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Osterie d'Italia by Slow Food


Craig Camp
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The question to ask for me is whether adherence to a pasta course as an inescapable part of an Italian restaurant meal

I have brought this up before and I will say it again. Eating has changed in Italy. People often only select 2 out of the 3 traditional courses. It is extremely common for Italians to order only an antipasto and a secondo; or only primo and secondo; or only a antipasto and a primo. Certainly this has long been the case when dining at home.

Don't forget when visiting a country as a tourist you tend to want to always go full boat because you can't get those things at home. This does not mean the locals eat that way on a daily basis.

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To understand cuisines that we are not familiar with or have a lesser understanding of or exposure to or simply little interest in, we must understand first how one should approach this subject. Cuisines need to be translated to your own level before you can even begin to understand them, taste them or critique them. This should be no surprise to anyone that really cares to understand things foreign, unfamiliar and different from what he or she is close to and familiar with. Cuisines are an intimate part of culture and cultures are often as old as time and embedded with history. This makes cuisine just as difficult to master as one would the history of a particular country or people. The cuisine of cultures such as Italy or India or China get to be even more involved for they are deeply entrenched in cultures that are diverse and very rich in history. In the case of India and China, you would have to understand thousands and thousands years of art and culture before you can make any call about why any thing coming from those cultures can be dismissed by you. Cuisines that exist in these cultures do so in cultures that think about everything, and certainly about food – in ways that are utterly and entirely different from how Americans think of things.

When students come to me to learn Indian cooking, they come expecting to be able to understand the mechanics of cooking Indian food by getting recipes and watching me cook for 4 or 8 or 12 lessons. They quickly understand that a cuisine such as Indian, and I have found the same to be true about Italian (from watching friends that are Italian cook in their kitchens) cannot be put into the same context as the structure and limitations and rules they have learned to accept after having studied and entertained cuisines that are mostly reliant on French technique. They have trained themselves to understand cuisine and cooking by understanding the process of making stews, roasts and braises. They learn quickly that limitations and structure like that, while part of these other cuisines, is hardly the beginning and end of them. Techniques such as those are not the only organizational strength and the principal behind the food. But, even beyond this realization, my students have found it a challenge to discern what makes for the integrity of these newly discovered recipes. What defines them? Why are certain spices and herbs left whole while others are crushed or ground? Why a mix of spices? Can spices just be varied at the whim of the cook or are combinations driven by tradition or some technique or rule?

The unraveling of these new cuisines and recipes cannot come by simply eating at homes or restaurants. It is a process that to be understood in any sincerity has to be gained by the experience of watching and questioning cooks at their stoves. The questions posed are a way of bridging the American way of thinking into the world of this foreign cooking. It is even more important to try and consider the cooking process you are studying both in terms of the ways in which it is different from French (American) cooking and in which ways it is similar. You will need to pursue the chefs relentlessly about all of their cooking choices – why a particular spice, why the amount of oil, why the particular choice of fat, why a particular cut of meat, what they are tasting for? The answers you will get, will give you a new context in which you can begin your long journey into the world of that new cuisine. You will then learn about that new palate, the new consciousness, the cultural and historical traditions, the intertwining of that country or peoples cooking, medicine and religious practices and the daily life of that culture. The more comfortable you become with that cuisine, the more its sheer difference to your own cuisine of choice and affinity will excite you.

You cannot teach yourself to accept, demystify and go through the process of acculturation unless you go through that whole process. It is a guided process, a long process but the only way anyone really wanting to understand a cuisine and compare it, contrast it to another, or criticize it can do so with any credibility. The process can also teach one really wanting to cook the foreign cuisine a way to approach that cuisine without being alienated by its foreignness. You will learn how to approach this new cuisine by appreciating the difference between the American and foreign cultures. You can learn to bring an American (French) eye to this new cuisine but not to Americanize (Frenchify) it. You will learn if you choose to, the art of experimenting for yourself with this new cuisine and to slowly make it one you can call your own as well.

Differences in perspective, techniques and styles of cooking are a means to learn. Many of my students (trained French chefs) come with a desire to “set” Indian cooking into the context of French technique because that is how they were taught to cook French food. An Indian chef, or Italian or Chinese, may want to “set” the food as little as possible, or even differently from what their training is. I know that my own cooking is “set” very differently from the technical world of French cooking. I “entertain” my food and ingredients. I like to be alive in my senses while I cook, and I honor the ingredients and food. Although, this may be oversimplifying the entire process, I can try to showcase the difference between my students and I: my students grind themselves in their preconceived rules of cooking – that is, in the part of the cooking experience that stays constant. Into the fabric of those limitations and rules, they weave flexibility, variation and inspiration. I grind myself into the mutability of every moment. I do not commit to an action until my hand is actually doing it: I measure spices by eye in the palm of my hand and add just what feels right in the moment of seasoning, sometimes deciding right then to add nothing at all. So, I weave the cooking technique into a medium of experimentation and inspiration.

Then my students and I find so many things we share in common across the different cuisines where we each got our first culinary training.

It takes only some inspiration from deep inside us to entertain, embrace and accept, that which may seem for the moment to be exotic, very different and somewhat of a challenge. Once we have gotten over that fear, left our biases behind, we can really explore different cuisines and understand that while cuisines may be different, may have complexity of varied levels and in different ways, they still serve the same purpose. Of bringing to those that enjoy them, a sense of pleasure that few other traditions in the world can provide.

In closing, I hope we can each respect the traditions, value and greatness of all cuisines. There is little gained by comparing apples and oranges. Personal choice will make us choose one over the other, but that still does not replete any credibility of being essential from the one we do not choose.

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Craig, I apologize for bringing Indian food into the discussion.

It was my way of trying to share the need for acceptance of the very essential part that no two cuisines or cultures need to follow the standards accepted by one.

The beauty of our world is to have each of our different cultures have a rich heritage so uniquely special.

I love Italian food, I love French pastry, I love Chinese cuisine, I love Thai and I love Ethiopian cuisine.. and so many others. I hardly ever feel the need to belittle one by comparing and contrasting in a manner which is unnecessary and not useful. They each are different and in their difference I find a desire to keep living and searching and enjoying the great beauty that life affords its world citizens.

That was my intent, and not any desire to sell Indian food or culture.

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Craig, I apologize for bringing Indian food into the discussion.

It was my way of trying to share the need for acceptance of the very essential part that no two cuisines or cultures need to follow the standards accepted by one.

The beauty of our world is to have each of our different cultures have a rich heritage so uniquely special.

I love Italian food, I love French pastry, I love Chinese cuisine, I love Thai  and I love Ethiopian cuisine.. and so many others. I hardly ever feel the need to belittle one by comparing and contrasting in a manner which is unnecessary and not useful. They each are different and in their difference I find a desire to keep living and searching and enjoying the great beauty that life affords its world citizens.

That was my intent, and not any desire to sell Indian food or culture.

I am happy to have Indian food brought into this conversation. Like Indian food, Italian food is often misunderstood based on preconceived notions and the belief that it is easy to touch and understand a culture and a cuisine based on relatively few experiences. Your comments only raise the level of the discussion.

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I get your point all too well. My point, however, is that pasta dishes don't require the sort of techniques which impress you to be good; neither do countless other dishes; nor is it relevant - as my old signature suggested - whether they influence other chefs in that really relatively small circle of which you approve. Your yardstick is randomly chosen to relflect your own preferences, and your only real defense of it as a general yardstick is to point to menu prices.

It isn't that they don't impress me to be good, it's that the technique to make pasta isn't impressive compared to culinary technique you can experience that is impressive. Certainly you can understand that.

Name the name of one famous pasta maker?

There aren't any. And the reason is that anyone can do it. The technique you need to make great pasta isn't so original or demanding that there are unique talents in the field. And that is my standard. I don't really care what anyone is cooking and why. But I do want to eat meals prepared by unique talents. Just like I want to see music performed by unique musicians, or read books written by unique authors etc., etc., etc. That isn't an esoteric standard, it's a high standard.

Bill - That was a nice try in blaming me for your bowing out. But let the record show that when asked to put forward the evidence to support your position, you didn't offer any. But I'm sure your a nice guy too. Let's go drink some old Barolo sometime. I've got some old Monfortino sitting around.

Tony - That was a good post.

Camille - And a poetic post.

Craig - I'm happy that eating has changed in Italy. But what will really move this conversation forward are new dishes and the techniques they use to make them.

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is the finest and ultimate expression of FRENCH technique in the world today (at least since Freddy Girardet closed shop in Crissier).

Wow Bill, you've been to Girardet too!!! What a restaurant - IMHO the best example of French cuisine - and it's not even in France!!

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The much heralded "simplicity" of Italian main courses may be a direct result of people not wishing to eat anything that's not fairly simple as the edge has already been taken off their appetites by a pasta course. By the time they've had bread, a starter and a pasta, the main course has become a less relevant affair.

Yes Tony, but that is exactly the point I was trying to make earlier on in this thread. The creative emphasis is on the antipasti and the pasta but not on the main course and that is intentional. That is Italian food as I like it (and, presumably, so do the Italians). That is, dare I say it, RealItalian®. Change the balance and it is no longer Italian food. In fact it is exactly this balance which non-Italians do not like (as AA Gill, your good friend, once said, people are going to Italy and complaining that they can't get Italian food!).

Another thing is that so far nobody has given any credit to the Italians for creativity with pasta. I've had some amazingly creative pasta many times including up to last week when I had home-made ravioli stuffed with truffels and a wonderful sauce.

Another question: what's better? Home-made pasta or supermarket bought? Careful, it's kind of a trick question!

Edited by peterpumkino (log)
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Although we eat mostly fresh and generally handmade pasta in my neck of the woods, some dishes are good only with dried pasta, especially when the success of the dish requires the "bite" of al dente pasta (not really possible with tajarin, for example, which is not only fresh and tender, but thinner than dried cappellini d' angelo). I love both. I subscribe to the "one is not superior to the other, they are merely different" school of thought. Speaking of pasta, I think Plotnicki stumped me on this one: he asked to name one famous pasta maker. I thought the question might be a little unfair, in that pasta is only a course (and sometimes only one of seven in Italy), and considering the history of pasta (China, Marco Polo, whatever version you like), Steve is no doubt right that ANYBODY can make pasta of some quality or other. So I tested it out by going to Amazon.com and searching "pasta". I only got 765 hits, and the names of the authors were virtual unknowns: the Hazans, Lorenza de' Medici Stucchi, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Bugialli, Biba Caggiano, Julia Della Croce and Irma Rombauer, to name a few. (I also searched "French cooking", "French cuisine" and similar terms, and the highest hit count I got was 691.) I also looked at the online menus of a few lesser-known French restaurants (none of Ducasse's for sure, as Steve assured me that, despite his 7 Michelin stars, he is really cooking Italian Riviera stuff and not to be taken seriously), and found a couple of curious things. Troisgros: RAVIOLIS de grenouilles; Taillevent: cebettes, artichauts, cepes d' Auvergne fins RAVIOLIS de pommes de terre; and this from Salon magazine, written about Guy Martin's recent third Michelin star at the venerable Grand Vefour-"What earned Martin his third star? Specialties like RAVIOLES de foie gras a l' emulsion de creme trufee." Isn't that ravioli stuffed with goose liver with a little truffle-flavored cream sauce? And no doubt black truffles at that, which they give away in the Piemonte and only eat if there are no superior white truffles to be had? What is going on here?

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Speaking of pasta, I think Plotnicki stumped me on this one: he asked to name one famous pasta maker.

I said famous pasta maker. Like Lionel Poillane, or Poujerain, but for pasta. Or an Italian chef (restaurant) who is famous for his pasta. Not a cookbook author who is writing about home cooking. The last famous pasta dish I know of was the Gualtieri Marchesi Raviolo Aperto which was a long time ago. That dish recieved international acclaim because it had gold plating on the top of the raviolo. By the way, the raviolo at San Domenico in NYC was once upon a time a famous pasta dish too.

In France, every pasta bundle is called ravioli. Won Tons at Chinese restaurants are called raviolis. Even at Tan Dinh the Vietnamese restaurant, I believe their signature dish is called Ravioli de Crevettes avec Citronelle.

Nothing beats homemade pasta.

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In this week's New Yorker food column, Tables for Two, a little review of Nanni, an Italian restaurant that was "widely regarded as the best Italian restaurant in town" in the seventies. The chef, Luigi Nanni, died 5 years ago, but the place still exists. The reviewer asked his waiter, "Has anything on the menu changed since Nanni died?" The waiter thought for a moment and then said, "No. Why should anything change? It's Italian, isn't it?"

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In this week's New Yorker food column, Tables for Two, a little review of Nanni, an Italian restaurant that was "widely regarded as the best Italian restaurant in town" in the seventies.  The chef, Luigi Nanni, died 5 years ago, but the place still exists.  The reviewer asked his waiter, "Has anything on the menu changed since Nanni died?" The waiter thought for a moment and then said, "No.  Why should anything change?  It's Italian, isn't it?"

I am afraid that this is a discussion about Italian cuisine - not Italian-American cuisine which is quite a different beast. The waiter's comment is certainly a clear sign that neither the waiter or the restaurant had any connection to serious Italian cooking. I pity the people that were paying out their hard earned dollars for food in a place with such an attitude.

The statement that this restaurant was "widely regarded as the best Italian restaurant in town in the seventies." cannot be considered a compliment.

Edited by Craig Camp (log)
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Craig is right about the Italian-American cuisine. But aside from that, Nanni's was a good place when Nanni was alive. It was sort of the Italian version of the steak house Christ Cella. Very formal and businessman-like for an Italian restaurant. The prices must have been the highest in the city. Like $35 veal chops in the mid 80's.

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Craig is right about the Italian-American cuisine. But aside from that, Nanni's was a good place when Nanni was alive. It was sort of the Italian version of the steak house Christ Cella. Very formal and businessman-like for an Italian restaurant. The prices must have been the highest in the city. Like $35 veal chops in the mid 80's.

I am sure that Nanni was a great guy worthy of all respect. What does that have to do with this conversation?

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I am afraid that this is a discussion about Italian cuisine - not Italian-American cuisine which is quite a different beast. The waiter's comment is certainly a clear sign that neither the waiter or the restaurant had any connection to serious Italian cooking. I pity the people that were paying out their hard earned dollars for food in a place with such an attitude.

The statement that this restaurant was "widely regarded as the best Italian restaurant in town in the seventies." cannot be considered a compliment.

Craig, many of the people that read these pieces and the people that often write them, are hardly the type that care much about what could, should or would be considered by billions to be food worthy of being considered food that gives sustenance to mind, body and soul. They are not writing stuff that will be remembered even a year or two hence, forget about decades or generations later. They write what will give the publication some hype and blood for a day or week at the most. I am glad we have you and our membership to highlight these utterances for being what they are.. and to put what they glorify and ridicule into a position or not that is really where they ought to be placed.

Whilst reviews and food columns have a great role, one hardly should bother placing them in any great revered position in our lives. I read them, and move on. I do have friends that are food writers, and even in their writing, I find a way of finding what really is inspired from the depths of their soul, and what is mere lip service they have to perform for editors and their readership. There is not always great sincerity in what is shared. And it is hardly the fault of the writers, but largely the fault of a readership that is hungry for the sensational, meaningless and the very lowest of the low. But that is true for most of our lives today. We are lost in a world that is largely without much soul. Fads change, new ones come even faster than it would take for a true artist to create them and perfect them. In such a world, such trivia is written and given far too much credence than it deserves. But at eGullet, we have realized how to sift through this kind of stuff. What is even better, our membership, has far too much savvy to take such written gospel for more that what it really is worth.

Thanks for your great post. I looked at that comment, and wondered what if anything I should say. I said something, deleted it and moved on. I decided not to waste my time on mediocrity. But you Sir, have a great way with words. And have said so much with such little effort. Thanks for putting that glib comment into perspective. It hardly has a place on eGullets wonderful threads. It is poignant to note no eGulleteer would have been ascribed as having said those words. :smile:

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Only a little biographical information about someone/thing Toby raised. As an aside to this, and I don't know if you have ever seen this, many years ago, possibly 1975-1980, David Susskind had a talk show and his topic one week was Italian food in America. He had on Sirio from Le Cirque, Gianni from Bravo Gianni, the guy rom Primavera and a few more of the owners who created the entire Italian American genre. It's a great program and if you ever have a chwnce to see it you should. Anyway, back on topic.

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Nothing beats homemade pasta.

Drat!! I thought I had both Craig and Bill with that question regarding homemade pasta vs dried pasta - however I am not surprised that SP caught the hook with his erronous statement that 'nothing beats home-made' (he must have read this in one of his massive collection of guide books).

As Craig stated, it depends on the sauce. As Bill stated, you cannot get home-made to be as al dente as dried pasta. So the correct answer is: it does depend. I have been in many Italian restaurants where the pasta dish is served with the exact same name and sauce but a choice of pasta type (same price).

I read an indignant letter in the UK Sunday Times from a Doctor (they think they know it all) very angry as he had recently been to an expensive Italian restaurant and actualy spied the chef smuggling supermarket-bought pasta into his kitchen as if he was conning everyone in the place by not using home-made pasta!! What rot!

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No I understand that dried pasta can be the better choice depending on the sauce. But taking that into consideration, fresh pasta can be majestic in a way that dried pasta can never be. Good, dense fresh pasta has a certain type of chew to it, not an al dente type of chew, but more of a firm gumminess, and that is what sets it apart from dried pasta. Good chow fun noodles can have this very same gummy quality. In fact I had some in Chinatown last week, where each strand of chow fun noodle was like biting into a stick of soft chewing gum. The noodles were really thick and firm, and they also held the sauce well. It was quite good.

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