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Fat Guy

Does Italy lack culinary relevance?

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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?

Terrine? Actually yes. Have seen this several times in Italy, with the "New" Gelatin type (Charlie Trotter style?) terrine. Cotechino with lentils in gelatin, that sort of thing.

On of my good friends is a great cook and likes to replicate Plated dishes from Chef books. Interestingly he said that he didn't really like Italian food as you couldn't plate it. I have always though that this is a fucking crazy reason for not liking a cuisine, but maybe not, if you consider it in context. On the one occasion where he cooked a plated 'Italian' dish it was caponata (tiny die of the individual veg.) and papadalle (cooked lightly sauced and wrapped around a rosemary stalk so you could give the plate some 'hight'). Lovely meal, but it wasn't Italian, it was French, using Italian inspiration for the base recipes.

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Francesco - Thanks for some fantastic posts. Your knowledge of the history and tradition of fine dining in Italy is most welcome and a huge addition to this site. But if I can cull a single thing from your last post, unlike aspiring chefs from the U.S., Britain, Germany etc., what you have basically said is that Italians weren't interested in attending cooking schools in France. Why is that? Where is their sense of curiosity? Or where is their desire to leave the old traditions behind, which is certainly one of the things that is driving young people from the countries I mentioned to go to France to study cooking. I should add to this that in my experience, Italy, while having ethnic restaurants, seems to have fewer of them in the major cities then other countries have.

Steve,

believe there are misconceptions based on the desire to make too much grand theory and forgetting that in reality the devil is often in the details.

Haute Cuisine was not, it could be argued, only a French thing. Much of that repertoire was available to rich aristocrats and bourgeois in different parts of Europe. Gualtiero Marchesi has always been keen to distinguish between French cuisine and Haute Cuisine (the former being defined as french regional cooking) claiming that haute cuisine was never a wholly French affair (although the French contributions were many) and defending his right to develop a haute cuisine based on Italian sensibilities that could not be characterized as French. If you read Patricia Wells' notes on his restaurant, it is briefly dismissed as a poor imitation of French cuisine, whereas he will vehemently dismiss the notion that his cuisine is French in any way shape of form (which doesn't say anything about the inherent quality of his food which has been in decline for a decade now: the man has intellectual pretensions that make him bored of cooking but he doesn't have the talent to do anything better so he sticks to it).

Now, if you read Nino Bergese's book "Mangiare da Re", published in the 60s, you'll understand what Marchesi means. Many of the dishes in that book would not have been out of place in a Point or a Dumaine recipe book and no wonder: Bergese was at some point the chef of the Italian royal family and had gotten his training in haute cuisine, *not* French cuisine.

So if you accept the notion that there is an International/European haute cuisine (wasn't Bouley trying to make the same point with Danube?) from where it all started and that this cuisine had a common "language", the right question to ask is why this cuisine was later identified as French and why all the main innovators where french, not whether italian cuisine is inferior/superior/ from the french. Because then you are compring apples with oranges and it is not just a question of semantics.

The question then becomes why the italians chefs haven't picked up on this as much as the french. If the answer is not, as I firmly believe, in an inherent inferiority of Italian "cuisine" because of what I've said above, then it must be in the demand for haute cuisine in Italy and that has never been high (just as it is in Spain or any other European country). Now if you exclude France and the buzz created by Ferran Adria in catalonia, can you really claim that there is a country that clearly dominates Italy even in haute Cuisine?

I have had a few meals in French, Swiss, British and Italian haute cuisine restaurants and frankly, I believe the answer to be no. If to be relevant a cuisine has to produce innovators such as Bras, Veyrat, Gagnaire, Passard, or in his way, Ducasse, then Italy can offer little in comparison but so can Germany, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland and the Pays Basque. As a matter of fact, outside of France such buzz only exists with Adria and his "followers". Just to stick to the UK, I still don't understand what's so especially innovantive in MPW's, Pierre Koffman's, Roux family's, Raymond Blanc's or Gordon Ramsey's cuisine. For each of these there are much less publicized chefs who do the same/better quality job in Italy: we just don't have the world-superstars.

Even in France, if you look at other Michelin 3 stars such as Blanc, Auberge de L' Ill, Lucas Carton, Westermann, etc. then I can assure you there are better restaurants than these in Italy. So all we need is a home grown version of Adria and we'd suddenly go from being attached to traditions and boring to being cutting edge and innovative? I don't think so.

Tradition yes is a weight but that's simply because most Italians still identify cuisine as home cooking only, the french can distinguish haute cuisine from home cooking and appreciate both and that allows more restaurants specialized in haute cuisine and more talent to develop. If italy had the same demand, you'd see a simiation much more similar to the French and with a distinctively italian take on things (BTW, I believe the "starchy course contraint", to the extent that it applies, to be a positive, not a negative).

And as I've said in my previous post, the fact that many foreigners that feel that the only way to eat well in italy is to *avoid* haute cuisine restaurants because "who wants to eat French food in Italy?" Aren't helping. The laughable fact that Patricia Wells thinks that Da Fiore is the best restaurant in Italy is a said confirmation of this.

Francesco

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Peter P., speaking from the American perspective France is only a somewhat more popular tourism destination than Italy. I believe the annual figures are about 2.2 million for Italy and 2.9 million for France. I can't say which group (and surely there's overlap) does more dining and appreciating, but certainly there are people going to Italy. After all the Italian-American population here far exceeds the French-American population. I'm not sure I've ever met someone who has described himself as French-American.

A question that might have some relevance to the relevance discussion: Does Italy have many cooking schools? I don't mean the ones tourists go to; I mean professional cooking schools. What are they like? Do young cooks in Italy do whatever the Italian word is for a stage at top Italian restaurants? Are there any Italian cooking schools in other countries? I see lots of cooking schools everywhere with the word "French" in their names, but the only Italian ones I see are the informal courses offered to home cooks. So I guess my question is, is there an Italian culinary education system in place that compares to the French one?


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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Steve S., before I attempt to reply to what you asked me about, what kind of cuisine are the people you spend time with making in terms of its nationality, because if you're asking me to discuss why they are not embracing Italian cuisine, why might it be that they are inventing dishes with pasta, risotto, palenta, Ligurian olives, radicchio, Parmesan cheese, balsamico, and so forth along with foie gras, Roquefort, summer "truffles",etc. Then what about so-called Meditteranean cuisine.?And how about your mentoning that a hallmark of Ducasse was his comingling of French and Italian cuisine?

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Francesco -- Your entire analysis makes a lot of sense to me and I am very interested in your specific recommendations. I agree that da Fiore is just a very good, basically simple, fish restaurant of which in my opinion there are better in Naples. I have eaten in dal Pescatore which I found to be very good, but unexciting. Also Enoteca Pinchiorri, which probably can be considered French, Aimo and Nadia in Milan, Gualtiero Marchesi when he was still in Milan and San Domenico. None of these do I consider to be as good, or even close to the second tier 3 star restaurants in France that you refer to. I have never been to Vissani, but everyone I've spoken to about it has had an actively negative reaction, although it certainly gets high marks from the Gambero Rosso and Expresso guides. So my request is, tell me where to go on my next visit.

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It's interesting because when I think Mediterranean cuisine the first word that pops into my mind is Provencal. I suppose history and geography don't really support giving credit for that cuisine to France, but it is interesting that the most relevant (in New American fine-dining restaurant cuisine and also in Modern-UK) part of Italian cuisine is the part that the French have gotten behind. Those other ingredients and preparations, well, of course they're also in widespread use in France. I mean, you can go to Lespinasse -- I guess we can use that as the most French restaurant in New York -- and get risotto with lots of parmesan in it, you can get salmon with 100-year-old Balsamico Tradizionale, and you see other Italian ingredients here and there, but the food is still quite French. So I guess I'm saying that ingredients don't define French cuisine. Maybe they define Italian cuisine. I don't know. Perhaps that's a chicken-and-egg explanation, though.


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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Interesting this talk of relevance. The egullet poll on favorite cuisine had Italian beating French 3 to 2.


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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Adam, Wilfrid & Hollywood - We can argue about the definition of relevence all day long. But Fat Guy, myself, Francesco, etc. are all using the same definition. Clearly Italian food is relevent as a cuisine because it is the most popular cuisine that people cook at home or eat when they go out. What we mean when we say "relevent" is what other chefs, food critics, and a certain type of person who eats at a high level for a hobby are currently talking about. For example, Adam, when you were in Tuscany over the summer, did you eat at Arnolfo, Enoteca Pincchiori, Gambero Rosso, Da Caino or La Tenda Rossa? Those are all mutli-star restaurants in Tuscany that the type of person we are describing would travel out of their way for. Of course everyone loves a great Bisteca Fiorentina and a plate of Fagiole. But those aren't dishes that are among the chatter in the worldwide food scene.

And if you don't know it, there was a time in the late 80's and early 90's when the Italian chefs were making a push to be noticed. Chefs like Marchesi were getting international attention. I remember articles about La Scaletta in Milan where people were writing poetry about Pina (the chef's) blueberry risotto. So there was an Italian new wave. But it never really peaked. It never had the impact on the high level of international dining that the rest of us are using as the threshold for the definition of relevence.

The question then becomes why the italians chefs haven't picked up on this as much as the french. If the answer is not, as I firmly believe, in an inherent inferiority of Italian "cuisine" because of what I've said above, then it must be in the demand for haute cuisine in Italy and that has never been high (just as it is in Spain or any other European country). Now if you exclude France and the buzz created by Ferran Adria in catalonia, can you really claim that there is a country that clearly dominates Italy even in haute Cuisine?

Francesco - But you, Robert B. and I keep touching on this point in different ways. The reason there was a demand for haute cuisine in France is that they built a restaurant culture. And the reason they were able to build a restaurant culture was because there was a class of people with discretionary income. This ability to spend money on "frivolous things," or as Robert so succinctly put it, "decoration" is a French phenomenon. Look at the great French architects and designers, Guillmard, Charreau, Mallet-Stevens, Corbusier, their masterpieces are constructed for private clients. Look at Charreau's Maison du Verre. (which I know how to see for those who are deperate,) It was built as a combination doctor's office and family residence. How much more middle class can you get? That a tradition of fine dining came to the fore in France happened contemporaneously with a tradition of a certain type of fashionable clothing, and fashionable furniture for your home. All things that rely on a class of people with sufficient discretionary income.

But your point about innovators is a good one. The world is organzied according to masterpieces. Schools of thought are much easier to sell if you can point to the masterpieces the schools created. They are symbolic of the entire underpinnings being formulated properly so here is the masterpiece which our great theory has produced. So putting it in the terms that the original question was stated in which is relevence, not a single Italian chef that I can think of has produced a dish that is pointed to on the worldwide stage as contributory. But I agree with you about the English chefs. Their fame is disproportionate to their contribution. It arises mostly from their location. A cab ride instead of a flight away.

Fat Guy - When I go to a French restaurant and they serve me risotto or apply balsamico to my food, I find it bogus. Leave that for the Italians. Even if it tastes good. It never strikes me as being authentically French. Aside from those examples, the cuisines of both Piemonte and Liguria have much in common with the Savoie and the Alpes Maritimes. This changes as you go further south into Emiglia-Romana and Tuscany where the cuisine starts to take on an Italian identity. It's the same in the Dolomites where the cuisine is extremely Germanic. Go to Bolzano and you would think you are eating German food. But considering that the hotbed of Spanish cooking are the regions that abut the French border, the Basque region and Catalonia, one would think that Liguria and the Savoie are the most likely candidates to have spawned the Italian Adria.

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Since the answer to this query as posed and defined by Fat Guy, Plotters, et al. appears to be Yes, what then?


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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Now, that's the Steve I know and love.

Firstly, you can leave me out when it comes to "relevance" - I didn't make a peep about it. I was only observing that it's silly to denigrate Italian cuisine in general because it includes dishes - or courses - that are allegedly excluded from French haute cuisine. French haute cuisine may well be the approrpiate yardstick against which to measure the places which people who eat at a high altitude for a hobby frequent.

Secondly, there you go again with your historical summations. As has been observed before, there was a huge, wealthy class of landed gentry and merchants in Britain from the seventeenth century on. germany I can't speak for, but I've no reason to think they were poor. The French upper classes were notoriously strapped for cash. Can you file the "discretionary income" theory in the back drawer with the "France at the crossroads of Europe" theory, please?

thanks :raz:

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Hollywood - No that's backwards. The question started with the assumption (correctly so) that the answer is no.

So what's to argue about?


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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It's a strawman question. What Fat Guy wants to know is why it lacks relevance.?Or, maybe it has relevence that he doesn't know of. That's why he framed the question that way. It gives someone who thinks it has relevance the chance to offer proof.

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Mmm. We could go round all the countries we can think of doing this, couldn't we? I wonder about Guam?

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Well how come those betalnuts that everyone in Guam eats and which are addicting didn't catch on elsewhere?

I think they hogged em all on Guam. You gotta go there. BTW, what are those stains on your teeth?


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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Francesco -- Your entire analysis makes a lot of sense to me and I am very interested in your specific recommendations.  I agree that da Fiore is just a very good, basically simple, fish restaurant of which in my opinion there are better in Naples.  I have eaten in dal Pescatore which I found to be very good, but unexciting.  Also Enoteca Pinchiorri, which probably can be considered French, Aimo and Nadia in Milan, Gualtiero Marchesi when he was still in Milan and San Domenico.  None of these do I consider to be as good, or even close to the second tier 3 star restaurants in France that you refer to.  I have never been to Vissani, but everyone I've spoken to about it has had an actively negative reaction, although it certainly gets high marks from the Gambero Rosso and Expresso guides.  So my request is, tell me where to go on my next visit.

My point exactly. The minute you get into fancy territory the French win all the time so if you want to get the best from Italian food you have to go to a 'typical' Italian restaurant. By typical I do not necessailly mean 'regional' (some people on this site get hung up on regions - must be an anal thing) just really good normal Italian food.

I could give a million examples but I'll stick to one only. Il Carpaccio in Milano near Piazza Republicca on Via Palazzi (tel: +39 (02) 29405982). Go in there and order just fish or meat (no dishes) and ask them to keep it coming. They will bring you quite a few appetizers, a couple of different pastas and a main course. You will not be ripped off, the food is fabulous and by not actually ordering you get to try dishes that you wouldn't order yourself. The owner is a great 'tipo' give him my regards, tell I'm the little English guy who always has a different girl (he's Italian - hr'll know).

That's a great example and at half the price of the Michelin's.

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Since I'm not in a thinking mood, I'll put forth these two quick, gossamer thoughts. One manifestation no one has considered is how many Italian chefs have served apprenticeships in France. I remember soon after Ezio Santin had opened his Antica Osteria del Ponte outside of Milan, my wife and I paid him a visit. During the meal I said, "I bet he worked at Georges Blanc and Moulin de Mougins". When Santin came to our table, I asked him where he had worked. Sure enough he said Blanc and Mougins. (BTW, it's the only time I have been so prescient). Does anyone know what other Italian chefs have apprenticed with the great chefs in France?

Marcus, if you hven't tried Gamebro Rosso in San Vicente, you should be bowled over. I ate there one time in 1996 and I have heard nothing to indicate it has deteriorated. Of course I like Miramonte l' Altro and da Giaccomo in Milan, though it isn't "creative" cooking.

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I don't have time to read through all the verbiage here. But the question seems to be: Why are there no celebrity chefs we can all obsess over in or from Italy?

That question has been tortured here with 1000s of words, and is really a replay of the "why French food is far and away the greatest" thread. I have nothing to add to it.

All of that said, to declare that Italian cooking has scant bearing on "modern cuisine" seems quite absurd to me. At least here in the US, Italian essentials like pasta, olive oil, and even pizza (Wolfgang Puck?) are nearly ubiquitous in fine-dining restaurants. Ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes and polenta come in and out of style (they'll be back).

Techniques, particularly for vegetables, are hard-wired into every cook. The CIA in NY sees fit to run an Italian cooking center.

Cutting-edge cooks may not be running out to buy the latest Hazan, but they've damn sure devoured and assimilated her Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. And many of the books brought out by trendy foam enthusiasts will be bought, perhaps read, and often unassimilated.

Like Flaubert in his books and God in his universe, Italian cooking is everywhere and nowhere in modern cuisine.

To ignore the "everywhere" risks a plunge into that high-blown brand of philistinism that flourishes among some Francophiles: the kind that holds that since France is great, everywhere else is somehow second-rate or derivative. Present company excepted, of course.

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I'm in Rome right now and Heinz Beck is as good as ever. There was even a pasta course :-)

Nobody has mentioned, nor dared mention, that Italy is a matriarchal society and the cooking is essentially women's cooking. Lack of progress is therefore assured.

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Robert -- I have a distant recollection that Gualtiero Marchesi worked his way through a number of the French 3 star restaurants.

I am not a creative cooking fanatic and my lukewarm at best reaction to the nuovo cucina restaurants is not based on that, but on my perception of their lack of execution and brilliance. The Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo is definitely on my list to try, but is in an area that I seldom get to.

The guide book that I use most in Italy is the Gambero Rosso (no relationship to the restaurant) which uses a rating system that adds together food, service, decor etc. It covers restaurants, trattorias, wine bars and pizzerias, and overall I find it to be quite good. For restaurants, I focus only on the food rating which is 60 points on their 105 point system. Gambero Rosso gets 55 points, which is the highest of any restaurant, but so does Vissani of which, as I mentioned, I've only had negative reports. I am very open to the idea that great restaurants on the level of 3 stars in France exist as Francesco states, but I haven't yet found a consistent information source to lead me there.

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An alternative reading might be that the balance for 'perfect' italian food is

60%: ingredients/terroir 30%: cooking 10%: service &c

whereas for French it is something like

40%: ingredients terroir 35%: cooking 35%:service & c

Since little of the focus of 'modern gastronomy' or at least those upon this site appears to be on how to grow the perfect olive/grape/heifer,but rather the latter two components of the cuisine no wonder Italian cuisine is of marginal relevance to 'modern gastronomy'.

Actually I made up those proportions and I guess Italian is actually

70/20/10 and French is much more

40/40/20

and haute cuisine is

30/30/40.

So anyone who claims terroir as king should reject haute cuisine as a betrayal of the foundation. A step into an aesthetic abysss.


Wilma squawks no more

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So anyone who claims terroir as king should reject haute cuisine as a betrayal of the foundation. A step into an aesthetic abysss.

You're giving Steve the shaft?


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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