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Craig Camp

Attacking Italian Restaurants

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

Yeah, and italy used to be part of france.

England used to be part of the Roman empire for that matter.

The food of Nice is probably best thought of as Niçoise cuisine.

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I can remain silent no longer. This thread is too tempting! I think that Vedat's conclusion that Chez Panisse is the most AUTHENTIC Italian restaurant in the U.S. hits the nail squarely on the head. Like Robert Brown, and unlike Giovanni, I believe that it is ALL about the difference in the quality of ingredients. I would like to think that Italy merely has a few native specialty products, such as prosciutto, Parmesan and olive oil, which set it apart. The real difference, however, is in the soil itself. Theirs is better. Period. Virtually everything that grows there is sweeter, more acidic, more intensely flavored, more whatever you care to name than our produce. While the coming of the EU has led to the creation of a lot of mass-produced industrial knockoffs of Italy's finest artisanal products, even such of those products as trace their ingredients to Italian soil are still better than imitations produced elsewhere. As vserna noted, the Italian products available in America are getting better, but when you eliminate local cheeses, salame and fresh produce from the mix, it is clear to me that we do not import enough to make a decent, complete, authentic Italian meal. And yes, the EU distribution network is better than ever, but the best foods produced in Italy cannot meet the EU homogeneity standards, so Italy's European neighbors are only marginally better off. Craig and I differ on the esteem in which we hold Molto Mario. I give him a "nice try" for attempting to adapt Italian recipes using American ingredients. Ultimately, I come back to where I started. I think that a Chez Panisse, or an Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, where the chefs cultivate local producers to custom grow the ingredients they need, ingredients well-suited to the local soil and climate, comes closest in spirit, if not in taste, to the Italian approach to cooking. By the way, chasmartel, sorry about your crappy pancakes in Milano! The last thing I would want is an Italian chef to cook "American" food for me. However, I can assure you that Americans cooking American food, but using Italian ingredients in Italy, is heaven on earth!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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

Actually, Nice east to Menton all used to be under the wing of the House of Savoy. In the unification drive of Vittorio Emmanuelle he made a pact with Napoleon III in the 1870s whereby Napoleon would not stand in the way of unification, and Savoy would give to France this coast all the way to Nice.

The Nicois cuisine is more Mediterranean than Italian, they do have a pesto-type soup called Pistou, and olive oil reigns, but otherwise the cuisine is not much like Italian. As Robert Brown has indicated, as soon as you cross over into Ventimiglia the differences, both food and cultural, are striking.

Mario Batali also has said in interviews that it is really difficult to reproduce the Italian dishes here, mainly because of the differences in the ingredients.

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Yeah, I left out olive oil as a basic ingredient Provencal and Italian cuisines share in common.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Personally I look forward to European travels for the quality of ingredients and the difference between the US and European restaurants lies less in technique than ingredients. Happily I have not been brought up in a religious(Turkish)family but had I been, chances are that, after tasting Cinta Senese pork spit roast at Cracco Peck and suckling pork at restaurant Coque, near Madrid in Humanes, I would have converted to the religion of gastronomy or humanism.

Whenever the issue of Italy and ingredients is discussed white truffles occupy a salient role in the discussion. In a way this begs the question because good Alba truffles are available here and cheaper. Today I found out that with 2 days notice at Atlanta in Star Provisions you can get Alba truffles for 160$ an ounce. This is cheaper than in Alba restaurants given that 1oz=28.47 grams and 160/oz comes to 4.68 euro per gram and we paid 5 to 6 euro per gram in Alba. There is no reason to assume a quality difference and, in a different thread, Jellybean made very good points re. this issue.

Rather the difference lies in so called non luxury ingredients and not only cheese, salumi and the like. Take eggs, leeks(of Cervere), spinach, brain, sweetbreads(used in Finanziera), different species of fish not available here, etc. There are so many permutations and combinations as, say, eggs are used in dessert or pasta. It is just not possible to replicate Italy here.

Enjoy a great steak(top in the States) and good cuisine making best use of VA and northern CA ingredients in the meantime.

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I think that Vedat's conclusion that Chez Panisse is the most AUTHENTIC Italian restaurant in the U.S. hits the nail squarely on the head. 

A multi-layered assertion. In another thread, it could be argued that Chez Panisse is the most authentic French restaurant in America. Both claims would be based on that ambiguous and much-argued word "terroir", the essential aspect of which is a wholistic approach to cuisine which centers on its integral relationship to the area in which it is practised.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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John, that depends upon what you accept as the fundamental goal of French cooking. We had a raging thread here last year in which the Italian cooking style was brutalized as "no more than home cooking" by a hardcore Francophile, because he believed (as I do, actually) that the dominant Italian style was, generally speaking, fresh ingredients served with minimal intervention by the chef, with the goal being to highlight the flavors of the individual ingredients, while the French goal was to combine ingredients in a manner that causes the individual ingredients to lose their identities in the production of "new" and novel flavors. I do not necessarily subscribe to the definition of French style (which seems to be in transition right now), but if I did, Chez Panisse could not be my most authentic French restaurant, too.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I do not necessarily subscribe to the definition of French style (which seems to be in transition right now), but if I did, Chez Panisse could not be my most authentic French restaurant, too.

It's worth remembering that Chez Panisse started as an unashamedly French bistro, growing out of Alice's college experience during a summer's foreign study. Her first models were Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking and (later) Richard Olney's Simple French Food (see my history of Chez Panisse at http://www.gfw.co.uk/stirwords/words0499jw.html ).

It's useless, I think, to argue as to whether French cuisine is essentially haute or bourgeoise. It's one of the less productive forms of class warfare. :biggrin:

[Edit: URL corrected]


Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Craft, in NYC, is another restaurant that demonstrates a somewhat Italianate sensibility.

Has anybody but me read Ducasse's book Harvesting Excellence. Probably not, since they're selling it off at like $5 a copy on Amazon. It's Ducasse's paean to American ingredients. I think anybody who reads the book and has some experience tasting even 5% of the products mentioned therein will have to conclude that the view of American ingredients as inferior to European is quaint and outdated. The world's top chefs -- those who are honest with themselves, at least -- acknowledge American superiority in several categories of ingredients; they also understand that American ingredients are on par with European in many areas; and of course some (most) are inferior. If you're stupid, you cook with the inferior ones.


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, "quaint and outdated"? In the now-immortal words of Mike Wallace, "Oh, come on now! You expect us to believe that?" There must be a reason that Amazon is offloading the book! I make you the following peace offering: Maine lobster, diver scallops, jumbo lump crab meat, pure maple syrup (actually, ANY maple syrup), Hanover County, Virginia and Jersey beefsteak tomatoes (but you may have heard that there are a few places in Italy known for their tomatoes, too), Silver Queen corn (although, after I plant it in Italian soil, that one will be coming off the list), the pastrami and corned beef at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side, barbeque and properly aged steaks of 20 years ago. That's about it. Trust me, any produce that the Indians gave to the Pilgrims will grow better in Italian (and probably French) soil. And notice that pastrami, corned beef and barbeque are prepared foods, not ingredients. Worse, if I use Italian pork to make barbeque over there, Varmint McCord will probably emigrate. The pigs in Italy eat better than I do most of the time. Remember that Ducasse published that book in 2000, around the same time he was preparing to open his NYC palace. I submit to you that he was merely covering his Michelin-starred tushie, just in case his American ingredients (Maine lobster, diver scallops, etc.) disappointed expectations! It is not that quality ingredients are impossible to find in the U.S., it is merely that the finding is too hard for too many people living outside of a small handful of major cities. And too often, the quality of fresh ingredients that are shipped from the countryside into those cities is second-rate. (But we are not alone in that regard. Paris now suffers from the same malady.) The best ingredients do not travel, and cannot be mass-produced in California and Florida, using every technological trick in the book to make them APPEAR to be fresh. The United States, among other things, is just too damn big to allow its prime ingredients to be spread around while in perfect shape. We are double-charged at Whole Foods for "organic" ingredients. We had to explain that concept to our Italian friends, who eat very little that is not organically grown, from their own or nearby gardens. I'm through ranting. Fat Guy, you are a good, but ultimately misguided, American. Misguided by a Frenchman, no less!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I suspect it's true that a first-class chef in a high-priced American restaurant can obtain almost anything he wants if he knows where to look and is willing and able to pay for it. But compare the ease with which an Italian, or even a visitor to Italy, can find good seasonal ingredients and artisanal products in any local community, with the needle-in-a-haystack search for anything non-plastic in most American cities and towns (unless you're somewhere that's a lucky exception and you have someone to guide you).

In other words, as in so many respects, in America it's advisable to be rich. :hmmm:


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I'll add my own two Eurocents to Bill's very restrictive list of great American ingredients: Washington State Kumamoto oysters and real New England littleneck clams. Wonderful stuff, it can be! And how about the northern red snapper (to non-American readers: this is a fish, the Lutjanus campechanus, which we don't have in Europe; it's Mexico's huachinango)?


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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The bottom line is not ingredients. Hell even in middle and rural America some of the best produce and meat can be found. The problem with Italian food in the US is that people are accustomed to eating lowbrow stuff at Italian restaurants. Italian food has become commoditized with Italian American cuisine. With the exception of the big cities like New York, LA or Chicago, you're not going to find stellar examples of authentic, regional Italian food.

But I suspect this is changing, with guys like Mario Batali entering the cummulative mindset from his romps on the Food Network. To some extent even Rocco Dispirto (shudder). In 10 years it will be a different story. Even middlebrow Italian-American restaurants in suburbia nowadays are striving for more authentic fare. For example a new local pizza and pasta place in Oradell NJ, (which is hardly the bastion of diner sophistication) which I went to this week, Felice is probably one of the best attempts at a suburban trattoria I have seen yet.

This "New Italian American" cuisine, which is inspired by the more authentic stuff but focuses on american ingredients and tries to be more accessible to middle class people is something we are going to see a lot more of in the future. Blue collar trattorias.

Eschewing eggplant parmigiana for Melanzanie Florentina is fine with me. Just make sure I can get my Chicken Parm on a Hero when I want it.


Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

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

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Hey, you can look at it the other way 'round. Now that Madrid is getting its share of extremely sophisticated and authentic Italian restaurants, my friend Alfredo from the Bronx (a soldier at Torrejón air base 35 years ago who decided to stay in Spain), who serves easily the best burgers I've found in continental Europe at his two Alfredo's Barbacoa joints in Madrid, has opened a place called Brooklyn USA, "an Italian-American eatery". The local crowd of former New York residents, me included, is delighted at the uncanny Little Italy flavors Alfredo and his wife have been able to impart to their sausages and to their spaghetti with meatballs. See, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder!


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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I don't think anyone can make the argument that Italy or any European country has demonstrably better produce and other ingredients than those in the United States. Indeed, certain products (beef and wheat immediately come to mind) are considered the best in the world. What one can say is that they are often distinctively different.

For example, I don't think it is possible to get better eggs anywhere in the world than the just-laid organic eggs I get at the Union Square Green Market every Saturday morning. That said, they don't have those deep golden yolks that Italian eggs have. Does that make the Italian eggs "better?" No, it doesn't. In fact, most such eggs I have bought in Italy were demonstrably inferior to the eggs I get at the USGM. However, the fact remains that even using better American eggs, I will still not be able to replicate the egg yolk pasta fresca I make in Italy. Similarly, I don't think the tomatoes I have had in Italy were demonstrably better than those I get here in season. But, it is also a fact that a sauce made with top quality heirloom tomatoes from Jersey won't taste the same as one made with tomatoes from San Marzano. This, in my opinion, is the major difference and goes a long way towards explaining why it is difficult to make "tastes like Italy" food in America.

I think it is also often the case that Italians have access to fresher, more local ingredients than we do in the States. This is due to the huge geological diversity found in Italy over relatively small distances. Someone living on the coast of Abruzzo can have mountain-grown/caught/etc. products at his local market that didn't have to travel very far to get there. In the United States, on the other hand, we have have a huge ancient flood plain in the middle of the country that is relatively homogenous from a geological (and therefore agricultural) standpoint. Agriculture in the US, due to the fact that our geology tends to change over much larger distances, tends to be macroregional rather than microregional. One result of this is the fact that a significant percentage of American produce comes from far away. For example, in Italy, practically every area grows artichokes, whereas almost all the artichokes in the States are grown in on the West coast. So, there is just no way a New York restaurant can get artichokes as fresh and in such pristine condition as most any trattoria does in Italy.


--

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vserna, you have punctured my hyperbole! There may, indeed, be a few more quality American ingredients. But John has seized the spirit of my argument. Jason, all that I can say is "Nice Sangweech!". Sam, bless your soul, while I accept your "different" point, some of your "not better" arguments seemed to self-destruct before my very eyes. Sadly, there is ZERO chance that the eggs are not generally better in Italy than in Union Square. Most chickens are free-range, and most eggs organic, because most Italians do not understand the alternatives. And the chickens eat corn, which produces the miraculous red-orange yolk and contributes to a distinctly "egg-ier" taste. I, too, cannot duplicate Italian pasta dough here. And of "heirloom" tomatoes? How long do you suppose the concept of "heirloom" has existed in the U.S.? 10 years? Less? Slow Food USA appears to be the leading exponent of the concept here, and we know its roots! Most Italians have only a passing acquaintance with "heirloom", because the best strains of their produce have never been allowed to disappear. To be sure, all is not perfect. A fair amount of the produce I buy in my supermercato in Italy comes from somewhere else, especially in the winter. America does not have a monopoly on beautiful but flavorless produce. I will say, however, that I have adopted the Italian habit of eating whatever is in season, in favor of standard foods that are merely available. I will also say that Sicily's blood oranges make a much better glass of juice in the morning than my Florida oranges here!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I think it is also often the case that Italians have access to fresher, more local ingredients than we do in the States.  This is due to the huge geological diversity found in Italy over relatively small distances. 

This is a very astute observation, but it's also due to the fact that Italy's food culture is still closer to pre-industrial patterns of production and distribution. The Wal-Mart steamroller hasn't yet flattened the countryside, as it is rapidly doing in Mexico. If you look at the "authenticity" threads in the Mexico forum, you'll find that the equivalent of "Italian-American" is rapidly taking over. Visit those unspoiled hosterie before they start serving spaghetti and meatballs. :sad:


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I don't think anyone can make the argument that Italy or any European country has demonstrably better produce and other ingredients than those in the United States. 

I have to take issue with this. In all my years of European travel, one of the things I think about doing as soon as possible while I'm stepping off the plane, is going to a market and getting some produce!

The produce available readily in the US is pretty much awful. The supermarkets have about 14 varieties of apples now, none of them edible. Pears are like rocks. Melons are a roll-the-dice proposition, with more than 50% of them tasting like styrofoam.

At a town market in France or Italy, they have melons cut open for tasting. One bite and you feel like you went to heaven! The strawberries are sweet and taste like woodlands. Peaches drip down your face while you eat them, and plums are like nectar of the gods.

Most of the locals explain this phenomenon by the distance traveled from field to market. Also mass production methods. Whatever the reason, the produce in Europe is about 5000% better than in the US!!! Just stop at a local town market!!!

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Eschewing eggplant parmigiana for Melanzanie Florentina is fine with me. Just make sure I can get my Chicken Parm on a Hero when I want it.

I like a good melanzana alla parmegiana, and it's real Italian food - or it can be, anyway. My experience of the apotheosis of that dish was in a trattoria in the University quarter of Naples.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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I found the produce more consistently good in Italy than France, for whatever that's worth, but it might be partly a regional issue. After all, I've spent more time in Tuscany than any other region of Italy.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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This is a very astute observation, but it's also due to the fact that Italy's food culture is still closer to pre-industrial patterns of production and distribution.

I don't know what Italy you are talking about, but I assure you the industrial revolution has spread through even Italy.

Perhaps you haven't seen an Ipermarket?

Just last week the Ipermarket had a big promotion of foods from Calabria - even though you can see the Swiss Alps from the store. It seems they have found a way to get the food all 1000 kilometers up to Varese. I hear they are using this new innovative distribution system called trucks.

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I like a good melanzana alla parmegiana, and it's real Italian food

Parmigiana di melanzane - real Italian food?? Not where we live!

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[The produce available readily in the US is pretty much awful. The supermarkets have about 14 varieties of apples now, none of them edible. Pears are like rocks. Melons are a roll-the-dice proposition, with more than 50% of them tasting like styrofoam.

It's not that the USA can't grow good produce. It's that the general consumer does not care. The reason that produce is better in France and Italy is because the consumer demands it and won't buy it if it is not good.

Europe is not some blessed land that can grow things that the USA cannot - it is the customers that make the difference.

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Absolutely, Craig! I didn't think it was a matter of soil geology or climate-- It's just the fruit itself-- And yes, sadly, it seems that the American public does not want better...

I can even taste the different flavor intensity level of the fruit in the imported fruit yogurts!

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