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Craig Camp

Attacking Italian Restaurants

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It doesn't take many meals in Italy to change your perspective on Italian restaurants outside of Italy. They are choice targets for newly returned tourists who trash their food with the zest and pleasure of the newly converted. Often it takes only one trip to Italy to turn your favorite local Italian hang-out where you ate every week into an object of scorn

What can we expect from Italian restaurants outside of Italy? Can you replicate the experience with different raw materials and customers?

What makes an Italian restaurant outside of Italy a great Italian style restaurant? Please name names.

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In the US, I think it is important to distinguish between Italian and Italian-American food. Trashing one for not being the other is childish.

Of course, many more restaurants now are shooting for "authentic Italian" and at various levels. I am not qualified to judge these attempts beyond their obvious shortcomings. The River Cafe in London has been called, more than once, the best Italian restaurant in the world. I've never eaten there, but I'd find that hard to take if I lived in Italy.

EDIT: The two most successful Italian-style restaurants in the Bay Area are, in my opinion, are Delfina and Oliveto.


Edited by badthings (log)

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In the US, I think it is important to distinguish between Italian and Italian-American food. Trashing one for not being the other is childish.

Of course, many more restaurants now are shooting for "authentic Italian" and at various levels. I am not qualified to judge these attempts beyond their obvious shortcomings. The River Cafe in London has been called, more than once, the best Italian restaurant in the world. I've never eaten there, but I'd find that hard to take if I lived in Italy.

EDIT: The two most successful Italian-style restaurants in the Bay Area are, in my opinion, are Delfina and Oliveto.

Very true. Good point. We are discussing restaurants claiming to be authentically Italian. Not good old-fashioned Italian-American restaurants - at least the ones that claim to be Italian-American instead of pretending to be authentically Italian.

It is a bit irritating to go to a restaurant claiming to be "northern Italian" and getting an Italian-American menu inspired by Sicilian cooking.

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I've never seen or heard an Italian describe the River Café as the best Italian restaurant in the world... Let's be serious!

With the vastly improved availability of Italian products and the similarity with many Spanish products, plus the ever faster influx of Italian cooks into Spain, the level of Italian restaurants has much increased lately in this country. In Madrid particularly (by far the city in Spain with the best nucleus of non-Spanish restaurants). Three names: a top-notch modern Italian restaurant that should sport a Michelin star if Michelin knew what it was doing (Ars Vivendi), an excellent regional, fish-oriented restaurant (Taverna Siciliana) and a classic no-frills neighborhood trattoria with a solid Milanese-inspired menu and a clever choice of southern Italian wines (Vecchia Milano).


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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One interesting way to approach this, from an intellectual standpoint, would be to try to define what makes a good Italian restaurant in Italy, besides the fact that it's in Italy. That list of defining elements could easily become a checklist for evaluating the quality of Italian restaurants outside of 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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I have mentioned my two meals at Cracco-Peck over Thanksgiving on another thread. Cracco-Peck service was outstanding and I tried in that earlier comment to express that it was not just the technical perfection of the service but the feeling that the honor of the restaurant was at stake. I was happy to be informed that the restaurant has been promoted to two stars which it certainly desrerves. One of my editors in California told me he had eaten there in September and also rated the the service outstanding. We also both agreed that the selection of wines by the glass at Cracco-Peck was far superior to any of the 3 stars in Paris. Somehow a thread on the Euro-Dollar problem has vanished. In reply tp Craig Camp's comment let me say that now is the time for Italians (hopefully egulleteers) to buy a house in Chapel Hill and for Peck to buy A Southern Season. The latter especially.

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Pirate, if Peck bought A Southern Season, do you suppose that you would be able to find your way to the checkout and exits? In the new store, I am in constant fear of being trampled to death or burned alive if there is ever a fire!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Craig, you have touched upon an interesting issue. Yes, when we return from a trip to Italy we swear off Italian restaurants here in the NYC metro area for months and longer. It is just not the same food. Most of the Italian restos here are just glorified pizza parlors.

The biggest issue I have is these places' claim of authenticity. My favorite is the "Tuscan" restaurants (some even have Tuscan in their name) who, when asked, haven't the slightest idea of what Ribbolita is, nor do they know what a Bistecca alla Fiorentina is. (Quintessential Tuscan dishes) One of the biggest hoots I had was while watching the show 'Mario Eats Italy" with Mario Batali running around Italy showing all the authentic foods, their manufacture and preparation, and then they cut to an advertisement for the Olive Garden!!

But as far as defining the criteria, a lot of it is intangible, it is the European ambience that also makes a restaurant great in Italy. When having a great meal in a medieval square under the stars, with the warm wind blowing, well, this is just impossible to duplicate in the US.

It does seem, though, that the French restaurants in the US, as a rule, do a better job of duplicating their counterparts in France than the Italian restaurants do of duplicating theirs in Italy. I wonder what accounts for that phenomenon.

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For what its worth, a few years I was visiting a friend in Milan. A friend of my host, (a very sweet woman from Puglia) took me to breakfast one Sunday morning at an "American" (and not inexpensive) restaurant. The pancakes were nearly inedible and everything else was just a little bit off.

Ok its WAY off topic but Sandra Lee's Semi Homemade Holiday show just appeared on the Food Network. She just "made" a blue "store-bought" angel food cake. I can't believe it. Anything comparable on Italian TV? Now she is decorating a cake for Kwanza. Oh my god.


Charley Martel

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I started a thread over a year ago in which I said that once you left Italy, even going the short distance to Nice, Italian restaurants lacked the authenticity one encountered in Italy. Nothing has changed since then, at least to my mind. Sometimes you are served a dish in other countries that have the components but not the a situation in which the total is more thanthe sum of the parts. Maybe it is partially psychological. I suspect, however, that it is mostly in the lack of the impeccable, authentic ingredients you find in Italy. The closest I get is bringing back prosciutto, Parmesan, ricotta, and roasted marinated peppers from DiPalo's and putting them on a plate as antipasti at home. I used to think Babbo in New York came close to dining in Italy, but not any more.

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Maybe it is partially psychological. I suspect, however, that it is mostly in the lack of the impeccable, authentic ingredients you find in Italy.

This difficulty is certainly much less marked in Europe (or at least the 'wealthy' part, the European Union) than in the US. Everything Italian, including fresh vegetables and fresh seafood, can now be found in such places as Berlin, Vienna, Paris or Madrid. And transportation is now extremely fast.


Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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The ultimate differentiator for Italian restaurants in Italy is regionality, I would even use the term terroir. This is something that human beings inherently long for and respond to. Every part of Italy has its own small number of simple but unique dishes that embody the soul of the people living there, and which they eat over and over again. As a visitor, one can participate in and take satisfaction from that rite. As soon as you are out of the territory, even as close as Nice, it can no longer be the same.

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IMHO, the reason that French food translates so well is that it is a much more regimented process. There are, it seems to me, more "thou shalt nots" in French methods. Since Italian food is so regional there is more room for personalization and extrapolation.

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In my view, the reasons why it is so difficult --- if not impossible --- to find authentic Italian dining in the US are not due to inferior ingredients or a lack of culinary talent (both of which seem to be in plentiful supply here in the year 2003). Rather, they are rooted in fundamental differences in: (i) our cultural expectations, (ii) our food traditions, and (iii) the restaurant "business model."

Being both a flag-waving, chili-eating, barbeque-loving, burger-consuming American AND a red-blooded 3rd generation Italo-American who has spent much time in Italy, I think I've seen both sides. I speak, obviously, in generalities but.....

We Americans:

Think bigger is better;

Prefer speed in delivery to quality upon arrival;

View time-honored recipes/dishes as "boring", while raving about forced combinations of ingredients in the pursuit of so-called creativity;

Are guided in our dining choices more by Zagat than by our own palates.

Further, an American restauranteur must factor these tastes into the business equation when he develops his menu, his wine list and his approach to serving his customers. If he doesn't, he's out of business before you can say "Olive Garden."

The Italians:

Value quality over quantity;

Would rather eat the same favorite dish every night than waste even one meal on an ill-conceived experiment;

Enjoy the pleasures of a meal which plays slowly out over an entire evening.

Perhaps most important, Italian restauranteurs and chefs have chosen a lifestyle and a vocation, not a business. If they can pay their bills, earn a reasonable living and make their customers happy while doing what they love (which means actually cooking), they view themselves as successful. And they are happy and content. No empires of 10-12 restaurants, no triple-seatings for dinner, no wine lists designed to appeal to the Wine Spectator.

In the States, this just doesn't happen. You have to make money. And to make money, you have to compromise the Italian "ideal" to fit the tastes and expectations of your American customers.

Sure, there are exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic. I've eaten plenty of bad and, believe it or not, UNAUTHENTIC meals in Italy --- usually in overrated/overpublicized places looking to make a buck off of tourists. And I've had some pretty authentic Italian dining experiences on occasion here in the States. I had lunch at Lupa in NYC just this week. Personally, I find Lupa to be pretty true to the Italian model (particularly the Roman trattoria model), while I don't think that Batali's more famous flagship, Babbo, is. Don't get me wrong --- I think Babbo is a very good restaurant. But it is a restaurant INSPIRED by things-Italian, not a true Italian restaurant. And it is such because not only is Batali a great chef (and I believe a great Italian chef), he is also a New Yorker and a good businessman.

Nothing sums up my view of all of this as well as Stanely Tucci's film "Big Night." If you haven't seen it, run out this weekend to your nehgborhood video outlet and rent it. It really says it all.

The bottom line for me: I've learned to accept and to enjoy the better Italian-inspired restaurants here in the States for what they are --- which really is a unique category. And sometimes, even though the overall experience of a meal in the Bel Paese isn't there to be had, I find a dish that makes me feel --- if I close my eyes --- like I might be back "in sito."

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What is truly Italian and what is Italian-inspired? Would a modern restaurant in Italy, like Vissani, not be truly Italian either, if they don't specialize in real bollito misto or real abbacchio alla romana?


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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I used to think Babbo in New York came close to dining in Italy, but not any more.

I agree that Babbo hasn't delivered on its early promise, though I have had the occasional terrific meal there. At the same time, even though it has fallen short specifically, it can in general be held up as a model of what an American restaurant can do to be legitimately Italian. It's a question, I think, of using different local ingredients but applying a certain sensibility that only a handful of chefs in America -- even those who are Italian or Italian-trained -- have been able to grasp. Batali at least demonstrated that he could crack this code (as for what the code is, I have no idea). It may not be possible, on any given day as a non-VIP, to get that peak Italian meal experience at Babbo, but I bet Batali could cook us a meal in New York that would prove conclusively that it's possible to cook Italian, and well, outside of 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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What is truly Italian and what is Italian-inspired? Would a modern restaurant in Italy, like Vissani, not be truly Italian either, if they don't specialize in real bollito misto or real abbacchio alla romana?

I would say that Vissani is, obviously, "truly Italian" as you've put it --- though clearly his repertiore is non-traditional (and to me, anyway, and I believe to many Italians as well, off-putting --- not because it's "modern" but because, IMHO, it doesn't work).

To me, it's not a question of the menu in a given restaurant (I appreciate both the mainstream/tradition-grounded dishes as well as the ones that "push the envelope", although I confess I do have a soft spot for "cucina alla nonna"), but more the approach to the food and the overall experience.

Does the chef search out and use the best local ingredients? Does he combine those ingredients --- for traditional or "modern" dishes --- in a way that makes sense? Is there a comfortable and logical progression to the meal --- a number of courses to be chosen from, none of which are too big or overwhelming within the context of the whole meal? Is there a carefully selected wine list that complements the food being offered? These are some of the things I look for in an Italian dining experience.

You might love Vissani, as many do, or you may view his cooking as heresy. But in either case, you can't say his restaurant isn't Italian.

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.... but I bet Batali could cook us a meal in New York that would prove conclusively that it's possible to cook Italian, and well, outside of Italy.

I agree. And if he'd do it, I'd hitch-hike to NY to help you eat that meal!

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.... but I bet Batali could cook us a meal in New York that would prove conclusively that it's possible to cook Italian, and well, outside of Italy.

I agree. And if he'd do it, I'd hitch-hike to NY to help you eat that meal!

I'll get right on it!


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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In my view, the reasons why it is so difficult --- if not impossible --- to find authentic Italian dining in the US are not due to inferior ingredients or a lack of culinary talent (both of which seem to be in plentiful supply here in the year 2003).  Rather, they are rooted in fundamental differences in: (i) our cultural expectations, (ii) our food traditions, and (iii) the restaurant "business model."

Being both a flag-waving, chili-eating, barbeque-loving, burger-consuming American AND a red-blooded 3rd generation Italo-American who has spent much time in Italy, I think I've seen both sides.  I speak, obviously, in generalities but.....

We Americans:

Think bigger is better;

Prefer speed in delivery to quality upon arrival;

View time-honored recipes/dishes as "boring", while raving about forced combinations of ingredients in the pursuit of so-called creativity;

Are guided in our dining choices more by Zagat than by our own palates.

Further, an American restauranteur must factor these tastes into the business equation when he develops his menu, his wine list and his approach to serving his customers.  If he doesn't, he's out of business before you can say "Olive Garden."

The Italians:

Value quality over quantity;

Would rather eat the same favorite dish every night than waste even one meal on an ill-conceived experiment;

Enjoy the pleasures of a meal which plays slowly out over an entire evening.

In the States, this just doesn't happen.  You have to make money.  And to make money, you have to compromise the Italian "ideal" to fit the tastes and expectations of your American customers.

."

Good points.

Then one should look at the models in the States which, more or less, approximate the values and ideal types outlined by Giovanni. Add to this Marcus' observation about life style and regionality. Putting the 2 toghether I conclude that the most authentic Italian in the States is not an Italian restaurant at all, It is Chez Panisse at Berkeley.

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I feel like some of you are picking on Nice. I think that Provencal cuisine is in a lot of ways a regional Italian cuisine much more than a regional French cuisine, based as it largely is on garlic, onions, red wine, tomatoes, and herbs. In addition, though, I had very good pasta in Nice, and I remember one place in particular that served Spaghetti Bolognese that really tasted like the "real thing" that I had eaten in Italy. Is it possible that those of you who were unable to find "authentic" Italian food in Nice simply didn't find the right restaurants?


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Pan, didn't Nice used to be part of Italy? That would certainly support your theory.

Vmilor, funny you should mention that. I was just thinking one could make a really good argument for Peter Luger.


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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It's a question, I think, of using different local ingredients but applying a certain sensibility that only a handful of chefs in America -- even those who are Italian or Italian-trained -- have been able to grasp.

This, I think, is the salient point.

The best cooking in italy is entirely tied to the growing season and certain locally-grown, raised, caught or produced ingredients. Due to the geographical nature of the country, there are literally hundreds of microclimates that lead to entirely different ingredients than another zone a hundred miles away. Even in Italy, it would be almost impossible to have a really good "Venetian-style" restaurant in, say, Napoli. I have always been able to make 100% Italian-in-Italy tasting food when I am cooking in Italy. We've got a lot of people on these boards, including myself, who spend a lot of time in Italy and have done a lot of cooking over there, and I would imagine that I am not alone in my inability to exactly replicate those tastes in the US. So, clearly there is something about being in Italy.

The first and most important thing in making "like in Italy" Italian food is to have access to the same ingredients. This is simply impossible. For example, there is no American equivalent of the vacca rossa and so we cannot have a real Fiorentina here. Even if one were to import vacca rossa t-bone steaks from Toscana, the miles would take their toll on the meat and it wouldn't be the same (it would also become prohibitively expensive). Consider the fact that beef is a relatively robust ingredient when it comes to shipping, and imagine what effect that might have on vegetables and herbs.

After that, one has to deal with the fact that American expectations, appetites and dining customs are different than those of Italians. And the bottom line is that the people who own Italian restaurants in America are in the game to make money. A typical cheap Saturday afternoon lunch in Toscana might be a mixed salad followed by grilled pieces of pigeon, guinea hen, turkey and rabbit drizzled with young olive oil. This sounds pretty good to me (and many of you , no doubt) -- but this is not something that will appeal to all that many Americans. Furthermore, it is unlikely such a meal in America can be priced (or will sell) to working people. It is also unlikely that such a meal is fancy or refined enough to sell at a higher price to the upper-middle class fancy restaurant set. This kind of thing presents a real problem when it comes to selling "authentic" Italian food to Americans.

So what one is left with in terms of Italian style restaurants (as opposed to Italian-American style restaurants, which are much more common and a related but unique genre) are places like Felidia, Babbo, etc. These are places that prepare food with an Italian sensibility, but adapt to the use of American ingredients and American customers. These two restaurants in particular represent the two approaches I see in such restaurants as well as the two approaches restaurants use in Italy. Felidia serves largely traditional foods of Italy, with minor changes resulting from the use of American ingredients or adaptations to the locality. Babbo, on the other hand, seeks to forge ahead and create new dishes using the Italian approach -- almost treating New York as a new Italian region and creating a new regional cuisine based on the foods and people of that region. Neither one serves food exactly like what one finds in Italy. But I think both serve food that would be recognized as Italian in spirit were they transplanted to that country.


--

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Pan, didn't Nice used to be part of Italy? That would certainly support your theory.

All those places down there used to be part of all the other places at one time or another. This is not odd from a historical standpoint. What is odd is tha fact that the borders have been fixed for the last 50+ years.


--

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