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Craig Camp

Attacking Italian Restaurants

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For example, I strongly doubt that the average Italian eats better BBQ brisket than I do.

And I also suspect that the crawdads pulled from Italian waterways don't hold a candle to those that routinely arrive on Louisiana tables.  In fact, I doubt that the Cajun or Creole food in Italy is worth choking down.  And, I'd put a good Louisiana gumbo up against a cioppino anyday.

The difference is that in Italy (and Spain and France) the restaurants and home cooks don't try to make (and sell you) the crappy BBQ brisket, crawdads and Cajun or Creole food that they probably would make while American restaurants do it to French, Spanish and Italian food all the time.

Why are you comparing gumbo against west coast Cioppino, the Italian American version of zuppa di pesce - which I will happily put up against both by the way.


Edited by Craig Camp (log)

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For example, I strongly doubt that the average Italian eats better BBQ brisket than I do.

And I also suspect that the crawdads pulled from Italian waterways don't hold a candle to those that routinely arrive on Louisiana tables.  In fact, I doubt that the Cajun or Creole food in Italy is worth choking down.  And, I'd put a good Louisiana gumbo up against a cioppino anyday.

Jaymes finally gets it. Right on the mark here.

Finally? Read back through this thread. I never disputed the incontrovertible fact that Italian food in the US is a pale imitation (and even that is a kindness) to the Italian food in Italy.

The only thing that I take objection to, and still do, is the incessant (and of course, so politically correct) attacking of Americans as being a people that are innately inferior in all ways culinary to all of the rest of God's creatures that populate this planet.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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The US is an enormous place.  This thread specifically addresses Italian food.  And I am certain that the average Italian eats much better Italian food than the average American who, quite likely, has never really eaten "Italian food" at all.

However, I am not at all certain that the average Italian, or European, eats better when you consider everything that really enters into what arrives on your table.

I think it depends on what exactly you are talking about. I would assert that the average Italian, if you consider simply the quality of the food consumed irrespective of regional style or recipe, does in fact eat better than the average American. By and large, the ingredients are of a higher quality and by and large more care and pride are taken in the preparation of those ingredients. So, strictly in that sense, the average Italian does eat better. That said, 95% of the food an Italian eats is "Italian food." More specifically, if he lives in Rome, 80 - 90% of the food he eats is "Roman food." I don't think you'll find the average SC resident eating barbeque 5 times a week, or the average MA resident eating fresh-caught fish 5 times a week.

For example, I strongly doubt that the average Italian eats better BBQ brisket than I do.

Certainly this is true. But, more to the point, the average Italian doesn't eat BBQ brisket -- if he does, it is largely as a novelty. Craig makes an excellent point when he says that Italians, by and large, don't bother trying to make and sell crappy barbeque or gumbo if they can't do it well.

And I also suspect that the crawdads pulled from Italian waterways don't hold a candle to those that routinely arrive on Louisiana tables.  In fact, I doubt that the Cajun or Creole food in Italy is worth choking down.  And, I'd put a good Louisiana gumbo up against a cioppino anyday.

That's hard to say about the crayfish. It's not something that I've ever heard of people eating in Italy. But I think you're confusing ingredients with preparations. I have little doubt that I could make perfectly good gambero d'acqua dolce soffocato in Italy -- especially considering the fact that most peope in LA are using frozen Chinese crayfish tails to make theirs anyway. By the way, cioppino is an American dish you won't find in Italy.

The US is full of excellent (and fresh) regional foods.

I don't know what it is about the American psyche that constantly compels us to run ourselves down.  And to think that everything "European" is always and necessarily better than everything "American."

Yes, there are many excellent regional foods in America. I don't think anyone is suggesting that there aren't. I don't quite understand why you think that the discussion in this thread has furthered the idea that "everything 'European' is always and necessarily better than everything 'American.'" That said, I don't think it makes sense to stick one's head in the sand in cases where it is true. I don't think there is any denying, for example, that the average Italian cares more about his national and regional food culture and in general eats better quality food than the average American. I would also assert that the average Italian avails himself of his region's culinary specialties more frequently than the average American. It is certainly not the case that people like Bill, Craig and myself are America-haters when it comes to food. Indeed, I have freqently asserted that New York is one of the top restaurant cities in the world. But, the difference between the average American and the average Italian with respect to food is something that is absolutely self evident to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time living in both countries.


--

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I wish five years for you in France, Italy, Portugal or Spain. You will never be able to shop in an American chain store again.

Well, I live in northern California, which is (nominally) part of America, and I can never shop in a chain store again. I believe that I get more varieties of better produce fresher here than I could anywhere in the world, and many people agree with me. A fortiori, professional chefs are doing better than I can. (I do, however, reserve judgement on the tomatoes). So Jaymes and FG are correct. Craig's camp is also correct, though, and I don't think that this can really be disputed, that the overall interest in food quality is much higher in Italy. But that does not change the fact that the quality and availability of ingredients are not the main problem facing the Italian cook in america. And this is a profound change from thirty years ago.

Also,

You have to come to the Iberian peninsula and eat some fish and shellfish here, Steve. It'll open up a brave new world of ichtyological possibilities!

Word. I believe that the overall quality of Spanish seafood is second only to Japanese (though in this, as in so many other threads, the use of national, as opposed to regional, boundaries can only obscure the point).

And,

In addition, I believe the case against shipping has been overstated. Many of the world's best ingredients are extremely stable and can survive boat-shipping no problem. Others do quite well with air shipping.

You may be surprised to learn how quickly fresh produce deteriorates, as discussed in this thread.

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I don't quite understand why you think that the discussion in this thread has furthered the idea that "everything 'European' is always and necessarily better than everything 'American.'"

Sam, it is clear that you are an intelligent and thoughtful man. And I agree with almost everything you've said, except this.

If you read back through this thread, it has a distinct tone that is constantly disparaging to Americans.

It seems to be something that we feel a need to do, although I don't know why. Perhaps it is to apologize for what we perceive as arrogance of Americans in other areas. Perhaps it is to apologize for our wealth and abundance. Perhaps it is to apologize for what seems to be our natural and frequently annoying exuberance.

But it just really pisses me off when I see it.

Yes, the so-called Italian food in the US is mostly bad. Why? Is it because, as is asserted in this thread, we just prefer crap? Or are there maybe other, less insulting reasons. Like for example the fact that Italy is now and always was a peninsula with ready access to the freshest ingredients, while our relatively new country was settled by a bunch of disparate immigrants from a plethora of countries many of whom had all their worldly possessions in some wagon, trying to simply survive out on the Great Plains?

I just think that any subject this convoluted and difficult and ephemeral deserves a more careful and respectful scrutiny than, "Americans alone in this world prefer crap over quality and don't understand, value or appreciate the difference."


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Yes, the so-called Italian food in the US is mostly bad.  Why?  Is it because, as is asserted in this thread, we just prefer crap?....

I just think that any subject this convoluted and difficult and ephemeral deserves a more careful and respectful scrutiny than, "Americans alone in this world prefer crap over quality and don't understand, value or appreciate the difference."

I really think you've missed the point, and misinterpreted a lot of what has been said here.

For me, anyway, the issue isn't "good" or "bad" Italian food (though there could certainly be a whole separate thread on that subject, including a discussion re: the mystifying success of chains like Olive Garden, Sbarro and Papa Gino's here in the US), and it isn't about generally disparaging the culinary sensibilities of the American public.

In fact, there is a large base of American consumers who appreciate quality food products and dining and spend large sums annually on both. Nowhere is this more evident than in NYC. And, furthermore, as someone else has already noted in this thread, many would consider NYC the "best restaurant city" in the world in terms of its diversity of offerings AND the quality of those offerings. But here's the rub, and the real issue, as I see it ----

You go to Babbo for dinner, arguably the best Italian spot in NY. You have a wonderful meal. You spend a sum equal to the GNP of a small developing country. Nonetheless, you're a happy customer --- the flavors were big and bold, everything was fresh and well-prepared, the wine list superb. There was nothing "bad" about this food. This food was superb. But it wasn't an authentic Italian dining experience --- not in terms of the selections on the menu, not in terms of the portions (which are far larger than in Italy and make difficult if not impossible the experience of a "full" Italian meal), and certainly not in terms of the rhythm and flow of the meal.

And the question remains why? It's not because Babbo's customers "prefer crap" as you've chosen to interpret some of the comments in this thread. These are some of the most demanding consumers in the world --- if Batali served crap eventually even he'd be out of business. And it's not, as some others have asserted here, a dearth of quality ingredients. At least for someone like Batali, the availability of high-quality ingredients is (for the most part) a non-issue.

So why can't you get the "real deal" (or even something approximating the "real deal") here in the US, even at a wonderful place like Babbo? That's the real issue.

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I hear what you're saying, Jaymes. I hope we can say that interesting points have been made all around, with perhaps more on the way. If I might interject a little bit of metadiscusion here, I think that inferences of disparagement or tone may have been made by several parties where none was intended. Believe me, I know what this is like as there are no doubt several people on these boards who would find issue with your characterization of me as a thoughtful and non-judgmental, even though I do not go out of my way to piss people off. Perhaps we might put those things aside for the time being and go back to a more elevated level of discourse.


--

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But I think we may have missed a point that needed to be discussed before that one: I'd be interested in exploring the commonly made assertion that Italian food is totally dependent on high-quality local ingredients. I began to suspect that this was bullshit when I started thinking about pasta. For one thing, the raw material is being imported. For another thing, there is no particular need for regional production. And perhaps most importantly, it seems there are countless pasta dishes that don't depend particularly on the excellence of fragile hard-to-ship local ingredients. Especially when you consider that Parmigiano-Reggiano, middle-market Italian olive oil, and made-in-Italy dried pastas are common fixtures in supermarkets throughout the industrialized world, I would think that many pasta dishes are not all that geographically dependent.

Wow! An old guy takes 12 hours off for this decade's colonoscopy, and this thread goes to hell in a produce basket! Steve, the pasta thing is a canard if ever there was one, and in suggesting that great ingredients can be flown in from anywhere, you may have overlooked the chilling effects of cost and customs regulations. American wheat, Canadian wheat, who gives a damn. For dried pasta, it is the technique that counts, and that is what the Italians supply. Taste aside, the Italians pay close attention to the DIES they use for extruding dried pasta, in order to create a texture that will allow ragu to adhere properly to the pasta. Moreover, for fresh pasta, it's the eggs that count, and Sam Kinsey and I kicked that around earlier on this thread. The Almighty himself/herself delivers Sam's eggs fresh to Union Square each week, and Sam STILL cannot make his pasta taste like the genuine item in Italy. Your cheese and oil argument has a certain facile appeal, unless you take into account the difference between the fresher, artisanal Parmignano available in Italy, and the superb Lake Garda olive oil that you damn near have to sleep with a producer to buy versus the middle-market stuff you refer to. And frankly, pasta may have been your best point of attack. vserna said it all re: the ignorance reflected in the Ducasse list of better American products. Fennel? Honey? Zucchini? I will go on record as saying that, sure, there are some exceptional products available in America, but generally only for people like the denizens of this site, who will sacrifice entire weekends (or even weeks) to seeking them out. And while Craig makes a fair point that supermarkets and industrial products are beginning to blight the Italian landscape, it is still relatively easy to assemble the best fresh products on your dinner table. I have chosen bell peppers as a metaphor for this whole discussion, as follows:

Dinner in America:

Carl Betz: "Honey, these stuffed peppers are wonderful! What's so different about them?"

Donna Reed: "Oh, Whole Foods had organic orange and yellow peppers imported from Holland this week. They're so beautiful, and if you cook them, they even get a little sweet. And on sale at $4.99 a pound, too!"

Dinner at the Klapp Household in the Piemonte (translated from the Italian):

Mr. Klapp: "Honey, these pepper rolatini stuffed with tuna, capers and mayonnaise are wonderful! Are these the first Motta (15 minutes away) peppers of the season?"

Mrs. Klapp: "No, Bill, you idiot, you know that Motta gets less sun, and that we won't be seeing the first Motta peppers for a couple of weeks yet. These are the first Carmagnola (45 minutes away) peppers. Not quite peak of the season, but not bad. Actually, it might be the olive oil from Lake Garda that I used to make the mayonnaise."

Dinner Guest: "Either that, or perhaps the salt-packed capers we brought you from Sicily last week. You did get fresh eggs from next door this morning, didn't you?"

Mrs. Klapp: "Yes, I got the eggs from Olga this morning."

Second Dinner Guest: "Absolutely the best rolatini I have had since that night at Da Guido last September. Last year was a great year for Motta peppers, and of course, Guido wouldn't think of using anything else."

Third Dinner Guest: "Perhaps, but even the best Motta peppers cannot compare to the Carmagnola peppers that are harvested the week after the Carmagnola pepper festival. I still dream of the rolatini that Giuliana made from Carmagnola peppers in 1987. You remember, don't you? It was so warm during the pepper harvest, and there was no rain, but yet it was cool at night, too. Those were the sweetest, most flavorful peppers that I have ever eaten. It is true that the eggs and oil in the mayonnaise are important, and yes, the capers and tuna, too, but peppers like those come only a few times in a lifetime."

And so it goes. It is both the quality of ingredients and the passion for food that make the difference in Italy, and there is a relatively small constituency for both in the U.S.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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1. I am not defending the idea that Italy, little Italy, has all the best ingredients in the world, even though it does have the greatest tomatoes by a mile. But I do believe western Europe as a whole, with three main agricultural powers (France, Italy and Spain), has the richest portfolio of top-notch ingredients in the world; more than the USA.

For the purposes of this discussion, I would agree, but I recommend that you travel to Malaysia someday and try the bounty of fantastic fresh fruit grown on the East Coast of the Peninsula.

In my lifetime, so far, the best produce I've experienced has been in Italy and Malaysia, and I wouldn't be able to say which place is better, but the climate zones of the two countries and, thus, the produce, is entirely different.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Dinner in America: 

Carl Betz:  "Honey, these stuffed peppers are wonderful!  What's so different about them?" 

Donna Reed:  "Oh, Whole Foods had organic orange and yellow peppers imported from Holland this week.  They're so beautiful, and if you cook them, they even get a little sweet.  And on sale at $4.99 a pound, too!"

Dinner at the Klapp Household in the Piemonte (translated from the Italian): 

Mr. Klapp:  "Honey, these pepper rolatini stuffed with tuna, capers and mayonnaise are wonderful!  Are these the first Motta (15 minutes away) peppers of the season?"

Mrs. Klapp:  "No, Bill, you idiot, you know that Motta gets less sun, and that we won't be seeing the first Motta peppers for a couple of weeks yet.  These are the first Carmagnola (45 minutes away) peppers.  Not quite peak of the season, but not bad.  Actually, it might be the olive oil from Lake Garda that I used to make the mayonnaise."

Dinner Guest:  "Either that, or perhaps the salt-packed capers we brought you from Sicily last week.  You did get fresh eggs from next door this morning, didn't you?"

Mrs. Klapp:  "Yes, I got the eggs from Olga this morning."

Second Dinner Guest:  "Absolutely the best rolatini I have had since that night at Da Guido last September.  Last year was a great year for Motta peppers, and of course, Guido wouldn't think of using anything else."

Third Dinner Guest:  "Perhaps, but even the best Motta peppers cannot compare to the Carmagnola peppers that are harvested the week after the Carmagnola pepper festival.  I still dream of the rolatini that Giuliana made from Carmagnola peppers in 1987.  You remember, don't you?  It was so warm during the pepper harvest, and there was no rain, but yet it was cool at night, too.  Those were the sweetest, most flavorful peppers that I have ever eaten.  It is true that the eggs and oil in the mayonnaise are important, and yes, the capers and tuna, too, but peppers like those come only a few times in a lifetime."

And so it goes.  It is both the quality of ingredients and the passion for food that make the difference in Italy, and there is a relatively small constituency for both in the U.S.

great post... (and a very interesting thread)

I would add though to the last comment re: ingredient quality and passion: tradition and knowledge of the regional cuisine.

In your wonderful script, the people also have had that dish many times, tasted it with slightly different variations or with ingredients that vary. They *know* the dish and they know what is perfect to eat and drink with it.

I myself do love to experiment with different cuisines and cooking techniques (i.e. a wide breadth of cooking and food experiences). But it is also this very breadth that takes away from some of the benefits obtained with depth and knowledge of a particular regional cuisine. This aspect can't be gained by just reading a recipe in a cookbook (although some of my favorite cookbooks do present a lot of context) OR by just eating that particular dish in a restaurant (especially when the choices don't have any context with each other).

I guess this is where a tasting menu could come in, or a pre-set dinner (like Chez Panisse) or eating a great meal at someone's house that knows a regional cuisine and how to cook it. Also, I guess I'm referring to a particular type of culinary experience in which the regionality and tradtion are important (rather than (an also good, but different experience, in which a meal is more an overt experience in creativity with ingredients and techniques)

Now that write a little, perhaps what I meant to encapsulate with "tradition' and 'knowledge of the regional cuisine' is the concept of context. Part of what I (and I'm sure many others) find wonderful about eating, say, great food in Italy, is the context of the food and how the food in a meal goes together.

Something that made a big impression on me in a meal in Florence was the offering of fresh pineapple with kirsch as a dessert. While that particular combo may or may not be traditionally Italian, and so may muddy things as an example, it certainly adheres to the Italian tradition of "simple fruit" for dessert. I don't think that some simple wonderful fruit would be served in any equivalent Italian restaurant here. (I don't mean a *fancy* restaurant where one might be looking for more preparation, etc). People would not order it for many reasons including not enough perceived 'value' for the $, perhaps inferior ingredients, doesn't fit their expectations of dessert, etc.

Well anyway, as I ramble here a bit; I guess I see a big difference between a (non-touristy) Italian restaurant here vs there being in what is offered to eat and how this affected by the knowledge (and ?conditioning?) of the diner.

edit to add a word


Edited by ludja (log)

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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Ludja, you are absolutely right about tradition and the knowledge of regional cuisine. And while I was having some fun with the last post, a great many of the dinners that I have attended with Italian friends were not far off what I invented. I am convinced that my acceptance by Italian friends is based primarily upon my unexpected (for an American) knowledge of Piemontese foods and wines.

they actually prefer crap, if said crap is good looking.

And I guess that as an American, I am as susceptible to this as anyone else.

It may not be how I select a tomato, but, God knows, that's how I wound up with my first ex-husband.

In the midst of all of this high-minded, spirited debate, I did not want this gem to be overlooked! I am considering that quote for my tombstone, and even debating whether or not to change "ex-husband" to "ex-wife"!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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By the way I had some stinco di asino just the other day.

Did you really?! You are the only other American I know, besides me, who has eaten asino. What did you think? Personally, I could live without it.

It is quite popular for large dinner parties and is served all the time at local festivals - alway on huge mounds of steaming polenta.

Actually I think it is quite tasty, but a bit rich.

I believe that the Mexicans have a similar festival--"Stinco de Mayo"! Or is it "Stinco de Cinco de Mayo"? "Stinco d' Asino de Cinco de Mayo"? It will come to me...


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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1. I am not defending the idea that Italy, little Italy, has all the best ingredients in the world, even though it does have the greatest tomatoes by a mile. But I do believe western Europe as a whole, with three main agricultural powers (France, Italy and Spain), has the richest portfolio of top-notch ingredients in the world; more than the USA. There is also more popular resistance to industrial uniformity of foods in Europe (not to mention genetically modified ones...) than in the USA.

3. Yes, Italy imports American wheat; who doesn't? But top-quality pasta is made of durum wheat, and I think Italy is a pretty huge producer of that type of wheat.

Point 1 is absolutely correct. The quality of foodstuffs in Italy is not about Italy alone. I would starve to death amidst all of the abundance in Italy if it were not for the superior (and relatively inexpensive) Spanish jarred tuna, upon which so many classic Piemontese recipes depend.

Point 3 confirms my worst suspicions about the bad bread in Italy, the subject of a recent post. It's the damn North American flour! (Just kidding!)


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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For dried pasta, it is the technique that counts, and that is what the Italians supply.

For dried pasta, you can put it in the hold of a cargo ship and send it anywhere in the world, and it will be exactly the same as in Italy. And it will be relatively inexpensive. I can buy probably 100 brands of Italian-made pasta in the stores just within a 10-minute walk of my apartment.

The Almighty himself/herself delivers Sam's eggs fresh to Union Square each week, and Sam STILL cannot make his pasta taste like the genuine item in Italy.

Nobody is trying to say the eggs in New York are the same as the eggs in Italy. Two things, however, can be different without one being better. Indeed, the eggs Sam gets in New York are almost definitely better tasting than those used by the average restaurant in Italy. I assume the main difference is that they aren't as yellow as Italian eggs. Big deal.

Your cheese and oil argument has a certain facile appeal, unless you take into account the difference between the fresher, artisanal Parmignano available in Italy, and the superb Lake Garda olive oil that you damn near have to sleep with a producer to buy versus the middle-market stuff you refer to.

Most restaurants in Italy aren't using those products. Moreover, while I do think Parmigiano in Italy can be better than the export product, that difference mostly evaporates when it's grated into a cooked dish. And there is simply no lack of good olive oil outside of Italy. There may be a small percentage of Italian estates from which I can't buy, but I can buy from dozens of the best ones. And I can buy excellent olive oil from California as well, not to mention Spain, France, the Middle East, et al.

I will go on record as saying that, sure, there are some exceptional products available in America, but generally only for people like the denizens of this site, who will sacrifice entire weekends (or even weeks) to seeking them out.

It's extremely, hilariously easy to buy good ingredients where I live. My day-to-day life experience is completely antithetical to the caricature being presented by the Italophiles on this thread: in season, I can simply go to the Union Square Greenmarket and purchase a delightful variety of products, some of which are better than what I've seen in plenty of markets in Europe, some of which are as good, and some of which aren't. Someone living in San Francisco can do exactly the same thing, purchasing from a different set of local purveyors. For 24 weeks of the year, I can get vegetables and fruits delivered from local farms via the Yorkville CSA. I can go to Chinatown and purchase outstanding produce for very little money -- prices that would amaze most Europeans. And when I'm done at the greenmarket and the produce vendors, I can go to stores like Fairway, Dean & DeLuca, Vinegar Factory, etc., and buy top-quality staples and imports that are on par with the best of what's available pretty much anywhere. The rest, I can mail order while my fat ass sits in a chair. Or I can just go out to eat; the only problem being that I can't find a decent Italian restaurant here.


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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Ludja, you are absolutely right about tradition and the knowledge of regional cuisine. And while I was having some fun with the last post, a great many of the dinners that I have attended with Italian friends were not far off what I invented.

Your "imagined" conversation was very similar to ones I have experienced with locals in France and Austria as well... (i.e. passion, knowledge, tradition about food, or rather particular dishes or ingredients).

And while that also definately occurs here in the US w.r.t. certain dishes, there (in many places in Europe) it encompasses a whole regional cuisine.


"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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Dinner in America: 

Carl Betz:  "Honey, these stuffed peppers are wonderful!  What's so different about them?" 

Donna Reed:  "Oh, Whole Foods had organic orange and yellow peppers imported from Holland this week.  They're so beautiful, and if you cook them, they even get a little sweet.  And on sale at $4.99 a pound, too!"

Dinner at the Klapp Household in the Piemonte (translated from the Italian): 

Mr. Klapp:  "Honey, these pepper rolatini stuffed with tuna, capers and mayonnaise are wonderful!  Are these the first Motta (15 minutes away) peppers of the season?"

Mrs. Klapp:  "No, Bill, you idiot, you know that Motta gets less sun, and that we won't be seeing the first Motta peppers for a couple of weeks yet.  These are the first Carmagnola (45 minutes away) peppers.  Not quite peak of the season, but not bad.  Actually, it might be the olive oil from Lake Garda that I used to make the mayonnaise."

Dinner Guest:  "Either that, or perhaps the salt-packed capers we brought you from Sicily last week.  You did get fresh eggs from next door this morning, didn't you?"

Mrs. Klapp:  "Yes, I got the eggs from Olga this morning."

Second Dinner Guest:  "Absolutely the best rolatini I have had since that night at Da Guido last September.  Last year was a great year for Motta peppers, and of course, Guido wouldn't think of using anything else."

Third Dinner Guest:  "Perhaps, but even the best Motta peppers cannot compare to the Carmagnola peppers that are harvested the week after the Carmagnola pepper festival.  I still dream of the rolatini that Giuliana made from Carmagnola peppers in 1987.  You remember, don't you?  It was so warm during the pepper harvest, and there was no rain, but yet it was cool at night, too.  Those were the sweetest, most flavorful peppers that I have ever eaten.  It is true that the eggs and oil in the mayonnaise are important, and yes, the capers and tuna, too, but peppers like those come only a few times in a lifetime."

And so it goes.  It is both the quality of ingredients and the passion for food that make the difference in Italy, and there is a relatively small constituency for both in the U.S.

I can completely relate to your dinnertime dialogues --- both American and Italian. And I also agree with your statement that there's a relatively small constituency --- at least generally speaking --- in the US for quality ingredients and passion for food.

But, I think the Italian obsession with eating well does more to explain the differences in home-cooking and personal, everyday diet than it does to explain why it is so difficult --- even in NYC (and one would be hard-pressed, I believe, to argue that a constituency of "passionate" --- and knowledgeable --- food consumers does not exist in NYC) to find an authentic Italian dining experience.

I don't believe it's a dearth of quality ingredients --- quality ingredients (setting aside certain things, sure, like Motta's peppers) are available to restaurant chefs of means. This is borne out by the fact that, on occasion, I'll find a particular dish at a US restaurant that matches or at least closely approximates the flavor/quality of the same dish prepared in Italy. But on the other hand, I've never had an entire meal here that matches the overall experience of the "real deal."

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It's extremely, hilariously easy to buy good ingredients where I live. My day-to-day life experience is completely antithetical to the caricature being presented by the Italophiles on this thread: in season, I can simply go to the Union Square Greenmarket and purchase a delightful variety of products, some of which are better than what I've seen in plenty of markets in Europe.....

The rest, I can mail order while my fat ass sits in a chair. Or I can just go out to eat; the only problem being that I can't find a decent Italian restaurant here.

I'm one of those Italophiles, and I couldn't agree with you more. That's precisely the point I've been trying to make --- perhaps not as eloquently or directly. Particularly your last point about not being able to find a decent Italian restaurant.

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Come on, Your Fatness, get with the program! The red-orange quality of the Italian eggs IS the big deal. The color reflects what the hen ate, i.e., polenta or something close to it. And the point that many on this thread have been trying to make is, yes, indeed, MOST Italian restaurants of any quality at all DO use those fresh eggs, and recently pressed olive oil, and whatever is fresh, in season and close to them, because that is what Italian diners expect. And generally, they accept no less. You are right about the dried Italian pasta. Now try to make some carbonara in Hackensack with those red-orange eggs and imported pancetta! Also, take a survey in, say, February of next year. Survey 25 of your friends. Ask if the olive oil they are using is freshness-dated. Ask if ever occurred to them to LOOK to see if their olive oil is freshness-dated. Go to Dean and DeLuca and see how many of their $50 bottles of olive oil bear a "November 2003" production date in February, 2004. (Not "2002/03", by the way. That stuff is over a year old.) Do not let the subtle nature of such things escape you, Steve. We all think that you are better than that...


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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The simple fact of the matter is that different countries do certain things better than others.

This, I think, is a statement that begins to get back on track towards the heart of the matter. The fact is that, in terms of what is available to the average consumer, ingredients in Italy tend to be better than the ingredients in America. The fact of the matter, which is readily apparent to anyone with familiarity with the two cultures, is that food is simply much more important to the average Italian than it is to the average American. I don't think that anyone who has spend significant time in Italy, particularly in a capacity other than as a tourist, could argue that this is not the case. Food, and specifically a pride in the qualoty of local ingredients, is one of the most important aspects of being Italian to an Italian. There are many things that are important to Americans about being American, but great food and local food traditions would have to be pretty low on the list...

It's really hard to avoid things like economics and sociology when you discuss issues like this. I've spent a lot of time in Europe (just as a tourist) - and my dominant impression over the years was that many people in central Europe (France, Italy, etc.) were more "food-centric" than Americans (and other Europeans for that matter) because there were few big-ticket items within the means of the average person.

We all know that for the average American - the single largest expenditure is housing. We are a "housing-centric" economy. For most non-aged people (who tend to spend a lot of money on health care) - the second largest item is automobiles. We are also a "car-centric" economy. When you went to Europe 20 years ago - who could afford a new house? Who in the cities could afford to keep a car? Even when you got outside of cities - given the price of gas - you had to be careful about cars - and simply bought the ones that offered reliable transporation and great gas mileage. So what did you spend money on? Food? Clothing? (Yes to both.)

Also - Europe is much more protectionist in terms of agricultural laws than the US. Some of the laws (like those in Norway which were designed to make Norway food-independent after WWII) make some sense. Others make no sense at all - except in terms of protecting local producers from international competition - or in terms of being pawns when it comes to negotiating trade issues (I'm from Florida - and although the connection between steel tariffs and citrus imports doesn't make much logical sense - it's the way things work). A lot of European food is local not because Europeans demand it from a quality point of view - but because their governments make sure that's all they get. I suspect if everyone in Europe had access to a Harrod's food court - they'd do at least some shopping there.

As for pride - whether it's the American's pride in his house - or the Italian's pride in his food - we all have to get off our butts and start worrying about other things at this point - like how we will be competitive with food producers in central and south America - manufacturers in China - and service providers in India (interesting statistic - the people in China and India make up 40% of the world's population today). I don't think people in the US are very far along the road in terms of dealing with this - but I think the people in western Europe are even worse. If we're not careful - we'll all wind up like Argentina (living very much beyond our means in cultures that don't exist anymore).

By the way - we have lousy Italian restaurants where I live. But it's so easy to do at home. I make fresh pesto with basil from the garden during the summer (you need about 4 square feet to raise all the basil you need). Use very common Italian stuff that's available in every grocery store here (Barilla pasta - those Pomi tomatoes in boxes - aged PR). Even make my own pasta when time permits. Liver and onions (yum). Roasted birds with Italian seasonings. It's a fun cuisine for the home cook - because it's relatively easy. Robyn

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But, I think the Italian obsession with eating well does more to explain the differences in home-cooking and personal, everyday diet than it does to explain why it is so difficult --- even in NYC (and one would be hard-pressed, I believe, to argue that a constituency of "passionate" --- and knowledgeable --- food consumers does not exist in NYC) to find an authentic Italian dining experience.

I don't believe it's a dearth of quality ingredients --- quality ingredients (setting aside certain things, sure, like Motta's peppers) are available to restaurant chefs of means. This is borne out by the fact that, on occasion, I'll find a particular dish at a US restaurant that matches or at least closely approximates the flavor/quality of the same dish prepared in Italy.  But on the other hand, I've never had an entire meal here that matches the overall experience of the "real deal."

I agree with your points, but I still do think it is the diners (or expectations by the chef, of the diners) that transmutes a great total meal experience at an Italian restaurant in Italy to isolated "great" Italian dishes here. (Assuming you can get good ingredients, which, as has been established, you certainly can, for at least certain ingredients here). I think partly that is because one is responding not just to the quality of ingredients and preparation.

It reminds me of something that my Dad says sometime, to the effect, that, out of context, one perhaps can't enjoy a thing the same way as someone that is steeped in the context and history. If you go to Italy (for instance) you can get a glimmer (as an outsider, even a 'knowledgeable one) of the regionality, tradition, history that makes a meal special, but you won't have the same experience as someone that lives there, (whose parents and grandparents, etc, lived there), maybe grew the food, or remember when it was grown down the street,etc., or how it used to be made, what was drank with it, etc., etc.

When one takes all this into account, perhaps it is not surprising that one can not transplant that experience here (exactly). Even if you have a passionate chef that wishes to do that, there are always some limitations of the context of the diner's knowledge and expectations, the ingredients, the history, the atmosphere, the servers, etc.

I think what makes a great regional dining experience in other countries or in a particular region (eg. Italy)--and at least for me, is that besides the quality of the food--one is participating in a host of other ineffable experiences and context that are transmitted to create the final experience of enjoying a good meal. One gets a peak at all of that if one is sensitive to it. And if it is part of your own family background, (i.e. for me when I eat at great places in Austria) there is even another mysterious layer of enjoyment (knowing that this is a living, passed on thread of shared experiences with your family).

I don't mean any of this as substituting for the actual cooking or ingredients, rather, added on top of it.

Well... just inspired by some thoughts on here... feel free to laugh me off the thread!!! :smile:


Edited by ludja (log)

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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Moving on from the ingredients question -- I don't think I'm going to score anymore points there; I'll just say one more time that I disagree with anybody who is still looking to that as the explanation -- let's look more closely at the "Americans don't care as much about food as Italians" claim.

A few preliminary logic problems with that claim:

- The Italian restaurants aren't good in France either, yet the French care just as much about food as the Italians. Thus, even if Americans care less about food than Italians, that can't fully explain the lack of good Italian restuarants outside of Italy.

- There are world-class American, French, Japanese, Chinese, etc., restaurants in America. Italian food seems to be distinctly lacking. Thus, again, lack of consumer enthusiasm can't explain the unique lack of good Italian restaurants in North America. (Likewise, quality-of-ingredients is integral to American, French, Japanese, Chinese, etc., cuisines, and there seems to be no problem getting good product into those restaurants.)

- There seems to be no empirical data to support the claim that Italians care more about food than Americans. It's something that is being asserted. I have no reason to doubt the claim as a question of averages, but I wonder how the demographic subdivisions would work out if we had actual hard data on this. For example, do upper-middle-class Romans care more about food on average than upper-middle-class residents of San Francisco? I would find that claim a bit harder to swallow than the overall claim for Italians versus Americans. Because while suburban America is -- especially in the vast expanse of the middle states -- very often an unfortunate culinary wasteland, the larger American cities are hotbeds of creativity and energy in cuisine. Somebody has to be paying for all that, and that person is known as the consumer.


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  don't quite understand why you think that the discussion in this thread has furthered the idea that "everything 'European' is always and necessarily better than everything 'American.'"

Sam, it is clear that you are an intelligent and thoughtful man. And I agree with almost everything you've said, except this.

If you read back through this thread, it has a distinct tone that is constantly disparaging to Americans...

Indeed it does (have a distinct American-disparaging tone).

I will let you in on a little secret. I've traveled in Italy. Had some great food. But you know what - you go to someplace like Venice (my least favorite place in Italy) - and you will find a lot of people who speak Italian (doubt they're Americans) eating really mediocre pizza in a million pizza places - that - were it not for the setting - could be mistaken for a pizza place anywhere in the US. And pizza is about as foreign to Venice as it is to Miami (despite all the "tomato" talk here - most Italian cuisine in the north isn't based on tomatoes).

Anyway - these people were eating just like Americans at home. We had to pay a lot of money at higher end places to find a local specialty like liver.

By the way - someone made fun of my shower example a ways back. We actually went to a dentist in northern Italy (my husband cracked a tooth and needed a temporary filling because we weren't due home for 3 weeks). It was an interesting experience - because no one in the dentist's office spoke English (thank goodness for our Spanish - and our little bit of Italian). The dentist called everyone in his office to look at my husband's mouth - his root canals - his crowns - because they were almost unheard of in that part of the country - except for very wealthy people. Now dentistry isn't cheap in the US - but it's mostly poor people here who are missing teeth. It was a common thing in northern Italy - even for the middle class. For what it's worth - the filling my husband got cost about a million - billion? - lire - $6 - and the dentist did a nice job. Robyn

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Moving on from the ingredients question...

In all the discussion here - I've quite forgotten the point of the thread.

Is it: the best Italian restaurants in the US aren't are good as those in Italy (point conceded - it's to be expected that the best in the host country would be better)?

The average Italian restaurant in the US isn't as good as the average Italian restaurant in Italy (point conceded again for the host country)?

There aren't *any* good Italian restaurants in the US (point not conceded)? I've eaten at many good Italian restaurants in the US. In New York east side (I don't live in New York) - I like Felidia's a lot. I also have a Staten Island cousin (a Sopranos type) who takes us to places that are very good (although I swear every meal has been videotaped by the FBI).

That Italians know everything about food - and Americans are total boobs (point not conceded)? I've seen too many mediocre pizza places in Italy.

So what points are people trying to make here? Robyn

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Mr. Klapp: "Honey, these pepper rolatini stuffed with tuna, capers and mayonnaise are wonderful! Are these the first Motta (15 minutes away) peppers of the season?"

And so it goes. It is both the quality of ingredients and the passion for food that make the difference in Italy, and there is a relatively small constituency for both in the U.S.

Actually, I recently had a conversation very similar to this. Except that it was in Galveston and concerned shrimp.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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