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Attacking Italian Restaurants


Craig Camp
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I will add an extra component to this argument. During years of selling wine I got to know many Italian, French and Spanish restaurants from the inside out. While they are usually opened with great enthusiasm, it often does not take long for them to become frustrated with how their food is received. This soon leads to cynicism and a bit of contempt for what they come to see as an uneducated and un-appreciative audience. It does not take long for price to take precedence over quality in their purchasing in such an environment. They think why bother spending the extra money and just pocket the extra profit. The very same attitude that you see in tourist restaurants (Venice for example) in Italy.

This was brutally evident in wine purchasing and the types of wines they were willing to foist off on customers who they felt could not tell the difference.

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. . . the Italian coverage spends far more time talking about ingredients than they do on learning to cook them.

There's another aspect to this. A great many of the artisanal foods that are featured by Slow Food require no cooking -- they merely have to be served up on a plate. They are the original fast food -- they are slow only in the making. In France there may be more emphasis on cooking, but local shops and markets feature excellent ready-to-eat food made in-house which may or may not require warming.

In other words, in both Italy and France you can be an enthusiastic and discriminating foodie and hardly need to cook at all. Ready-to-eat meals have a bad name in America because they are overwhelmingly mass-produced, but throughout the rest of the world they have many centuries of history behind them. (In parts of Asia they are among the best meals you can get.)

This is very true about many of the most highly regarded Italian food products. This is why you can have a highly-regarded restaurant like Boccondivino that features almost no "cooked" food.

Even white truffles are not cooked.

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I think you are badly mistaken if you suppose that there are "tons of excellent French restaurants" in the United States.  I also take exception with your assertion that there are "no or very few good Italian restaurants" here.  In fact, while there are likely more excellent French restaurants than Italian-Italian restaurants, I would bet you that there are more excellent Italian-American restaurants in America than there are excellent French restaurants.

How would you propose we measure all this? Certainly if we look at the various major metro area newspapers that rate restaurants, we're likely to find that the top echelon (four stars or whatever) in every major city in America is totally dominated by French restaurants.

I don't think this is a very good model to make this kind of judgment. I would suggest that your observed French domination of restaurant stars has to do with several things:

1. French restaurtant culture has a several hundreds year head start on Italian restaurant culture. Indeed, France more or less invented restaurant culture as it is currently known in the Western World.

2. As a result, the measure by which restaurants are judged in these star systems is according to how well they hold up to the highest French restaurant traditions. Clearly there are two ways to look at your data that the top star-winning category in every major city in America is totally dominated by French restaurants. Your way of looking at it is to say that the best restaurants in this city all happen to be French. Another way of looking at it would be to understand that the restaurants are rated acccording to a French standard -- that the restaurants were able to win their top ratings precisely because they are French, and that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for a restaurant which did not include major features of the French model to win a top rating.

3. As explained above, the "four star" restaurant model is basically a French thing, and it is not one that is particulatly practiced in Italy. In fact, one of the more common things you will hear said about Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy is: "it's not really Italian food."

For example, in New York City there are five restaurants that carry a four-star rating from the New York Times:

Alain Ducasse

Bouley

Daniel

Jean Georges

Le Bernardin 

I don't think there is any Italian restaurant in New York City that competes at that level.

I think it depends on a number of things.

First of all, I am not sure I would call all these restaurants "French." Here are some items from one of Jean-George's menus:

  • "Langouste" Salad With Grapefruit And Mint (sounds Italian)
  • Porcini Tart With Wild Herb Salad (sounds Italian)
  • Chestnut Broth With Mushroom Ravioli And Fall Vegetables (sounds Italian)
  • Sea Scallops, Caper-Raisin Emulsion, Cauliflower (not really French)
  • Tuna And Hamachi Marinated In Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, Radish And Chive (Asian?)
  • Young Garlic Soup With Thyme, Sauteed Frog Legs With Parsley (French)
  • Green Asparagus With Morels, Asparagus Juice (could be anything)
  • Farinette Of Escargots With Scallion And Parsley Oil (French)
  • Toasted Brioche Of Foie Gras (French)
  • Black Sea Bass With Sicilian Pistachio Crust, Wilted Spinach And Pistachio Oil (could be anything)
  • Slow Baked Maine Char, Sauteed Chanterelles And Artichokes (sounds Italian)
  • Baked Dorade With Bay Leaf, Lemon And Fennel Seed (could be anything)
  • Turbot In A Chateau Chalon Sauce, Tomato Confit, Zucchini (French)
  • Lobster Tartine, Pumpkin Seed, Fenugreek Broth, Pea Shoots (French?)
  • Muscovy Duck Steak With Spices, Sweet And Sour Jus (could be anything)
  • Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake With Foie Gras (French?)
  • Loin Of Lamb Dusted With Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Leek Puree (could be anything)
  • Sweetbread En "Cocotte" With Baby Carrot, Ginger And Liquorice (French?)
  • Millbrook Venison Wrapped In Cabbage, Kumquat-Pineapple Chutney (not French)

Doesn't seem all that French to me.

Here is a menu from Bouley. I don't see how anyone could demonstrate to me that 80% of that menu is distinctively "French." For that matter, other than the fact that the menu names are in French, I don't see what is so distinctively French about this menu from Daniel either. Surely this is not the standard by which we are calling a restaurant "French?" Do these menus strike you as particularly French? Other than the language and the format, do these menus strike you as all that different from, say, this one?

Now... clearly there is more to earning a top rating in the NY Times than the quality and style of the food. There is also the setting, the service, etc. I would suggest that these standards are also based on the French model. So, the question is... if Babbo relocated to a more upscale space and if it seriously upgraded (i.e., "Frenchified") the service and decor, might it be able to earn another star from the NYT? Or, what would it have to do in order to earn another star? Would it have to start serving more sauces, making things like "lobster aspic" and making the preparations more complicated to earn that fourth star?

Now I'm sure there are more Italian restaurants at the three-star level -- and that would still probably count as what you mean by "excellent" -- but without doing the hard work of going through several lists of restaurants I know nothing about, I'd be pretty confident betting you that the French and French-influenced-American places outnumber the Italians in that category as well. Probably at the two-star level too. But I'd be willing to be corrected if someone wants to comb through the lists and tabulate them.

Again, the question that has to be asked is how many restaurants of the various types actually aspire to high rankings in these star systems. My strong suspicion is that the number of French restaurants seeking a four star rating vastly outnumbers the number of restaurants of other nationalities seeking such rating.

Furthermore, as I am sure you would agree, a three or four star rating is generally more an indication that a restaurant meets a certain predetermined set of criteria, not necessarily that it is a better restaurant or serves better food -- it's just higher up on a certain arbitrarily-defined ladder. To my mind, there aren't very many Italian restauranteurs in America who are all that interested in playing the four star game. I have no doubt that Mario Batali could open a four star restaurant in NYC if he really put his mind to it. I just don't think he's particularly interested in making the changes in his cooking and service he would have to make in oirder to earn such a star (he has, by the way, said a number of times that he thinks the Michelin Guide is screwing up restaurants in Italy and causing them to offer food that isn't really very Italian).

What do you think an Italian restaurant could do to earn a four star rating and still remain fundamentally an Italian restaurant? Could a Chinese restaurant earn a four star rating and still remain fundamentally Chinese? If the answer is no (and I think it is) then we are left with two ways we may look at this: We may suppose that this is an indication of the supremacy of French cuisine over all other styles, or we may look at the star system as a fundamentally French measure and understand that it may not be entirely appropriate to judge a Chinese restaurant on a French scale.

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Furthermore, as I am sure you would agree, a three or four star rating is generally more an indication that a restaurant meets a certain predetermined set of criteria, not necessarily that it is a better restaurant or serves better food -- it's just higher up on a certain arbitrarily-defined ladder. To my mind, there aren't very many Italian restauranteurs in America who are all that interested in playing the four star game. I have no doubt that Mario Batali could open a four star restaurant in NYC if he really put his mind to it. I just don't think he's particularly interested in making the changes in his cooking and service he would have to make in oirder to earn such a star (he has, by the way, said a number of times that he thinks the Michelin Guide is screwing up restaurants in Italy and causing them to offer food that isn't really very Italian).

What do you think an Italian restaurant could do to earn a four star rating and still remain fundamentally an Italian restaurant? Could a Chinese restaurant earn a four star rating and still remain fundamentally Chinese? If the answer is no (and I think it is) then we are left with two ways we may look at this: We may suppose that this is an indication of the supremacy of French cuisine over all other styles, or we may look at the star system as a fundamentally French measure and understand that it may not be entirely appropriate to judge a Chinese restaurant on a French scale.

It's like deja vu all over again ....

We have had this discussion in the past -- luckily the level of argument has gone up a bit since some of the participants last time round have left the site.

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I think another factor playing into this duscussion is actually defining Italian cuisine-- A lot of the "Italian" food served in the US is actually a stereotype of itself; I think it's something like the Chow Mein of Chinese cuisine-- something never found in China! I don't think I've ever seen Veal Parm in Italy, either.

On the other side of the coin, I visited Liguria this past September, and had dishes like Trophie with Pesto, and Lasagne Verte. I don't know if there are even 2 restaurants in all of New York where one could find this dish; same would be true for Ribbolita, a traditional Tuscan soup.....

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I think another factor playing into this duscussion is actually defining Italian cuisine -- A lot of the "Italian" food served in the US is actually a stereotype of itself...

This is true, but I think it goes to the question of "Italian-American" cooking versus Italian cooking. I-A cooking, in my opinion, has more or less crossed over into being a distinct cuisine all on its own.

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Menton, Chow Mein actually is based on a traditional Chinese dish. I can't say I've had Veal Parmegiana in Italy, and I don't know whether it's traditional or not.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I don't think I've ever seen Veal Parm in Italy, either. 

I don't know if there are even 2 restaurants in all of New York where one could find this dish;  same would be true for Ribbolita, a traditional Tuscan soup.....

During the discussion of eggplant parm, I was also wondering about veal parm, which I also haven't seen in Italy, and am curious as to whether it is authentic or not. Let me re-inforce Pan's original statement though about eggplant parm, this is an authentic Neapolitan dish found throughout Naples. It is conceptually not much different than the version seen in Italian American restaurants, although it is freshly prepared individually, rather than in pre-cooked loaves to be sliced, and thus follows the round form of the eggplant slice. The other major difference is that it tastes good.

There is actually a restaurant in NY named Ribbolita that prepares a passable, no better, version of the dish. However, I would characterize this dish as Florentine, not Tuscan. Florentine cooking is quite different from the food found in the rest of Tuscany. I'm not even sure whether there is a valid category called Tuscan, and would be interested in opinions on this question.

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Veal Parmignana. A breaded (heavily, in the worst versions), fried veal cutlet (chopped veal, or chopped beef passed off as veal, in the worst versions) with cheese (usually mozzarella, rather than the implied Parmesan) melted on top which is then smothered in tomato sauce. The industrial versions are often plopped on a sub roll and thus, turned into a hero sandwich (possibly the highest and best use of veal Parmignana--Jason Perlow would think so, and maybe me, too).

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Veal Parmignana. A breaded (heavily, in the worst versions), fried veal cutlet (chopped veal, or chopped beef passed off as veal, in the worst versions) with cheese (usually mozzarella, rather than the implied Parmesan) melted on top which is then smothered in tomato sauce. The industrial versions are often plopped on a sub roll and thus, turned into a hero sandwich (possibly the highest and best use of veal Parmignana--Jason Perlow would think so, and maybe me, too).

Is it found in Italy?

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Veal Parmignana.  A breaded (heavily, in the worst versions), fried veal cutlet (chopped veal, or chopped beef passed off as veal, in the worst versions) with cheese (usually mozzarella, rather than the implied Parmesan) melted on top which is then smothered in tomato sauce.  The industrial versions are often plopped on a sub roll and thus, turned into a hero sandwich (possibly the highest and best use of veal Parmignana--Jason Perlow would think so, and maybe me, too).

Is it found in Italy?

I have never seen it there. That said, it certainly does have some Italian antecedents, such as bistecca alla pizzaiola.

If we want to talk about veal parmigiana and other such dishes, however, I think we would be well advised to start a new thread so that the topic of this one is not too diluted.

--

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I think veal parm is germaine to this discussion, Sam; this, again, I would analogize to Chow Mein-- they only exist in the American quasi-equivalents. Not in the country they are supposed to represent.

Note to Marcus: I found Ribbolita on almost every restaurant menu throughout Tuscany, including stops in Lucca, San Gimignano, Siena, and Viareggio. That leads me to believe it's really a Tuscan dish.

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Not in the north, to my knowledge. The Italians have a miraculous gift for light breading and greaseless frying, but I don't see it applied that often to meats. I have seen a recipe involving multiple, alternating dredgings of a thick, single slice of mortadella in egg, Parmignano and bread crumbs and then frying the thing in butter (I'm dying to try it, actually--it sounds like the world's greatest fried bologna sandwich!), which would seem to be "Parmignana" in nature, without the tomato sauce. In the Piemonte, they pickle fried veal cutlets, along with fried eggs and cooked vegetables, in a cold summertime dish called carpione, which is actually quite delicious. Sam, is the pizzaiola native to Italy? If so, where?

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Not in the north, to my knowledge.

Agree, that if anything, veal parm would be southern. It is related to eggplant parm, which is undoubtedly authentic southern, probably of Neapolitan origin. The question is whether veal parm originated in Italy or America.

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Hee hee! I think it's an interesting topic, for sure. It just seemed a fork in the road leading away from a discussion of why Italian restaurants in other countries are easy to bash when you get back from Italy.

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I found something on-line, to the effect that "Parmigiana" is a corruption of "Palermitani", meaning "people from Palermo" (as in Sicily).  Seems plausible to me.

Hmmm... and I was always under the impression that "Parmigiana" had its roots from Parma, and/or parmesan cheese! (Reggiano Parmigiano).

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I think it's something like the Chow Mein of Chinese cuisine-- something never found in China! 

Here's a comment on chop suey and chow mein from the "About" website on Chinese Cuisine with Rhonda Parkinson. It corresponds with what I've heard verbally from Deh-Ta Hsiung.

. . .the origins of chop suey may actually lie in the countryside of southern China. According to anthropologist E.N. Anderson, the idea of combining leftover vegetables and noodles into a single, stir-fried dish originated in Toisan, a rural area south of Canton. Since many of the original immigrants to the United States were from this region, they naturally prepared the type of food they were familiar with.

The historical background of chow mein is far less mysterious. Ciao Mein or "fried noodles" originated in Northern China. While the chow mein served at take-outs and many American Chinese restaurants is designed to appeal to western tastes, it is based on an authentic Chinese dish. Until recently, our perceptions of Chinese food were based on early Chinese immigrants, who came primarily from the Canton (Guangzhou) region in southern China. Since they ate rice, we assumed all Chinese eat rice. However, wheat and not rice is the staple crop in the north. So, in a way you can say that chop suey and chow mein represent northern and southern styles of Chinese cooking.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Florentine cooking is quite different from the food found in the rest of Tuscany.  I'm not even sure whether there is a valid category called Tuscan, and would be interested in opinions on this question.

I am very interested to hear more about this from knowledgeable participants. My own experience has been that food in Florence can be "urbanized" with a greater dose of sophistication and finesse, like the city itself. This has also been true for me in at least one other important Tuscan city, Lucca. In general, it tends to be true of cooking in cities as opposed to the countryside, the latter of which makes up the majority of Tuscany and all of Italy. In addition, creations can arise in Florence, such as schiacciatta with grapes, rather than the foccacia found commonly elsewhere in Tuscany and throughout that part of Italy. Or things prepared "alla fiorentina" as another example.

The Tuscans I know refer constantly to common characteristics of their province, as they do to differences among tiny areas within the province that are virtually indistinguishable to outsiders. Both are valid points of view.

edited for typo

Edited by Robert Schonfeld (log)

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Considering that Tuscany is a relatively large region (by Italian standards) and it's history of incorporating neighboring lands and its geography (Mountains to coasts), it isn't that surprising to see the diversity in the cooking in the region.

Tuscan relatives of mine will drive four an hour to eat a dish that they can get in there own village, if they think the former version is better. They will also bitch and complain about how "wrong" it is to put almonds on certain cakes like the do in Florence as everybody [in Siena] knows it should have pinenuts.

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Sam K, in re your long post of Dec 17 2003, 11:08 AM (my time), what are you trying to demonstrate through this analysis? If I may recap, I believe I said that there's a large Italian population in the US and a tiny French population, yet there are more excellent French restaurants in the US than Italian ones. You asserted that there are more excellent Italian ones. I pointed to one possible measure, the star systems that American newspapers use, which of course radically and emphatically supports the notion that French and French-influenced Nouvelle-American restaurants dominate the top category. I also believe they dominate at the three and two star level, though we'd have to check. You responded by saying that with the star system the deck is stacked in favor of French restaurants. Okay, fine. Let's assume that (we can come back to it later). Now where's your evidence that there are all these great Italian restaurants outnumbering the French ones? Where can we look for these lists? At least, can someone name a bunch?

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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