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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Friday, May 11, 2012

Forget "Abbondanza." Eat Like A Real Italian

The other night, I heard a chef on Food Network's “Chopped” make a reference to the Italian concept of abbondanza. Steaming piles of pasta swimming in lakes of rich sauces. Mounds of meatballs. Acres of pizza boasting tons of toppings. This is true Italian dining. This is real Italian culture. This is abbondanza!

This is also total fantasy. Oh, the word abbondanza is Italian, all right, and it means “abundance.” But in reality it's just a word, not a philosophy. Italians simply don't eat like that.

The image of a rotund Italian mama smiling beneficently as she serves up a washtub of spaghetti and meatballs to her hungry family is pure Madison Avenue, based not on true Italian culinary traditions, but on those established on New World shores by Italian immigrants.

If you don't know that spaghetti and meatballs is not an Italian dish, you should. It's an Italian-American dish. Don't believe me? Hop a plane to Italy and try to order some in an Italian eatery – a real one, not one geared to serve American tourists. They'll serve you spaghetti and they'll serve you meatballs, but they won't serve them together.

And in the same way that spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmesan, and fettuccine Alfredo are all creations of Italian-American origin, so, too, is the concept of abbondanza.

Historically, much Italian cuisine is cucina povera – “cooking of the poor.” This is especially true of southern Italian regions, the regions from which the vast majority of Italian immigrants departed, bound for the shores of America.

Once they arrived, two things happened to transform cucina povera into abbondanza. First, these newly-minted Americans had to adapt their traditional Old World recipes to their New World circumstances. They simply couldn't find many of the ingredients they were accustomed to using. So, using what was at hand, they created new Italian dishes in the new Italian-American style.

Then they began to prosper. Meat – a luxury in some households “back home” – was now abundant. Many poor immigrants brought precious supplies of pasta with them when they sailed from Italy. But it wasn't long before large and efficient American factories were ramping up to serve this burgeoning market. Artisan cheeses, so prized as to sometimes be used as currency in the old country, were readily available in American markets, as were a bewildering variety of fruits and vegetables.

And so to prove to their American friends and neighbors – and to themselves – that they were no longer poor, Italian-Americans began to really pile it on at the table, displaying their new-found prosperity with wonderful new recipes that used all the wonderful new ingredients available in such great abundance. Abbondanza!

So, here comes Joe American. He walks into a restaurant on New York's Arthur Avenue, or Boston's North End, or Philadelphia's south side and is served from heaping platters and bowls overflowing with delicious, rich food, and he thinks, “Wow, so this is how these Italians eat!” Pretty soon, it becomes a standard. And then it becomes a stereotype. And then generations of fat Joe Americans start waddling around and blaming “all that pasta and that rich Italian food” for their growing obesity epidemic.

Joe American's idea of what Giuseppe Italiano eats is horribly misguided. And that misguided idea is responsible for the notion that all Italian food is fattening and bad for you. Don't look at the Madison Avenue Italian mamas. Don't focus on the images portrayed in movies and on TV shows. Abbondanza? Fuhgeddaboudit!

As of this writing, 35.7% of Americans are obese. You may want to sit down for this; the obesity rate in Italy is 8.5%. How is this possible!? All that pasta! All that cheese! All that abbondanza! And that's the problem.

Americans overdo too much of a good thing. When I go to a typical American Italian restaurant, I invariably order pasta from the child's menu. And it's usually still too much. There is not a non-tourist ristorante on the Italian peninsula that would dream of serving as much pasta to one person as their Italian-American counterparts. Most American restaurants, especially the chain places, serve you two or three times as much as what a real Italian establishment would serve or what you would find on a real Italian table at home.

Yes, Italians eat pasta seven days a week. In fact, they are the world's largest consumers of the stuff. But they eat a realistic, healthy portion; about a one-cup serving equal to about 200 calories. Americans typically eat pasta twice a week, but they consume as much in those two days as the average Italian eats in six! Olive Garden's “Tour of Italy” on its “Classic Pastas” menu packs a whopping 1450 calories. Even their simple Capellini Pomodoro contains 840 calories. Spaghetti and Meatballs at Romano's Macaroni Grill spins up 1430 calories. Carrabba's fares a little better; their Spaghetti Pomodoro weighs in at just 540 calories. Eating pasta doesn't make you fat; eating too much pasta makes you fat.

True Italian pasta dishes are not always enrobed in heavy sauces. An Italian favorite is aglio olio, in which a portion of pasta is lightly coated in olive oil and garlic with maybe a few red pepper flakes thrown in for a little spice. Such a dish is practically unheard of in America. “Where's the meat?” says Joe American. “Where's the cheese? Where's the red sauce? Who wants to eat spaghetti with nothing but olive oil on it?” Italians do.

Italians appreciate their food. They respect their food. Food is more than just something you shove in your mouth to satisfy a need. There is a structured order to eating in Italian culture. They eat small meals slowly, never wolfing down great quantities of food in some imagined competitive eating contest. “All you can eat” and “endless pasta bars” and “bottomless soup bowls”.....these are all American concepts. And although many Italian trattorie offer generous quantities of food served in an open, family style, most Italians don't feel compelled to make pigs of themselves. They eat until they are full and then they stop eating. You'll never see an Italian lining up for seconds or thirds at an “endless buffet.”

Far removed from abbondanza, Italians are among the original proponents of the so-called “Mediterranean diet.” Lots of vegetables, lots of fruit, olive oil on practically everything. Fish and seafood are staple proteins, as are chicken and moderate quanties of lean pork. Beef has grown in popularity and acceptance since WWII, but it's still not the “gotta-have-it-every-day” neccesity that it is in America. Starches and carbohydrates are consumed regularly, but in moderate quantities.

Italians eat a light meal in the morning – usually nothing more than a small pastry and coffee. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Supper is generally late and light. Children might indulge in an afternoon snack and adults might occasionally grab a mid-day gelato, but between-meal snacking on candy bars and potato chips and such is not done. Nor are Italians very dessert driven. Most of the time, a meal is finished with a little fruit or cheese. Sweet desserts are reserved for special occasions. And nobody sits in front of the TV with a bowl of something sweet or salty.

Which brings up another point; nobody sits. Italians walk or bicycle everywhere. Oh, they have cars. Traffic on the Piazza Venezia and around the Colosseum is a testament to that fact. But they don't use them to such an extent that they forget what their feet are for. The idea that you would get in your car and drive to the corner market for a gallon of milk is laughable in Italy. Kind of like it was here once upon a time not so long ago.

Abbondanza is the Italian-American myth that makes Americans look like Macy's balloons while native Italians resemble the ropes that hold them down. The Italian/Meditteranean diet is not a “diet” at all. It's a simple and practical way of eating that, when combined with regular activity, results in a healthy weight conducive to a prolonged and healthy life.

I saw a news story the other day in which it was revealed that ferries and tour boats are having to lower their capacity in order to accomodate today's heavier passengers. They've upped their weight averages from 140 pounds per person to 180. Have you gone to an old theater or ballpark lately? One that hasn't been renovated in the last twenty or thirty years? Seats are a little snug, aren't they? And the most recent prediction says that America will be 42% obese by 2030. Maybe those Italians are on to something.

Abbondanza? Fuhgeddaboudit!

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