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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Grazie mille!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Red-Checkered Tablecloths and "Authentic" Italian Restaurants

A copy of the Clayton News Daily, a publication out of Jonesboro, Georgia, came my way the other day. It featured an article written by a reporter who usually covers the local government beat. He should stick to his beat.

The headline “The Bias Against America's Italian Restaurants” caught my attention and I prepared myself for an interesting, in depth piece on the topic. Not so much. What I got was a cazzata restaurant review, which I'd like to dissect here for the benefit of anybody who may not know better.

The writer begins: “It will be hard for any Italian restaurant in America to top what has to be my favorite restaurant in Italy. There is this little out-of-the-way pizzeria near the Stazione Termini, in Rome, called Ricci, Est! Est!! Est!!! It is the best truly Italian restaurant ever, and it puts all of the American imitators — and yes, I am talking about the national chains as well — to shame.”

Okay. In the first place, comparing the national American chains to real Italian restaurants is like comparing a Fiat to a Lamborghini – they both have Italian names on the outside, but there's no resemblance under the hood. And in the second place, the restaurant in question is a tourist trap. C'mon! The guy all but says it in his next paragraph: “Ricci has a great intimate atmosphere. It’s small and cozy, with brick walls and Italian sculptures on the inside. It’s like the kind of Italian restaurant you see in a Godfather movie, but never see in real life in America.”

Yes, pal, it's exactly like the kind of Italian restaurant you see in a Godfather movie! Where you don't see them in “real life” is in Italy. They are called ristoranti turista – tourist restaurants – and they cater to rubes – mostly Americans – who have stereotypical notions of what an “Italian restaurant” should be.

The writer then waxed rhapsodic about the food: “I had a marguerite pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, cheese ground beef and a heavy does [sic] of wine in the sauce.” If this doesn't scream “T-U-R-I-S-T-A!” at you in huge capital letters, I don't know what does (spelled correctly).

Buddy, to begin with, you didn't have a “marguerite” pizza. The closest approximation would be a “pizza Margherita,” and based on your description, that sure as hell isn't what you got. A pizza Margherita is very simple: thin crust topped with tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil. That's it.

Secondly, if you had “pepperoni” on your pizza, you were most definitely in a tourist trap catering to Americans. There is no “pepperoni” in Italy. “Peperoni,” referring to a type of bell pepper, yes; “pepperoni,” referring to a type of sausage, no. You might have had slices of salame piccante, but if they sold it to you as “pepperoni,” they sold you tourist food. Are you sure you weren't in Rome, Georgia? Because a “real” Italian pizza place would never load up a pizza with so many toppings. That's an American affectation. Italians seldom put more than two or three toppings on pizza.

The thing that had me crying, “Mamma mia!” – or words to that effect – was the writer's description of an ideal Italian restaurant: “I don’t want to walk in and see the same tired chic look that I can see in countless restaurants in America, regardless of what style of food is served. I want character in the design. I want exposed brick, and antique-looking Italian sculptures. I want the red-and-white checkered table cloth. I want to expect some guy with an accordion to come wandering through the room at any moment, while playing a tarantella. That is what it means to be in a great Italian restaurant.”

Oh, my God!!!! THAT is what it means to be in an Italian-American tourist trap! That is the stereotype that really pisses real Italians off. Let me guess; did the guy playing the accordion have a black mustache that curled up on the ends? Was he fat and jovial and named “Tony?” If there was a mutt and a cocker spaniel sucking spaghetti out back, I'd say it sounds like a scene out of “Lady and the Tramp.”

The writer then goes on to admit that he has never dined at any of the 30 eateries that made Travel & Leisure's” list of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. These include unauthentic little dives like Mario Batali's “Del Posto” in New York, Tony Mantuano's “Spiaggia” in Chicago, and Mark Vetri's eponymous place in Philadelphia. These are obviously sub-par imitators because there's not a checkered tablecloth or an accordion player anywhere in sight.

He mentioned a local place called “Vincent’s Italian Restaurant,” located on Ernest Barrett Pkwy, in Marietta. Of “Vincent's” he says, “It’s actually pretty close to an authentic Italian restaurant — the closest I’ve ever seen on this side of the Atlantic actually.” What he doesn't say is that the place is “actually” – to use an overused word – called “Vincent's New York Style Italian Restaurant.” And they serve typical Italian-American fare, replete with misspelled Italian words on the menu.

But there is hope. The gentleman has a glimmer of the concept of Italian food when he says, “Italian food isn’t meant to be gourmet, however. It’s soul food for Italian people, and other people just happen to like it.”

Well, said, signore, well said! Now you owe it to yourself to go out and find some of that Italian soul food in places that don't have stereotypical “Italian” trappings, but do specialize in real Italian cuisine. And they don't have to be places like “Babbo” and “Del Posto.” I discovered a little place called “Ristorante Sarnellis” off the beaten path in Orange Park, Florida and I fell fell in love with a place called “Zarrelli's,” owned and operated by a Neapolitan immigrant who made his way to Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, after decades in business, both are now closed. But there are others out there. You have only to look for them.

Just don't look in places where accordion players serve overloaded pizzas on red-checkered tablecloths.

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