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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What Makes For a Real Italian Place?

Not long ago, I read an average diner’s online review of an Olive Garden restaurant in which the reviewer described the establishment as being “like a real fancy Italian place.” It brought to mind an occasion a few years ago wherein my wife and I had taken a neighbor out to dinner as a means of payment for a favor she had done for us. Given the choice, she opted for one of those chain casual dining places, but during the course of the meal our guest revealed to us her desire to go to a “real Italian place” someday. She liked Italian food, she said, but had never been to a place that specialized in it. That incident and the Olive Garden review got me thinking about the definition of “a real Italian place.”

What makes for “a real Italian place?” The answer, I suppose, depends on a person’s level of experience. A lot of people think Olive Garden or Carrabba’s are the primo e ultimo in Italian cuisine, largely because they've never been exposed to anything else.

Italian food in America started out as neighborhood cuisine, confined to areas where Italian immigrants gathered. It took a couple of world wars to expose the general populace to Italian cooking. Americans who served in Italy during World War I and, most especially, World War II “discovered” Italian food and brought their appetites for it back home. Before long, spaghetti and pizza joints were springing up like weeds. But did any of these new eateries represent “real Italian” places?

Certainly, pasta and pizza are important staples in the Italian diet, but they do not, by any means, encompass the height, depth, and breadth of Italian cuisine. Yet they are, to most Americans, the epitome of “real Italian” food. Therefore, anyplace that serves pasta and/or pizza must be a “real Italian place.”

Enter Ettore Boiardi, Frank Fiorello, and the Celentano Brothers. Collectively, they introduced America to canned pasta, prepackaged pizza mixes, and frozen pizza. Now Americans could have “real Italian food” at home.

Then came the chains. Olive Garden, Carrabba’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Fazoli’s, Sbarro’s, and, of course, the ubiquitous Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, Domino’s, and Papa John’s. Americans had “real Italian places” right in their neighborhoods. Or did they?

Much of what is served up as Italian food these days is actually created by and for Americans, but given fancy pseudo-Italian names in order to appear sophisticated and continental. But does calling a weiner a "hot dog" make it eligible for inclusion in the AKC? With the American predilection for “improving” things, “real Italian” cuisine has been dumbed down to a diet of bland prepackaged food marketed under Italian names -- food noted only for its consistent sameness.

So, in order to find a “real Italian place,” you have to go to Italy, right? Not so. What you have to do is look beyond the hype. Personally, I avoid anyplace that employs the word “authentic” in its advertising. If you have to tell people you’re authentic, you’re probably not. Walls covered with “Italian” art or painted in “Italian” colors and embellished with “Italian” accent pieces do not necessarily make for a “real Italian place,” either. Nor do fancy Italian words on “Italian-looking” menus. I nearly fell out of my chair when I first saw the advertising for one of Carrabba’s new signature dishes. There on my TV were Johnny Carrabba and Damien Mandola touting their new “Piatto di Pollo.” “Piatto di Pollo!” I mean, anything that sounds as Italian as “Piatto di Pollo” has got to be something else, right? Folks, I hate to throw cold water on such a hot ad campaign, but “piatto di pollo” means “plate of chicken.” Hype.

As a point of reference, let me tell you about a “real Italian place” to which I wish I could have taken my neighbor. Unfortunately, it’s gone now, but the memory of Zarrelli’s is almost as good as the actual place used to be.

Zarrelli's Italian Restaurant brought Italy to South Boulevard in Charlotte, North Carolina. Aniello “Neal” Zarrelli came to the United States from Naples in 1948. He brought all of his family's wonderful traditions -- and recipes -- with him. The restaurant he eventually opened reflected that pride in his family heritage.

Now, Neal's place had all the "stuff" you'd expect to find in an Italian restaurant: red-checkered tablecloths, wine bottle candles, lots of things with grapes and grapevines on them, and replicas of classical Italian art. But there was more. Neal also told his personal story on the walls of his establishment with pictures and newspaper clippings that reflected his obvious love for and dedication to his new home, while at the same time displaying his fierce pride in his heritage.

Zarrelli’s didn’t have to display the Italian flag outside and they didn’t have to write “authentic” over the entrance. When you stepped out of your car in the parking lot, the aroma grabbed you by the nose and pulled you to the door. And once through the door, it was like coming home. There were no strangers. Neal Zarrelli made everybody feel like a member of the Zarrelli family. Even on your first visit you felt like you'd been there a hundred times.

Then there was the music. A nice mix of Italian music -- lively tarantellas, dramatic arias and some romantic pop standards -- played softly in the background as white-aproned servers brought steaming plates of fabulous food to the tables. There was also a piano prominent in the dining room. At certain times of the day, a man played beautiful live music to appreciative diners. It was even better when Neal would accompany him -- singing the songs of his youth in a strong, soaring tenor. Pretty soon, the whole room would be singing. Dear friends, THAT was a “real Italian place!”

And the food! Food that was always freshly made according to Neal's exacting standards. Food that, although it came from a commercial kitchen, always tasted home made. Food that was diligently kept as close to Italy as America could make it. It was food that Neal was proud to serve to his own family and was equally proud to serve to yours. This was traditional food, the recipes for which had been handed down through his family for generations. Neal didn't just pile spaghetti on your plate; he also ladled on the sauce of his family's pride.

The authentic, home-cooked dishes that came out of Zarrelli's kitchen could be both life affirming and life changing. My wife, raised on Chef Boyardee and Pizza Hut, was at first frightened to death of what she saw on the plates at Zarrelli's. One bite of mozzarella in carrozza practically had her speaking in tongues -- with an Alabama accent, no less. Neal delighted in introducing Americans to real Italian food.

Neal kept his prices as low as economically possible. He could have charged much more for his fine cuisine, but he kept his patrons' pocketbooks in mind and, in so doing, kept them coming back on a regular basis. Smart business; gouge somebody for a meal once or twice a month or keep it low and have that person come back once or twice a week. I never went through Charlotte on business or pleasure that I didn't stop in.

Nothing lasts forever. Neal developed health issues that he couldn’t ignore, but he wouldn’t compromise and sell out to somebody who couldn’t maintain his standards. So now, Zarrelli's kitchen is empty -- devoid of the sounds and smells of wonderful food being produced. The tables in the dining room are bare -- no more friendly servers catering to delighted diners. And the music no longer echoes off the walls. But the memories of truly wonderful times spent enjoying a phenomenal “real Italian place” are always present.

It's getting much harder to find the kind of restaurants that defined the phrase “real Italian” a generation or two ago. Once, America was flooded by Italian immigrants like Neal who brought with them the unique culinary skills and traditions of their native regions. Now another century has turned and we find mostly second, third and even fourth generation Italians trying to preserve and maintain the legacy of their predecessors with varying degrees of success.

Those “real Italian places” are out there. A place called “Ristorante Sarnelli's” in Orange Park, Florida, comes immediately to mind. And "Mama Della's" in Orlando. They are the places that, beyond the red-checkered tablecloths and Italian-sounding names, exhibit pride in their heritage and passion for their food; intangible ingredients that that no chain restaurant can ever hope to duplicate.

So if you, like my neighbor, would like to go to “a real Italian place” someday, I would highly recommend that you start out at Olive Garden or Carrabba’s or someplace similar. That way you’ll know the difference when you keep looking and actually find a “real Italian place.” If you live in a big city, you’ll probably find it in an Italian neighborhood. If you live in a mid-size city or a small town, you’ll likely find it in the yellow pages with the smallest ad and the simplest type. Or you may just have to go hunting. After a few successes, you’ll develop an eye, an ear, and a nose for what’s “real” and what’s not. Then you can tell the chain places to farcire loro pollo (stuff their chicken) and enjoy Italian food the way it was meant to be.

Neal’s way.

Buon appetito!

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