offered a supplement with recipes from the top chefs which were beautifully photgraphed. A good percentage of them were of modern variations of pasta. In fact the single most famous dish (and possibly the only dish) to come out of that era was Gualtiero Marchesi's open ravioli with gold leaf. So I would say, in that conclusory Plotnicki tone, that spending endless time trying to make a bunch of paste and water sophisticated in the way the French would call something sophisticated is a waste of time. I see this as the defining difference between the cuisines. It isn't as though the French lacked good wheat and water either. They could have made a pasta course. Why did they reject that method of dining in favor of something else?

It has to come down to money and the ability of a middle class being able to extract the ingredients from a plate of pasta and serve them whole. Let's take a ragu Bolognese. What is it? It's some chopped meat, vegetables and herbs cooked to a gruel. It's a good foil for a plate of pasta as it moistens and flavors it. But if you are in France they will serve you the same exact thing except the meat is cut into larger pieces and they call it a stew. And what do they serve it with? Some pates. Wide noodles like pasta. Or they serve it with rice. Except there is one gigantic difference. Instead of serving it on the pasta, they serve it alongside. And then they take a few spoonfuls of gravy to moisten and flavor the pasta. The pasta has been transformed from being part of the dish to being an accompaniment.

Divorcing the main ingredient from the paste seems like a very small point, but I think it's at the heart of why Italian food seems anchored to its pasta, oops I mean its past :biggrin: (are there any etymologists who can check that?) Why? Most food cultures have had a golden age where they discarded old traditions and adopted new ones. How come the Italians insist on using pasta as their canvas for everything they cook?

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The pasta course, as Robert alluded to is really the cornerstone of Italian cuisine, and it's also the weight that hangs around its neck. It is really an ingenius invention of the poor. It takes the smallest amount of meat, braises it either in or to make some sauce, and then flavors the paste. There are unlimited variations. Every single thing on a menu that can be served either on their own, or as a side dish can be cut in a shape and prepared in a way where it can be spooned atop the right shape and thickness pasta.

Very interesting . . . an ingenius invention of the poor you say? Hmmm.

:wink:

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So what relevance do modern gastronomes have for Italian cuisine?

The most concrete suggestion is MrP's reiteration of Marinetti's cry to lose the pasta.


Wilma squawks no more

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Steve- the use of Pasta in Italy varies from region to region, family to family. Good you have you Artusi (which was about "healthy" eating, but not in the modern sense. Try "refined", rather then healthy), so in that you can see that there is a wide range of foods. Several Italian chefs in the 19-20th C. have been critical of the over use of pasta in Italian diet and have called it "unhealthy".

I'm not sure what type of Ragu you have had but tradionally you would make the Ragu, cook the pasta, take a small portion of the Ragu "fry/saute" this off (alters the flavour, possibly renders out some of the fat), mix this with the pasta, then place a serving of the un-sauted Ragu on top of the sauced pasta. Sounds similar to what you do with a Daube and noodle dish?

Pasta is carbohydrate, it serves a purpose. In the UK the same purpose was taken by puddings which were served before meat. They also have carbohydrates in France. I hear what you are saying, but I think that you are overplaying the significance of the pasta portion of the meal. If that was the impediment to the development of Italian High Cuisine then it would have been dropped or reduced in significance. Other reasons are more important, unless you are obsessive about paste/pie. :wink:

It is a little unfare to see Italian cooking as a static thing. The use of pasta in the North has increased significantly as has the use of tomatoes (difficult to find any significant use of them in most of Italy until late 19th. C.) etc.

I agree with you points (didn't I make some of them?:wink:), but one point that I think is valid and hasn't been picked up by you is that Italian simply isn't French. By this I don't mean that there is an overt French bias, simply that as a self contianed cuisine it doesn't fit into the French model, which is the model of Modern dining.

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Adam - I can't take exception with what you said. But you are avoiding the socio-economic aspects of the cuisines and what is ingrained in the heart of the populations. What I'm really getting at is that the Italian penchant for pasta has to do with their inability to divorce themselves from their peasant past. It's like the Brits continuting to eat pie after they could afford not to :wink:. Not that I am saying the Italians should discard pasta as part of their daily life. But their inability to discard it at the haute cuisine level has prevented them from creating what Fat Guy is describing (and which I agree with) a relevent cuisine. Every top rated restaurant in Italy serves a pasta course. Like Robert said, it's the heart of the meal. But this clinging to the peasant past has not hampered the development of French cuisine where large, thick slices of slowly braised or roasted meats were served as the main attraction and where the carbohydrates were turned into a side dish.

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Though possibly fair to characterise the history of the south of Italy in terms of a 'peasant' economy is this an appropriate caricature of cities such as Milan, Venice, Bologna?


Wilma squawks no more

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Well the wealthy Bolgnese had a tradition of cooking stewed meats in fancy sweet sauces. Today's Bollito Misto is the heir to that line of cuisine. And it is also true that the further north you go, the cooking gets more like French and German cuisine. But they all still have a pasta course. Actual pasta in Emiglia-Romana and risotto or polenta in the north. How come, if they adopted the culinary traditions of their neighbors, did they not abandon the pasta tradition? How come Veal Milanese (wienerschnitzel) follows the pasta course?

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One could say that Italian cuisine, while simple, is a complete cuisine.

And indeed exemplifies an aesthetic.

Why then would they adopt the food of their neighbours - the peasants of the Mediterranean coast or the Savoy?

What is the histoire de la longue duree account of the Roman Empire?


Wilma squawks no more

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4. They spent too much time making the pasta

Actually you make some important points.

What many people outside of Italy don't realise is that home-made pasta is not necessarily the best as it is so soft it doesn't do 'al dente' very well. In fact I prefer bought pasta as it is much more robust than home-made and I have been in restaurants where they give you a choice: same sauce but choice of home-made or not.

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What many people outside of Italy don't realise is that home-made pasta is not necessarily the best as it is so soft it doesn't do 'al dente' very well.

Except for ravioli and cavatelli (not pronounced as it's spelled), the dry pasta is much better than homemade.

I stayed with relatives in Italy and when we cooked at home, they never used anything but dry.


Rich Schulhoff

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

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Not that I am saying the Italians should discard pasta as part of their daily life. But their inability to discard it at the haute cuisine level has prevented them from creating what Fat Guy is describing (and which I agree with) a relevent cuisine. Every top rated restaurant in Italy serves a pasta course.

Steve - without trying in any way to be insulting, is it not possible that you and fat guy et al. are the products of a particular type of culinary tradition and this is at the heart of what makes Italian cuisine a non-relevent cuisine? Depends on what yardstick you use.

I am in no way suggesting that your opinions and conclusions based on your experiences and that of other experienced diners are wrong, just that the critria used to define haute cuisine in a critical manner may not be relevent in all cuinary cases?

As to the pasta, well when I went to Paul Bocuse's in the early 90's they had several pasta options. Didn't seem to harm the experience.

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As to the pasta, well when I went to Paul Bocuse's in the early 90's they had several pasta options. Didn't seem to harm the experience.

Just shows Bocuse struggling to escape his peasant roots - and who here would suggest that he is gastronomically relevant?


Wilma squawks no more

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Much improved signature, Adam - and , yes, this all sounds a little familiar. The notion that every national cuisine should aspire to be the same as, or very similar to, French haute cuisine, can be defended only by applying criteria derived from French haute cuisine to assess cuisines which don't have that aspiration. It's circular and a little silly.

I can understand someone using France as a yardstick to measure the achievements of "haute" gastronomy in Italy (or Britain) - because France is where that kind of approach to food, and to thinking about food, originated and was codified. But to compare a foreign national cuisine generally with French cuisine, let alone French haute cuisine is, er, apples and oranges, to coin a phrase.

It rests on the idea, at which I continue to scoff, that the Italians would give up pasta and the British would give up pies only if they had more exposure to pureed veloute of something very soft.

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What many people outside of Italy don't realise is that home-made pasta is not necessarily the best as it is so soft it doesn't do 'al dente' very well.

Except for ravioli and cavatelli (not pronounced as it's spelled), the dry pasta is much better than homemade.

I stayed with relatives in Italy and when we cooked at home, they never used anything but dry.

Uh, a fresh, homemade tagliatelle with a nice meat sauce being the notable exception. Tagliatelle rules.


Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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is it not possible that you and fat guy et al. are the products of a particular type of culinary tradition and this is at the heart of what makes Italian cuisine a non-relevent cuisine?

The Balic, isn't that like saying Italian cuisine is less relevant because French cuisine is more relevant? If Plotnicki and I are part of a particular tradition -- call it the Pasta Haters -- the important thing about that tradition is that it's the dominant one everywhere in the Western world outside of Italy. In the Eastern world too. So why is it the dominant one? Is it a question of merit, is it a question of who got there first, or is it a question of something else?


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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Doesn't "Pasta Hater" over-state it? Rice and beans doesn't form part of everyday eating in most countries, but I don't think it means the majority are "Rice and Beans Haters". And no, not merit - custom and habituation are key factors in food preferences.

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I was joking. But while I'm happy to accept custom and habituation as explanations -- even though I think totally discounting the notion of merit is questionable -- what I'd like to hear is a reason why the custom and habituation happened the way they did.


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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The Balic, isn't that like saying Italian cuisine is less relevant because French cuisine is more relevant? If Plotnicki and I are part of a particular tradition -- call it the Pasta Haters -- the important thing about that tradition is that it's the dominant one everywhere in the Western world outside of Italy. In the Eastern world too. So why is it the dominant one? Is it a question of merit, is it a question of who got there first, or is it a question of something else?

Q: The Balic, isn't that like saying Italian cuisine is less relevant because French cuisine is more relevant?

A: What Wilfrid said above.

Q: If Plotnicki and I are part of a particular tradition -- call it the Pasta Haters -- the important thing about that tradition is that it's the dominant one everywhere in the Western world outside of Italy. In the Eastern world too. So why is it the dominant one?

A: So McDonalds is the most relevant cuisine on the planet? Seriously, I don't think that it is a question of inherent "merit". Who got there first applies (obviously) here. If you had asked the same question 400 hundred years ago it would have been the other way around. New ideas, new fashions. Out of France when to you ever see cheap arse French restaurants, like you do with Italian etc? Perception and timing are every thing.

As an exercise take a Italian recipe and make it into a Modern recipe of the highest order. Ends up being French style with the use of Italian ingredients. Doesn't say anything about merit only about expectations of the individual.

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As an exercise take a Italian recipe and make it into a Modern recipe of the highest order. Ends up being French style with the use of Italian ingredients. Doesn't say anything about merit only about expectations of the individual.

This is the good idea.

What are the canonical dishes of Italian cooking which need to be made 'relevant'. They can then be rewritten in 'relevant' fashion and we can see how much gastronomy has advanced.

Reminding me of the British reinventions of say Lasagna in the 70's, with mashed potato substituting for pasta.

Now it has been clearly clearly demonstrated that mashed potato (esp. by JR) is better than pasta. So this is a big improvement on the dish.


Wilma squawks no more

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And to the rest of the world it seems that Italian cuisine lacks the kind of relevance that French cuisine has.

Good point but. and I'm going to get s**t for this, I honestly feel that not many people have actually eaten and appreciated Italian food (as it is served in Italy).

It really takes a while to get used to but once you get it, wow! Especially the Antipasti Tray with up to 30 different (and wonderfully fresh) antipasti which you very rarely get outside of Italy..

Could it be that, outside Italy, Italian cuisine is thought of as 'cheap' (let's face it there are many cheap Italian and Pizzerias around - very few, if any, French) and this tends to colour the opinion generally of Italian cuisine?

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Yes, merit is not to be entirely discounted. If a group of people have become habituated to eating an extremely poor diet through scarcity, it would be presumptuous to suggest they couldn't do better (although equally absurd to suggest that they would adopt haute cuisine with glee). Case by case, I suggest, and I think the Italians are eating pasta because they like it.

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Especially the Antipasti Tray with up to 30 different (and wonderfully fresh) antipasti which you very rarely get outside of Italy..

So how does one apply 'relevant' 'French' technique to the antipasti.

Make a terrine?


Wilma squawks no more

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