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!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Stop Screwing With My Christmas Music!

This is an open letter to radio station music directors, school administrators, pop music “artists,” and wrongheaded carol singers in general: stop screwing with my Christmas music!

First off, believe me, I am the farthest thing from a Bible-thumper that you could possibly imagine. But this whole thing about Christmas music “offending” people is illogical and insane. I know Jewish people who sing Christmas songs just because they like the music.

Some things are meant to be traditional. So what is “traditional?” The dictionary defines it as relating to the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation; a time-honored practice or set of practices. Synonyms include customary, established, classic, and standard. “Christmas comes but once a year,” so the saying goes. Admittedly, these days it comes in September and lingers until January, but the traditional trappings of Christmas are just that; traditional. Oh, I suppose there's room for new traditions now and then, like Rudolph and Frosty. And it just wouldn't be Christmas without Charlie Brown and the gang or the Grinch. Or Bing Crosby. But we have to be careful when adopting new traditions not to neglect the old ones or relegate them to inferior positions. After all, Christmas is a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and whether or not you believe in his divinity, you can't deny that he is “the reason for the season,” as the religious folks like to say.

Don't start with me. I know Jesus wasn't actually born on December 25 and I know all about the pagan holidays that were co-opted by the church in order to make the transition more palatable to the people who were being more or less forcibly converted to Christianity. As I said, I'm not a Bible-thumper. But, c'mon. A traditional Christmas carol is a traditional Christmas carol. Like it or not, it's a song about Jesus. Live with it. I'm not Jewish either, but I don't get all bent out of shape about people singing “Hanukkah, Oh Hannukah” as part of their tradition. You feel like singing “The Kwanzaa Song?” Go for it. You won't offend me in the least. And if secular tunes about snowflakes and Santa Claus are your bag, sing 'em long and loud. They're all part of the season and nobody should be offended by any of them. 

What really offends me are people who are afraid of offending me. Like public school administrators. I must have read twenty stories this season about schools booting traditional Christmas music from their “holiday” concerts for fear of “offending” someone. The latest such idiocy comes out of a middle school in Long Island where they changed up the words to “Silent Night,” eliminating references to “holy infant” and “savior.” Let me see if I remember, now; “Silent Night” was written by a priest in an Austrian church and first performed in that church on Christmas Eve in 1818. I do believe that kind of qualifies it as a religious song. It has since become one of the best-known and best-loved examples of its genre, to the extent that it has actually been declared by UNESCO to be an “intangible cultural heritage.” And this gives some moron music teacher in Long Island license to screw with it in what way? “Oh, but we must not be offensive.” I'm sorry, but the ridiculously specious nature of your silly argument is highly offensive to me or to anybody with any common sense.

The only people who really seem to be offended are the virulently anti-religious fringe who would like to see all traces of any faith removed from our culture. “Jesus is a myth,” these people say. Like Santa Claus isn't? Why is it okay to sing about one myth and not another. So you don't believe in gods and saviors and holy infants. Fine. Your prerogative. I don't believe in dancing, singing snowmen, but I like singing about them. It's music and it's pretty and it's fun.

The folks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation believe that there are plenty of secular songs out there and that “holiday” music with religious overtones should be abolished. You let me know how your campaign to reverse Constantine and the Edict of Milan and undo seventeen centuries of Christian culture goes. Until it's successful, stop screwing with my Christmas music.

If you're going to start censoring music programs to eliminate “offensive” religious references, you'd better be prepared to usher Bach with his “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and Handel and his “Messiah” right out the door along with Beethoven and Brahms and the rest and replace them with secular neo-classicists like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Religious music has a valuable place in our culture, and since Christmas is, at its core, a “religious” occasion, one celebrating the birth of a major “religious” figure, how can any right-minded person be offended by Christmas music presented in its traditional context?

Next, I have a bone to pick with radio station music directors. “Happy Holidays from WZZZ, where we play your favorite Christmas songs twenty-four hours a day starting in mid-November and continuing until you're thoroughly sick of it.” Except they don't. Not really. My favorite Christmas songs include the songs I grew up with. The “traditional” songs. “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” No offense to Mariah Carey, but if I hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” one more time this season, I'm going to spit up. Same goes for Bruce Springsteen's off-key warbling of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Listen carefully and you'll find that these “Christmas stations” are all playing the same ten songs done by twenty different artists.

And I'm terribly, terribly sorry, but just because a tune mentions the word “Christmas” somewhere doesn't make it a Christmas song. Case in point: Dan Fogelberg's “Same Old Lang Syne.” “Met my old lover in the grocery store; the snow was falling Christmas Eve.......” And from there, the song is all about lost loves and lamenting missed opportunities and drinking a six-pack in her car. This belongs in a Christmas rotation? Really?

But at least it mentions Christmas. Unlike “My Favorite Things,” a lovely song from “The Sound of Music” that has absolutely, positively nothing to do with Christmas. In the stage play, Maria sings it to overcome her fears of her impending new placement with the von Trapps. In the movie, she sings it during a storm to assuage the fears of the children. In any case, other than references to mittens, sleigh bells, and snowflakes, it's not a Christmas song! Okay, I guess that puts it in the same category as “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride,” so I'm willing to overlook it. Of course, I can't overlook the dreadful Barbara Streisand over-performance of the song that dominates the airwaves. Please, radio guys, limit it to versions by Julie Andrews, Jack Jones, Kenny Rogers, Rod Stewart, Herb Alpert, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Lorrie Morgan, Tony Bennett, Kenny G, Barry Manilow, or any of a dozen other artists who have covered it.

Years ago, I volunteered to do a live Christmas Eve show on radio. My program director said we could just do a “canned” show like everybody else so I could be home with my family. But I insisted because I knew there were people out there who had to work on Christmas Eve or maybe some who were alone with only the radio for companionship, and I wanted to be there for those people, playing their requests and being a real person to whom they could relate. So I brought my family into the studio with me and we spent the hours between six and midnight taking phone calls and playing what people wanted to hear on Christmas Eve. Yes, I had to limit the playing of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” to once an hour and I had to restrict Alvin and the Chipmunks and Seymour Swine as well. (You know......the “Porky Pig” version of “Blue Christmas.”) But you know what people wanted to hear most? Carols. Good old-fashioned, traditional Christmas carols. Not one request came in for John Lennon's “So This Is Christmas” with it's repetitive “war is over” background refrain. Nor did they want to hear Bob Geldof's Band Aid exhort them to “feed the world” with “Do They Know It's Christmas?” Listeners wanted “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night.” They didn't ring the phones off the hook for pop/rock artists like Elton John and “Step Into Christmas” or Wham! singing “Last Christmas.” They requested “The Carol of the Bells” and “What Child Is This.” They called in for “The First Nowell” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The didn't want political message songs. They wanted the songs they sang in church; the songs with the real message of Christmas that was important to them and that they carried in their hearts and passed on to their families. Not the “inoffensive” secular dreck that the so-called “Christmas stations” play today. There's a slick plastic automated computer operated Clear Channel station in my area that plays the “modern” Christmas songs and there's a little local “mom and pop” station with real DJs that plays the old stuff. Guess which one I listen to.

I was working around the house and wanted some background Christmas music. I tuned to DirecTV's alleged “holiday music” station. Yikes! I don't know what the hell that was, but it surely wasn't Christmas music. Instead, I brought up Pandora's “Classical Christmas” station on my computer. Much better. Like washing my ears out.

You know what else offends me? People who screw around with those traditional classics. I'll hear some good old song come on the radio and I'll warm up the pipes and start to sing along and.......Whammo!........somebody changes the words! Or the tempo. Or the overall arrangement. Why? We've been singing some of these songs the same way every December since medieval days. Why do they need changing now? I don't know who the guy was that I heard singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” today, but the song goes, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day.” It doesn't go, “Remember Jesus Christ our lord was born on Christmas Day.” Where did that come from? And the fifth line of the second verse starts, “How that in Bethlehem was born” not “Now that in Bethlehem was born.” Doofus. Way to wreck a song. If you're really clueless and don't know the words, learn them before you attempt to sing them.

(Kind of reminds me of the amateur redneck band I once heard attempting to perform the Randy Travis hit “1982” and mangling the verse by singing, “They say eyesight's 20/20 and I'm nearly going blind.” You country fans will know difference.)

I heard Carrie Underwood the other day singing “Oh Holy Night.” She did a fine job and I was ready to go with her to the second verse. And then she just repeated the first over again. Why, Carrie? The song has three lovely verses. What's wrong with the other two?

Maybe it's my musical theater background. Trust me, when you're performing Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe, you don't screw with the words. Or the melodies. Or anything else about the song. There's no room for “stylizing” in musical theater. You sing 'em like they wrote 'em. Same thing applies to Christmas music. Leave the songs everybody knows and loves alone. And if you want to be the next Frank Sinatra and do it your way, fine. Write your own song and do it any way you want to. Maybe in a hundred years or so, your idea of a Christmas song will be considered a classic. But for now, stop screwing with the real classics, okay?

Again, I'm not saying a Christmas song has to be five hundred years old to be traditional and I'm not discounting newer secular classics like Mel Torme's “The Christmas Song” as performed by Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby's rendition of Irving Berlin's “White Christmas.” But for goodness' sake, sing them straight. Nat and Bing and Andy Williams and Perry Como and Johnny Mathis all did pretty well just singing 'em the way they were written, you know?

Some years back I did a Christmas show at a nursing home. It was just a bunch of us from the cast of a musical who put together a little show to entertain some folks who needed it. I remember singing “I'll Be Home for Christmas” and having an old gent come up and shake my hand and thank me. “That song helped me a lot back in the war,” he said, “and you did it just like I remember it.” Wow. We closed another show with “White Christmas” and I almost didn't make it through because there was this little old lady sitting on the front row smiling at me with tears running down her cheeks as her memories played out in her mind.

That's why you don't screw with Christmas songs. For every thin-skinned idiot who finds them offensive, there are a thousand people who cherish them. And for all you “song stylists” who think that your trills and yodels and crescendos and vocal gymnastics and new arrangements are making you a superior “artist,” remember that you're messing with people's memories. Consider your audience. You ain't up there singing for yourself, Jack. You get up and screech and holler your way through some dusty old Christmas song, doing it your way and making it yours and you might see some tears in the audience, but not for the same reason I saw them. For a lot of people, Christmas songs are part of Christmas memories that you don't have a right to screw with because you want to stroke your oversized ego. It's really kind of sad when you think about it. Don't give me crap about “art” being “subjective.” I'm an artist, too and you can BS about it all you want but you can't “improve” or “stylize” the Mona Lisa with a mustache and you can't make traditional carols, hymns, or even secular classics better by screwing with the lyrics or the arrangements.

Does anybody remember the story a couple of years ago wherein a painting of Christ in a Spanish church was utterly ruined by an amateurish attempt to “restore” it? The original work dated back to around 1930 and it was getting a little flaky around the edges. But before a proper restoration could be funded, some ham-handed local “artist” with more hubris than talent totally and irrevocably screwed it up by painting over it and replacing and old but still beautiful image with something so indescribably horrid that it was ridiculed the world over. Exactly as has been done to some of the world's most treasured music by alleged “artists” who don't know when to leave well enough alone.

Okay. I'm done. If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, well........I've churned out more than two thousand words here, so I hope you get the picture. Christmas music should not “offend” anyone and it should not be trifled with for trifling reasons.

Stop screwing with my Christmas music! And, by the way, have a Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 6, 2013

In Defense of Proper Italian

To paraphrase an iconic Bette Davis line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy rant.”

I'm sick and tired of being called “elitist” and “snob” because I insist on proper pronunciation of so-called “foreign” words. (Remember, they're only “foreign” if they're not your native language.) In this country we laugh at “foreigners” who mispronounce common English words, but we are apparently immune to such criticism when it comes to our own blatant ignorance of other languages. That's okay. We're Americans. Everything we do and say is right, right?

Whenever I hear words like “marinara” and “bruschetta,” “bolognese” and “calzone” being mispronounced, I literally cringe. I mean, I physically react before I even have time to think. I've gotten better. I used to fly in the offender's face, but I have found a calmer place in my advancing age. Now I just sit quietly and turn colors until the urge to strangle passes.

Italian is, bar none, the single most abused and bastardized language in the United States. This is especially true because even Americans of Italian descent badly, badly mispronounce common Italian words. Part of it is the aforementioned cultural arrogance and ignorance. Some of my friends tell me, “Well, you shouldn't be so harsh. It's just the American pronunciation and that's the way people learned it.” Okay. And if somebody “learned” that the capital of Alaska is Nome, should I, knowing better, correct them or should I just tell everybody in Juneau the bad news?

Some say that a contributing cause of adulterated Italian can be traced to dialects. I can buy that in some cases. Not all Italians speak Italian. There are twenty distinct regions on the Italian peninsula and twenty distinct dialects. People in one area frequently have different words for things than their neighbors in another area. It would be like crossing from North Dakota to South Dakota and finding that people had different words for “cow.”

Officially, the Italian language is based on the Tuscan dialect, but people in Campania and Sicily and all the other regions still retain much of their native way of speaking. And when these people emigrated to the United States, they often brought their different dialects with them, so that your Italian grandmother and my Italian grandmother may not have called the same object the same thing. All that said, there are regional dialects in English, too. But when it comes down to it, proper English is still proper English. It's the English that is taught in schools and used in common speech. The same principle applies to proper Italian. Regional distinctions aside, English is English and Italian is Italian.

Probably the biggest reason for bad Italian in America is the politeness of Italian people. They know you're butchering their language when you flatten out “a”s and drop “e”s, but unlike the French, they are too polite to correct you, and so abominations like “mare-uh-NARE-uh” are allowed to pass into common usage. I guess the politeness has been bred out of me in the successive generations since my ancestors left Italy, because I'll correct you in a heartbeat. But whenever I do I get flak for being snobby.

What was it Alan Jay Lerner wrote in My Fair Lady? “Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?” The song concludes, “But use proper English and you're regarded as a freak.” Can we also apply that to using proper Italian?

One of the most common criticisms of Giada De Laurentiis is what some consider her “over-pronunciation” of Italian words. There she'll be, tripping along in her California-accented American English and she'll come to an Italian word or phrase, which she will, of course, render in perfect Italian. And for this she gets called snooty and pretentious. I don't get it. She's being snooty and pretentious for pronouncing something correctly in her native language? When an Italian pronounces an English word incorrectly, he's stupid and ignorant, but when an American pronounces an Italian word incorrectly, he's just saying it the American way. Never mind that it's wrong! Why isn't he equally stupid and ignorant? It's because of the American ethnocentric bias that maintains that everything we do is, by God, right because it's American. And we wonder why people in other countries don't like us.

What I always wonder about is why this bias only seems to apply to the Italian language. There are many ethnicities in America. They all come with their own unique languages. And English-speaking Americans seem to accept all of them and adapt to all of them – except for Italian. We're meticulous with French and proper with Spanish. We are careful to pronounce German words correctly and even attempt to get the right inflection in Japanese and Chinese. But when it comes to Italian, all bets are off. We can pronounce it any old way we want to and excuse it by saying, “It's the American pronunciation.”

Think I'm exaggerating? Consider: Do you drive a “Shev-ro-lay” or a “Chev-ro-let? When you order a layered dessert, is it a “par-fay” or a “par-fate?” Crème brûlée is “krem-broo-lay” and not “creem-bruh-lee,” right? When you go to one of those all-you-can-eat places, you're eating from a “boo-fay” and not from a “buff-et.” So why do you ask for “broo-shet-uh” at an Italian place instead of “broo-sket-ah?” Why is it more important to be correct in French than in Italian?

Or Spanish? Just to be annoying and to carry home my point, I've begun to be deliberately obtuse in Mexican restaurants. I figure if you can order “boh-loh-naze” and “mare-uh-nare-uh” in my Italian place I can order “tack-ohs” and “kwes-uh-dill-uhs” in your Mexican joint. Why should I care any more about correct Spanish than you do about correct Italian?

Of course, as I alluded earlier, one of the biggest obstacles has been Italians themselves. More specifically, Italian immigrants who wanted desperately to fit in in their new country and wound up anglicizing a lot of their own language. But dropping final vowels from Italian words does not make them English words. It just makes them bad Italian words. East coasters make my ears bleed with their “mozz-uh-rell” and “pro-shoot” and “ruh-got.” And just because there are silent final “e”s in English doesn't mean the same holds true in Italian. “Cal-zoan” and “pro-vuh-loan” are emphatically and painfully wrong. I don't care if they're common; they're WRONG! How about this? If it's so American and correct to drop the final “e,” I'll just order up some nice “gwahk-uh-mohl.” Or maybe a tasty “tah-mahl.” Ooops! Gotta watch those “a” sounds. Better make that a “tuh-măl.” And obviously only snooty, pretentious people ask for “moh-lay,” so I'll just have some “mohl.”

Is it all beginning to sound really stupid to you? Good.

Tell you what, next time you sneeze, instead of saying “gesundheit” the proper German way, I think I'll say “jess-und-heet.” Surely that will catch on and become correct through common usage.

Next, I'll go after the Chinese and order me some of that “kung pay-oh” chicken. What do you mean, it's “kung pow?” That's not the way it's spelled. In American English, “pao” should be pronounced “pay-oh,” shouldn't it? Well, shouldn't it?

English is a weird language, loaded with tricky diphthongs and silent letters and homophones. I could go into pages and pages of scholarly dissertation on why English developed the way it did. I could talk at length about the “Great Vowel Shift” that effected major changes in the sound of English between the mid-14th century and the beginning of the 18th. But what it all boils down to is the fact that there are a lot of phonetic elements in English that just don't exist in other languages. For example, there are fifteen vowel sounds in English. The letter “a” alone has three sounds; the long sound, as in “lake,” the short sound, as in “apple,” and the schwa sound, as in “father.” There are only seven vowel sounds in Italian, and the letter “a” only has one. There are just five vowel phonemes in Spanish and the Spanish “a” is sounded the same as it is in Italian, which would be the equivalent of the English schwa, producing the “ah” sound. That is why you have “tah-coh” instead of “tack-oh” and why you should have “mah-ree-nah-rah” instead of “mare-uh-nare-uh.” But for some unfathomable reason, Americans recognize and honor the difference in Spanish while totally ignoring it in Italian.

I maintain that it is the height of ethnocentric hubris to change somebody else's language rather than to learn to correctly pronounce that language ourselves. We demand that people for whom English is a second language speak it properly and correctly and we ridicule and deride those who do not. And yet we mangle and massacre “foreign” tongues with impunity simply because we are Americans and we have the intrinsic, God-given right to do so. There's no such thing as "the American pronunciation." That infers that there is something wrong with the original, correct pronunciation and that the "American way" is somehow better. Just because some tongue-tied Americans have to dumb some things down in order for them to meet their inferior philological abilities doesn't mean that such linguistic laziness is correct.

Okay. I am quietly putting the soapbox back under the porch now. I have sufficiently ranted and railed and harangued enough for today. But I'm not giving up my crusade, quixotic though it may be. I will continue to lobby for proper Italian pronunciation if for no other purpose than to show my respect for another culture and its language. If I want other people to respect my culture, then it is inherent upon me to respect theirs. And if that is seen by Joe Average American as being snooty, snobby, elitist, and pretentious, then so be it. Guilty as charged.

But rather than point fingers at me and call me names, why don't you join me? It's lonely here on the mountaintop and I'm getting hoarse from all the shouting. Stupidity is permanent but ignorance is curable and some people are actually willing to learn. I am gratified by the number of folks who, when I point out their mispronunciation, say, “I didn't know that,” and then go on to modify their speech. Of course, there are many others who just look at me like a doddering, pompous old fool and go on about their erroneous way, not really caring to change because they're content in their stupidity. But I remain extremely hopeful for the merely ignorant.

Go on. Learn a proper Italian word today. It won't hurt, I promise. And if you're successful, maybe you, too, can be snobby and pretentious someday. It'll be nice to have company.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Olive Garden Yanks Out a Few More of Its Italian Roots

You Want Fries With That?

Just when you thought Olive Garden couldn't possibly be less of an example of an authentic Italian restaurant, they come up with another brilliant idea to distance themselves from their identity. Now they wanna be a burger joint. Enter the “Italiano Burger.”

This latest dumbing down of the menu consists of a six-ounce burger topped with mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, pesto, tomatoes, and aioli. And, yes, it comes with fries. Parmesan garlic fries, of course. Gotta stay Italian, right?

What's next? A clown mascot with an Italian accent?

I'm not saying the burger doesn't sound delicious, but it's about as authentically Italian as Chicken Alfredo, another of the chain's signature "Italian" dishes.

The move comes as a knee-jerk response to increased competition among so-called “casual dining” establishments. This competition has forced a lot of “refining” – to use their word – of the Olive Garden menu. First, they pared down their original menu. Of late, they've been trying to appeal to cost conscious diners with three-course meal options. And they've gone after the young trendy crowd with small plate offerings. They abandoned their long-standing “family” marketing strategy in favor of something allegedly more appealing to hip, edgy, consumers on the “go.” It worked for me. Every time I see an Olive Garden, I say, “Go. Anywhere else. Just go.”

Apparently Clarence Otis, the CEO at Darden Restaurants, thinks the best way for a pseudo-Italian eatery to compete with classic American places like Applebee's, Chili's, and Ruby Tuesday is to become more like them. I guess the idea of becoming a better Italian restaurant never crossed his mind. It's easier to lower the bar than it is to raise it. And when your financial backers are looking at falling numbers and pushing for changes, you take the cheap, easy way out and become a burger joint. An Italian burger joint. Hey, there's one on every corner in Rome, right? Not!

A Sicilian chef named Paolo Lafata used to be the executive chef at OG. I don't know if they showed him the door or what, but now Jim Nuetzi, a guy who started out slinging pizzas in Atlanta, is calling the shots and he's the one you can thank for this latest burger debacle. Seems even the head guys at Darden were reluctant to go the burger and fries route, but Nuetzi won them over with his concoction of an all-American staple made with Italian ingredients. And French fries. Uffa!

You know, there are cheap little Mom & Pop restaurants with Italian-sounding names all over the country that get by on serving spaghetti and burgers in an attempt to be everything to everybody. You probably have one or two in your town. If you also have an Olive Garden, you now have one more.

I want to like Olive Garden. I really do. But they keep making it harder and harder. I've read dozens of comments on various sites from people who say they really used to like Olive Garden. It used to be unique, it used to be a good place to take the family, you could get at least sort of Italian food there that you couldn't get anywhere else. But in recent years the chain has cut its menu, lowered the quality of its food, and raised its prices. Even their new “Italiano” burger is weighing in at a hefty ten bucks.

Maybe the time has come for a remake. Let Darden shutter all 800-plus restaurants and rebrand them as some sort of classic American place. Then they could be just like Applebee's and Chili's and all the rest. They could serve steak and seafood and burgers and wings and be just like dozens of other eateries. No need to keep up an Italian front that has been slipping away for years. Or they might do something really radical and try to become a real Italian restaurant. Do away with the faux-Tuscan trappings and the overpriced Americanized menu and serve authentic Italian food at affordable prices. And the dish could run away with the spoon while the cow is busy jumping over the moon. That's more likely to happen first.

Mexican food is a fast-growing element on the American dining scene. Look for Olive Garden to add tacos to their menu next. I actually visited an Olive Garden that was attached to a Red Lobster. Since Darden owns both properties, why not knock out the wall and make an Italian seafood place that also serves burgers and fries? Sooner or later you'll pander sufficiently to the lowest common denominator and you're bound to make a buck or two, right?

In the meantime, how does “McOlive Garden” sound to you?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Creamy Italian Dishes – Yes! Cream IN Italian Dishes – NO!

I was watching one of those ubiquitous competition shows on Food Network the other night and there was this “chef” – big guy, been cooking since the discovery of fire – who decided to prepare risotto. And I watched in abject horror as the man threw rice in a pan and dumped cream on it, “because risotto is supposed to be really creamy.”

My wife had to restrain me to keep me from going through the TV screen. “NO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O!” I cried, loudly enough to frighten the dog. And when it came time for this idiot's dish to be judged, one of the judges asked him point blank, “Do you always put cream in your risotto?” “Always,” was the smug reply. The judge just gave him a look. And then sent him packing.

Can somebody tell me why American cooks think Italian food gets its creamy texture from cream? I'm not saying Italians don't ever use cream. They most certainly do. I mean, “panna cotta” is literally “cooked cream.” But not everything that is “creamy” is full of cream. There are some dishes – risotto being one of them – that, when properly prepared, are naturally creamy. They get that way through using proper ingredients and proper technique.

The most common rice used in risotto is Arborio. It is a short-grain rice that has a very high starch content. And when it is correctly cooked, it releases that starch, which gives the finished dish its wonderful creaminess. There's no *#%?@&! cream in an authentic, well-prepared risotto. The creamy texture is the result of lightly toasting the rice in a little fat – olive oil, butter, etc. – and then ladling in measured amounts of heated stock or broth. When the rice has absorbed the liquid, you stir in some more and then repeat the process until all the liquid is absorbed and the creamy starch is released.

That said, there might be a reason to add cream to risotto at the finish if you are looking to change the flavor profile or enhance some element of the dish. But this doofus specifically said he was adding cream at the beginning to make it creamy, and that's just amateur, culinary school drop-out wrong.

Another “creamy” Italian dish that doesn't need cream is anything “Alfredo.” Let's be clear right up front, there is no such thing as “Alfredo” or “Alfredo sauce” in authentic Italian cooking. Go to Italy and order it. Unless you hit a tourist trap, they'll just look at you funny. The dish that is a staple in every pseudo-Italian eatery in the United States developed from a simple pasta al burro, an Italian pasta and butter creation. It was “discovered” by a couple of American movie stars back in the silent film era. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford stumbled upon Alfredo di Lelio's ristorante while honeymooning in Rome. They thought Alfredo's dish of pasta in a butter and cheese sauce was the best thing they had ever eaten. They came home and told all their friends about it, and soon everybody in America was clamoring for Fettuccine Alfredo. Except nobody knew how to make it. Well, there's definitely butter and cheese in there and since it's really, really creamy, there must be cream in it, too, right? Wrong! Once again, it's all about ingredients and technique.

One of the reasons American cooks had such a hard time replicating Alfredo's “sauce” is the difference in quality between Italian butter and cheese and the American equivalents. European butter is much richer due to a higher butterfat content. And, although there are many imitators, nothing really compares to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Lacking access to these amenities, American cooks improvised and added cream to enhance and enrich the texture.

When you mix high-fat Italian butter with authentic Italian cheese and just a touch of pasta cooking water, the result is a rich, unctuous, creamy sauce that contains absolutely no cream. Of course, proper technique is also important. You start with lots of butter in the bottom of a warmed bowl. Then you add your drained pasta. Don't drain it dry. In fact, a few tablespoons of reserved cooking water will help develop the “sauce” for the dish. Then you add lots of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you begin to mix and stir. Using a fork and a spoon, you twist and twirl and spin the pasta in the butter and cheese until everything is completely incorporated. If you do it right, there will be nary a lump and the resulting mixture will, because of the natural richness of the ingredients, be smooth and creamy. With no cream.

A lot of Italian food has become so Americanized as to be almost unrecognizable. And that's a shame, because simple Italian food is simply delicious. So ditch the cream and try using authentic Italian ingredients and techniques. You will be amazed at the difference.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

No Catchy Headline: Just Something to Restore Your Faith in Humanity

I'm a cynic, a skeptic, and a curmudgeon. Part and parcel of getting old, I guess. Then, doggone it, this guy named “Jake” comes along and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

I've written a lot about manners and etiquette in restaurants. And I've often decried the general lack thereof, especially among clueless parents with bratty kids. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the root of the problem lies with the clueless parents rather than with the bratty kids. In most cases, the kids wouldn't be bratty if the parents had a clue.

This philosophy has led to “kid free” zones in some restaurants. There are even eateries that entirely prohibit children. A lot of parents complain about this, but I – curmudgeon that I am – applaud the effort because I don't like kids running around a restaurant screaming and playing while their self-absorbed idiot parents sit by and pretend their little darlings aren't driving everybody else in the place nuts. Besides being incredibly rude and annoying, it's not particularly safe for the kids, for the other patrons, and most especially not for the staff who have to dance around the little monsters while carrying trays full of hot food and beverages.

I'll admit it – I'm a jerk. I've asked to be moved to another table if a family of screaming meemies is seated next to me. At the very least, I've girded my loins and gritted my teeth and muttered, “there goes the neighborhood” when a passel of kids sits down at the next table, fully expecting my quiet dining experience to be shot all to hell.

I raised two fairly rambunctious boys. They played hard and rough and did their best to maim or kill one another from time to time. But all that rambunctiousness came to a screeching halt when they hit the dinner table. There they were expected to behave like civilized human beings. I'm proud to say I never once got a complaint from fellow diners about my boys or even so much as a dirty look. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Didn't matter if we were in a four-star restaurant or a roadside diner, I frequently fielded compliments from strangers who thanked me for having such well-behaved children. I was proud of my boys for their behavior and proud of myself for my insistence upon it. And I have paid it forward, often taking a moment to pause at a table on my way out and thank the parents for the deportment of their kids.

But this “Jake” guy makes me look like a piker. And, frankly, I'm glad of it.

According to a report by ABC11 in Raleigh, NC, there was this single mom who took her kids to a local Pizza Hut for a weekly Friday night dinner. She was in the midst of a messy divorce, and was having a generally rough time of it, but she wanted to provide her children with this one little bit of stability. On top of it all, one of her sons is dealing with ADHD and his meds were wearing off when they hit the Hut. To her credit, she forewarned a man seated in a nearby booth that things could get a little boisterous and apologized in advance. The guy brushed it off with a smile and assurances that he, too, had kids and he understood her situation. And that was that. Or was it?

The young mother did her best to keep her kids in line as the meal progressed. Unlike idiots who just let their kids run wild and crazy in public places, oblivious to the needs of others, this mom stayed right there with them, talking to them and trying to keep them under control. The report I read said she attempted to “engage with her kids to keep them on their best behavior.”

Eventually, the gentleman seated near them finished his meal and left. It's at this point in the narrative that I have to admit I don't know what I would have done were I in his position. And I've been somewhat in his position. My wife and I were enjoying a nice quiet meal at a Pizza Hut one evening when the staff started pulling tables together next to us and seated a large family with five or six very young children. We braced ourselves, but the expected rowdy behavior never happened. We were delighted and stopped to compliment the parents as we left the restaurant. But this guy – Jake – had a little different experience. The story doesn't indicate that things ever really got out of hand, but the implication is that the mother had her hands full, so Jake probably didn't have the best dining experience as a result.

Anyway, time came for mom to gather up the kids and pay the check. But the waitress told her that the young man seated next to her had already paid her bill. What's more, he left her a Pizza Hut gift card to cover a future meal. And he wrote her a little letter. If you start tearing up as you read it, it's okay. I did, too.

"I do not know your back story,” he wrote, “but I have had the privilege of watching you parent your children for the past 30 minutes. I have to say thank you for parenting your children in such a loving manner." The man continued, "I have watched you teach your children about the importance of respect, education, proper manners, communication, self control, and kindness all while being very patient." "I will never cross your path again,” he said, “but am positive that you and your children have amazing futures." The letter concluded, "Keep up the good work, and when it starts to get tough, do not forget that others may be watching and will need the encouragement of seeing a good family being raised. God bless! -Jake"

If that doesn't restore your faith in humanity and inspire you to be a better person, you may be beyond help. It certainly got to me and now I may have to go and rip up all my cynic, skeptic, and curmudgeon cards. Thanks to this display of selfless kindness, the next time the opportunity presents itself, and if the situation warrants, I will go beyond a simple kind word myself.

Bless you, Jake, and thanks for sharing the planet and making it  better place.

And, speaking of sharing, I couldn't come up with a single snappy header that would give this post better SEO, and the search engines are just going to ignore it. So if you liked the story and if it made a difference in your day, share a link to it with somebody else, okay?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Minding Your (Italian) Manners

10 More “Food Rules” To Keep In Mind When In Italy

I recently read an article on the Huffington Post in which blogger Whitney Richelle discusses the “10 Essential Food Rules for Americans in Italy.” Ms. Richelle brings up some good points and her article is definitely worth a read. Find it here: I'm going to supplement a few of these “food rules," also known as "manners," in just a second, but I'd like to rant about another issue first. Some of the comments attached to Ms. Richelle's article are troubling. Like this one:

“If the Italians are looking askance at what or how you're eating you just hit the table hard and forcefully say 'Basta'!”

Yeah, I can see that working well. Or this one:

“It seems like some of these [rules] are mostly concerned with impressing others. Enjoying my meal is more important to me than impressing people.”

You know, there are other notes on the scale of life besides “mi, mi, mi, mi.”

This one is my favorite: “With all due respect, those 'Essential Food Rules for Americans' only apply to Americans who want to do things the way the Italians do them. Even when traveling, Americans and all other people should do what makes the most sense for them. If a person wants to eat the apple with the skin on, eat the damn apple with the damn skin on. If you love eggs for breakfast, have eggs for breakfast. Why would anyone really care whether Italians do likewise or not? Is someone trying to pass as Italians? Does someone think Italians really know what's best for the whole world?”

Well, I'm certainly glad this ignorant screed was tendered with “all due respect.”

Obviously, these folks are not aware of the term “ugly American,” a pejorative used to refer to the common perception people in other countries have of Americans as being loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, ethnocentric louts. These commenters exemplify the breed, but in typical “ugly American” fashion, they probably don't give a damn.

The comments also reflect behavior typical of us “Baby Boomers.” We're also known as “the Me Generation” because we abandoned our parents' Depression-era ethics of dedication, self-sacrifice, and the postponement of gratification in favor of the new mantras of “me, me, it's all about me.” “Me first.” “Make sure I get mine.” “Do your own thing and to hell with everybody else.” “I am the center of my universe. The world revolves around ME, so I don't care what you think.”

While America can justifiably boast about being the best in the world in a great many areas, it is still just one of 196 countries that populate our planet. Each country has its own unique culture and each culture is an integral part of the grand tapestry that covers the globe. And if you possessed two working brain cells, you would understand that the ability to appreciate the diversity of the world's cultures is one of the things that makes for an educated, sophisticated, civilized, well-rounded individual. Oscar Wilde said it best: "America is the only country that managed to go from barbarism to decadence without passing though civilization."

<Drag, scrape, drag> (Putting the soapbox away.) Okay, let's talk about more Italian table manners.

Hold The Cheese

Ms. Richelle mentioned not asking for “salad dressing” and being sparing in the use of condiments. This also extends to that Italian staple, Parmesan cheese. In the U.S., you can't go to any “Italian” restaurant or pizzeria without encountering the ubiquitous little shakers of grated Parmesan cheese. Either that or the server comes around with a grater.

In the first place, the powdery substance in the little shakers bears little resemblance to real Parmesan cheese. It's nothing but a bulk food service version of the abomination in a green can that you buy in grocery stores. What the server grates over your food has the benefit of at least being fresh and some sort of real cheese, although it's not likely to be Parmigiano-Reggiano. It'll probably be some form of domestic Parmesan or maybe a pecorino.

Either way, the practice is frowned upon in Italy. Unless it is explicitly offered, you shouldn't ask for cheese. American stereotypes aside, Italians don't put Parmesan cheese on everything. They especially don't put it on pizza. That will get you some really funny looks.

Bread Is Not A First Course

Ms. Richelle also addressed “fa la scarpetta,” or using your bread to mop up your plate. But something she didn't mention; in Italy bread is not considered a first course.

Here's how you judge the authenticity of an “Italian” restaurant in the U.S.: If they don't throw a basket of bread at you as soon as your butt hits the chair, you're in an authentic place. Bread is intended as an accompaniment to your primo and secondo courses. You don't fill up on it as a pre-meal snack or as a course unto itself.

Garlic bread,” the way Americans know it, doesn't exist in Italy. Slices of bread slathered in garlic-infused butter and served with “Italian” seasonings on top are strictly an American creation. And while “dipping oil” like they serve at some Italian-American places is not unheard of in Italy, it's not terribly common.

One more note on bread etiquette; break the bread, don't cut it. Italy is a country steeped in religious symbolism and this is an old custom that can be traced back to the Christian Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Christ did not whip out a knife and slice up the bread for his disciples. He broke it by hand. Doing so at your table won't make you holy, but it will make you mannerly.

Sedersi e Mangiare (Sit Down And Eat)

This was sort of included in Ms. Richelle's rules when she talked about taking time to enjoy your food, but I'd like to expand on it a bit. In the first place, it is considered ill-mannered to get up from the table before the meal is finished. Unless your pants are on fire – or unless you really have to “go” – you remain seated at the table until everybody has finished eating. The self-centered idea that “I'm done now” permits you to be dismissed doesn't fly at an Italian table. Sit down. Your life can wait five minutes more.

Secondly, you should literally sit down and eat. The concept of grabbing something and chowing down on the run is totally foreign to the Italian way of eating. You seldom see Italians walking around stuffing their faces with some form of hand-held food. It runs counter to the whole philosophy of Italian food culture. The one exception might be an afternoon gelato. Everybody likes to get a little gelato and go for a stroll.

A Meal Is Not An Eating Contest

This sort of ties in with the idea of “sit down and eat” except it should be noted that nobody eats until everybody eats. Even if you haven't seen food because you've been wandering in the desert for forty days, you don't just rush to the table and dig in. Italian eating is almost ritualistic. It follows a specific form. Once the call to the table is given, everybody moves to the table. There's no “just a minute,” “I'll be right there,” or “let me just finish this.....” It's call, boom, move. Everybody is seated but nobody touches so much as a fork until mama, papa, the host, or whoever is in charge of the meal gives the signal to begin. And then there's no wild free-for-all where everybody lunges for whatever is on the table, heaps it on their plates, and then mows through it in order to see who finishes first. It's an orderly process of passing and receiving. Oh, it can be loud and boisterous, but it's always orderly. And there's no heaping and no rushing. Which leads to the next rule.

Don't Be A Pig

Abbondanza! is mostly an American marketing gimmick. Italians don't serve food in great heaping portions. That's one reason why their obesity rate is among the lowest in the world. Food is served in moderate portions and if you are serving yourself, it is expected that you will only take a moderate portion. It is perfectly acceptable – indeed, complimentary – to ask for more, but don't load up from the beginning. You'll look like an ill-mannered pig.

When Is The Head Not The Head?

When it's in the middle! In many cultures, including American, the host or most important person sits at “the head” of the table, meaning they sit at one of the far ends. Not so in Italy, where the host is seated at the middle of one of the long sides. An important guest is seated immediately to the right of the host. If there is a hosting couple, they sit opposite each other on either side of the table.

Hands Up!

Well, not “up” as in above your head, but certainly above the table. When they are not actively engaged in transporting something from the plate to the mouth, your hands should rest above the table at the wrist (never the elbow) and they should be apart, not touching. It goes back to medieval suspicions about hiding weapons under the table. I don't suppose there's much to fear from hidden daggers anymore, but modern Italians still like to see where your hands are.

I Have A Fork And I Know How To Use It

You know, of course, that the Italians are responsible for the introduction of the dining fork to Western European culture. That said, Italians are still very fond of their forks.

In Italy, as in the rest of the Continent, they practice – ta dah! – Continental dining etiquette. This means that the fork is always held in the left hand with the tines pointed down and the knife stays in the right. There's no switching around and back and forth as in the American style. However, unlike the rest of Europe, if you're eating something that doesn't require the use of a knife – pasta, for instance – you don't have to keep holding the knife. It's okay to set it down.

Also unlike other parts of Europe, in Italy there are very few “finger foods.” Small items such as olives, pieces of cheese, slices of fruit – even French fries, or “chips,” when you can find them – are eaten with a fork.

And now for the really devastating etiquette Italy, pizza is not picked up and folded. It is eaten with a knife and fork. I'll wait until the New Yorkers stop howling. It's true. Even in Napoli, the birthplace of pizza, it is generally considered maleducato to pick up a slice of pizza. In the first place, Italian pies aren't served “sliced.” You get the whole pie and you use your knife and fork to cut it into quarters. Then you continue to use your utensils, especially for the first few bites. After you work your way up toward the crust, it's usually okay to pick up what's left and finish it off. But the whole “pick up a slice and fold it” phenomenon is an Italian-American affectation that would get you disapproving looks in an Italian pizzeria. Sorry.

Another place where the fork rules is in the pasta bowl. Here the fork is king. No knives and no spoons. I know, I know.....every “Italian” restaurant in America sticks a big spoon in the pasta bowl so you can use it to help twirl up your spaghetti. Not in Italy. Spoons are for children. Little children. Pre-school children. By the time you reach the age of five or six, you are expected to know how to put your fork into the pasta and lift up a few strands, which you then continue to lift and twirl around the fork until you have a manageable bite. The bite should fit neatly and completely into your mouth and should you have to deal with a stray dangler, you do so discreetly without an overabundance of smacking and slurping. Taking big sloppy bites that end up dangling from your lips and being slurped into your mouth is rude even for children. And we won't even address the disdain for those who chop spaghetti up into tiny fragments and eat it with a spoon.

Fido Will Have To Fend For Himself

Italians don't do “doggie-bags.” The simple rule is don't take more than you can eat. If you do leave a little food on your plate, you'll likely have a concerned host or waiter asking if everything was alright. If you leave a lot of food on your plate, you'll probably encounter a very insulted cook. Italian-American restaurants serve outrageously gargantuan portions and “to go” containers are common. That's not the case in Italy, so do yourself a favor and don't ask.

Si Beve, Si Beve (You Drink, You Drink)

Ms. Richelle correctly noted that an Italian table offers two drinks; water and wine. Italians believe in the purity of the taste of their food and they don't want anything messing with that flavor. Wines are selected and paired to compliment the food being served. And water, of course, has no effect on flavor.

Yes, Italy has water taps. Free-flowing taps and fountains of potable water have been around since Roman times, but you'll seldom find tap water being served at the table. It's always bottled water. In fact, Italians are among the highest consumers of bottled water in the world. You will be offered your choice of plain water – naturale – or sparkling water – gassata or frizzante. You might also be offered minerale, or mineral water. But you'll have a hard time getting a glass of tap water. There's nothing wrong with the water. Italians just don't serve it. And don't look for a lot of ice. Like most Europeans, Italians aren't big on iced beverages.

Almost nobody drinks soft drinks like Coke or even lemonade with a meal. This goes back to the diluting the flavor issue. Same thing with beer, although both beer and soft drinks are sometimes served with pizza.

As much of a shock as it may be to Americans, your kids aren't going to become rampant alcoholics if they are served wine with a meal. In fact, studies have shown the opposite to be true. At most Italian tables, home or public, kids drink wine with their meals. Little kids get it watered down a bit, but by the time they're teenagers, they drink the same wine the adults drink. In 2013, the Italian government raised the legal drinking age from 16 to 18, but enforcement is likely to be spotty, especially where family meals are concerned.

Finally, nobody has mixed drinks or cocktails with a meal. Such can be offered before or after a meal as an aperitivo or a digestivo, but never during a meal.

There you have it. More annoying, restrictive “rules” for proper behavior. My rebellious peers did a fine job of tearing down “The Establishment” back in the '60s. Unfortunately, they hadn't a clue of what to replace it with, so a form of social anarchy prevailed. Manners and customs are sometimes all that remain to remind us of the need to be civilized. So, Mr. “Do-Your-Own-Thing” Commenter, do Italians really know what's best for the whole world? No. No more than Americans do. But they do know what's best for them. And there's always that age old adage; “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Try it. You might like it. And who knows? You might learn something about other people who share your world.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What's Behind the Food Network Ratings Decline? (Hint: It's NOT Paula Deen)

Taking the “Food” Out of “Food Network”

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek headline screamed “Since Dumping Paula Deen, Food Network Ratings Have Continued To Slump.” The story went on to note that the network's overall prime time ratings have dropped as much as 6 percent with a whopping 13 percent drop in the target 18 to 49 demographic. But does Paula really deserve the blame/credit?

Paula Deen's supporters like to think it's karma or divine retribution or something. Not so much. The Queen of the South's numbers were headed south long before the network gave her the heave ho. She was a classic case of overexposure. “Hey, y'all!” was getting on the nerves of all but her most ardent fans, and, ratings-wise, her slip was staring to show. Her diabetes debacle and her “n-word” meltdown just gave Food Network the excuse for which it was already looking.

No, if you want to know the real reason Food Network's ratings are slumping, look no further than the guide feature on your TV screen. In spite of what the network suits are trying to tell themselves, when people turn on the Food Network, they want to see programming about food. They don't want game shows, they don't want competition shows, they don't want “reality” shows that focus on struggles and problems in the lives of other people. Most folks have enough struggles and problems of their own. And they certainly don't want “hidden camera” shows that purport to depict what “really” happens behind the scenes at America's eating establishments.

Food Network has gone the way of MTV, A&E, Biography, History, TLC, and any number of other cable nets that have turned their backs on the viewers that built them. Does anybody remember that “MTV” stands for “Music Television” and that they used to actually play music videos as their main programming staple? I don't recall when I've seen anything remotely artistic or entertaining on A&E, the network dedicated to “Arts & Entertainment.” Oh, yeah. “Duck Dynasty.” That's art. Could someone please explain to me how “Ghost Bait,” “Flip This House,” and “America's Supernanny” have anything at all to do with biography? Same for the relationship between “Pawn Stars,” “Swamp People” and history. And of course I learn so much from Honey Boo Boo and the other toddlers with their tiaras over on TLC, aka “The Learning Channel.”

Now, to be fair, Food Network does accidentally have a few programs left that have something to do with the preparation of food. On “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” you can watch people cook. They're not necessarily there to teach you how to cook, but you can still pick up a few tips and tricks by watching them, so that's something. I used to like to watch Robert Irvine cook his way out of “impossible” situations on “Dinner: Impossible.” All Robert does now by revealing the filth and family drama on “Restaurant: Impossible” is make me want to avoid eating in restaurants.

Maybe the Scripps Network execs should consider another “spinoff” network. They can call it “Guido TV” and they can regale viewers with 24/7 programming featuring Guy Fieri. Of course, that's pretty much what they do on Food Network now.

And lest you think I'm just a lone curmudgeon complaining in the wilderness, here are a few of the reader comments that followed the Bloomberg Businessweek piece:

“Food Network's problem is that it has veered away from the basic concept: teaching people how to cook. The majority of shows now are reality shows. Boring.”

“I've been a huge fan of Food Network from the beginning and I get tired of these new "reality" shows after a few episodes.”

“I want to see shows about cooking or how about an independent review show of kitchen appliances and new gadgets. I'm so sick of everything having to be a damned competition! Who cares if some chef can make something edible out of two cans, a boot and a licorice whip in 20 minutes. Maybe he could instead tell me what to do with all the chicken in the freezer. Get back to basics!”

“Any slump in the Food Network is not due to 'no Deen' -- it is due to the poor selection of programming. At any given time, I can tune in and get multiple showing of Diners & Dives; or Top Chef variations with 'Top Cupcake or Top Cake or Top Something with a 'twist'... most of which tell me nothing about the food or cooking but are showcases for 30 minutes sprints to make a 'nice looking plate' of something. I'd rather have someone show me how to prepare a buttersquash or why thyme works on one thing and not another rather than the 'all flash and no useful information' shows.”

“No more cooking on the Food Network it seems. America's Test Kitchen and Cook's County on PBS have FN shows beat by a mile on that score.”

“I miss the days when you tuned into Food Network to watch a cooking show.”

“Since the creation of their sister network The Cooking Channel, Food Network wanted to focus more on various levels of competition, and reality shows. Their bread & butter (no pun intended) was when the stars like Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, and others were doing cooking and teaching. Who didn't like Emeril Live, Good Eats or Boy Meets Grill? If you want to capture the 18-35 demographic, then go back to the basics and include young, enthusiastic individuals who love to share their knowledge about food and cooking. I for one would love to have a show teaching people how to make delicious meals from different areas of the world.”

“I used to love watching the food network when they had shows about cooking, they've gone away from Alton Brown (Good Eats, science of cooking was awesome!), Mario Batali (History of food was awesome!), Tyler Florence (History again), Emeril & Paula (Most food was really extreme, but good shows none the less). Now everything is a competition trying to do trivial challenges with a bunch of idiots to create drama. I end up watching Cooking channel much more and they're even turning away from cooking and going more toward an obnoxious host to go around and visit different places. I think they've overreached and tried to get into the reality craze and should go back to what brought the audience in in the first place.”

Hello? These are real people talking, not overpaid consultants and analysts. Did you catch the references to the food programming on PBS? America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Country, Lydia Bastianich, Mary Ann Esposito, John Besh, Ming Tsai – there's a lot more food and cooking going on there than there is on the network that's supposedly dedicated to food. And one commenter noted, even Scripps' knock off “Cooking Channel” has become a parody that has more in common with the Travel Channel than it does with cooking.

Are Bob Tuschman, Susie Fogelson, Brooke Johnson and the other occupants of Scripps' executive offices deaf and blind? Or are they just dumb? You know the old axiom that for every person who complains, there are 10 people who don't speak up? Some make the ratio 1:25. Others go as high as 1:100. So, including my own, I've just registered somewhere between 90 and 900 complaints. And that's just the tip of the iceberg from feedback on one article. I've seen hundreds of similar thoughts expressed in dozens of other published sources, which, by rule, would add up to tens of thousands of people who don't like where Food Network is going. That would certainly account for the 6 percent overall drop in ratings. The Deen disaster probably didn't help, but the root of the real cause goes much deeper.

Here's my recipe for a Fallen Ratings Cake:


1 Ivory Tower full of overpaid, under-qualified idiots
1 cadre of overpaid, under-qualified consultants and analysts
1 dozen meaningless “reality” shows
1 dozen pointless competition shows
1 dozen mindless “food story” shows
a handful of “hidden camera” shows
a generous helping of talentless “talent”


After straining out anything that resembles food or cooking information, mix all of the above ingredients into a schedule that repeats and repeats and repeats until the viewer's eyes bleed.

Yield: 1 failed network

One last commenter sums it all up: “Why did they fix something that wasn't broken? We liked these shows because they weren’t drama filled nonsense with no substance. We liked being taught how to cook. Period. Can we get back to that or is it a lost cause?”

Anybody at Food Network listening?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Could I Interest You In Some Beaver Butt Ice Cream?

Okay, You've Been Warned

Have you ever found out something you immediately wished you hadn't? Well, I just did. And if that scares you, don't read any further.

Okay, you've been warned.

In my tireless search to keep you informed about what you're eating these days, I made a discovery that.......I found something which........let's can I say this? about, “OMG! This is so gross!”

Ever hear of castoreum? Yeah, me neither. At first glance, you tend to think it's related to castor oil or something else made from the castor bean. Oh, but I wish it were so. This is worse.

Castoreum, it turns out, is a sticky yellowish-brown substance produced by the castor sac in adult beavers. Beavers have a pair of castor sacs and they are located right there by the anal glands under the base of the animal's tail. The beavers use castoreum – mixed with urine – to mark their territory. (Here comes the gross part.) People use it as a food additive!

That's right, boys and girls, there are people walking among us who actually go out and lift up beaver tails, milk those anal glands, and extract that fluid. (Excuse me now while I go wash my hands. They suddenly feel yucky just from typing that sentence.) Now, they don't get a lot of the stuff in total. Just under 300 pounds a year. I don't know how much castoreum an average adult beaver produces, and I really don't care. I've read where the harvest is rather meager because neither the milker nor the milkee much enjoys the process. I can certainly see where that would be the case.

And what, exactly, do these beaver-butt-milkers do with that extract? Well, folks, they say if you put your nose right down there in the beaver's business end, it smells like a musky vanilla. So there you have it. Next time you eat something that says “vanilla-flavored”........

Sadly, I'm not kidding. According to the FDA, castoreum produced by beaver butts is a GRAS food additive. GRAS means “generally recognized as safe.” Personally, I think it's a GROSS food additive, and that statement shouldn't require any further clarification.

And it gets better! Because it is an FDA-approved GRAS food additive, manufacturers aren't required to tell you about it when they stick it in your vanilla ice cream or whatever. All they have to do is list it as a “natural flavoring.” And, brother, it don't get any more natural than that, does it?

Oh, by the way, castoreum is also used to enhance the flavor and aroma of cigarettes. If you haven't already decided to quit, think about that one the next time you light up. “Mmmmmm! Smells like beaver butt! Tastes like it, too!” Never mind lighting up a Camel; you just lit up a beaver! GAHHHHHHH!!!!

And people wonder why I'm so adamant about making everything fresh from scratch. I can tell you with great assurance that when I add vanilla to whipped cream or cake frosting or whatever, it comes from a bean and not from the south end of a northbound beaver.

Go on, now. Go get yourself some store-bought vanilla wafers and think about it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Italian Way of Eating: Everybody Come to the Table

If you've ever watched Lidia Bastianich on either of her PBS programs, Lidia's Italy or Lidia's Italy in America,” you'll be familiar with the Italian phrase with which she closes every episode: “tutti a tavolo a mangiare!” But you may not be familiar with what it means.

The simple English translation is, “everyone to the table to eat.” But it actually means much more.

In the traditional Italian culture, sitting down at the table to eat isn't just a matter of parking your butt in a chair for a few minutes while you wolf down whatever is in front of you so you can get back to your game or your TV show or whatever else you consider to be more important. The true Italian dining experience is radically different. There's almost a sacramental transcendence involved in which the participants in the meal are bound in another state of being to the shared rapprochement coming together over food imparts. “Tutti a tavolo a mangiare!” doesn't just mean “come and eat.” It means “come together.” Don't just bring your appetite to the table; bring your day, your thoughts, your happiness, your sadness. Bring your life to the table and share it.

My sister and I both married people from the American South. The phrasing there is different – “y'all come and eat” – but the sentiment is much the same.

Unfortunately, I have a few in-laws who were apparently not brought up in the same traditions. Or maybe they just lost them somewhere along the way. Either way, there is nothing – I say again, nothing – that frosts my cupcakes faster than announcing that a dinner I have spent a great deal of time preparing is ready, only to have my announcement ignored by people too busy watching TV or carrying on discussions or playing games or whatever. “Yeah, okay. I'll be there in a minute” is the quickest way to see what my temper really looks like. There's an old saying in Italian kitchens; “Pasta waits for no one.” And neither do I. You come to my table ready to eat when I call you, or you can go eat cold leftovers in the garage.

The art of preparing good food – Italian or otherwise – is an act of love. The cook – the good cook, anyway – does more than just throw a few ingredients into a pot. There is an outpouring of creative energy, of time spent planning and preparing. There is a thoughtfulness and care that goes on each and every plate. A well-prepared meal set on a well-prepared table is the ultimate act of love expressed by the cook toward the family and friends – or even complete strangers – for whom the meal is prepared and the table set. It is an expression of an artist's soul. And you're gonna tell me, “just a minute?” You're gonna tell me that my time and effort and love are worth less than your watching some damn TV show or something? Not in my world.

In my world, as in the Italian world in general, the call to the dinner table is inviolate. It's like a call to prayer. It's an invitation to come together as a family and share the dance of life. When the pasta hits the table, the butts hit the chairs and the dance begins. To say something like, “I'll be there in a minute” is the ultimate insult. It is a rude, classless way of saying, “I don't care about the time you put in or the money you spent. I don't care about your effort or your feelings. I don't care about being a part of the whole. I've got more important things to do.” It's not done in an Italian family and it shouldn't be tolerated in any family.

Deep breath. I'm fine, now.

Once the food is served, the magic begins. Separate entities become one as people share thoughts and experiences. Stories of the past are told and plans for the future are laid. Somebody tells a joke. Somebody else recalls a memory. Another person introduces a topic that changes the direction of discussion. Conversation flows freely and comfortably and there is a sense that, for a little while, anyway, the world can wait outside. The needs of both the body and the soul are met at the table.

Another thing that makes the Italian dining experience unique is what happens after the meal is consumed. Nobody is in a hurry to leave. You'll find this phenomenon prevalent at the Italian table whether it is located in a home kitchen or in a restaurant dining room. Mario Batali says it's a “rule” in his house that nobody leaves the table for fifteen minutes after the conclusion of a meal. He probably doesn't need an actual “rule,” because in most Italian homes nobody wants to get up and run after dinner anyway. In Italian culture, this postprandial time is the time for leaning back from the table a little and letting the easy flow continue. This is the time for talking about the meal and complimenting the cook. Don't worry about clearing away the dishes just yet. Sit back and relax awhile longer. There's time for one more good joke, one more engaging story, a few more sips of coffee or wine. The chores and the responsibilities and the world itself can wait for a few minutes more. This time is still our time.

This is actually one of the ways in which I grade a good Italian restaurant. In most eating establishments, profits hinge on turning tables. Get them in, feed them, get them out the door and bring in the next bunch. The more times you can do this in a lunch or dinner service, the more money you make. Now, nobody comes right out and says, “here's your hat, what's your hurry?” but notice that in most places that check hits the table pretty quickly and the dishes are promptly cleared away and the server whom you haven't seen much of suddenly appears and says, “will there be anything else” and you get the feeling that you're done even if you're not.

I have two favorite eateries in my area. One is a ristorante featuring a full menu of anything and everything and the other is a simple neighborhood pizzeria. One is run by an Italian family and the other by an Italian-American family. Both serve wonderfully authentic food, but equally as important, both have wonderfully authentic atmospheres. Okay, so I spend a lot of time and money there and I bring a lot of new people through the doors, so naturally they're going to call me by name and pay a little more attention to me, right? Uh-uh. In both places, you're a “customer” only once. By your second visit, you're family. For real, not just in some fake marketing slogan. And don't feel like you have to rush off when you're through eating. Stick around. Have something more to drink. How's your day? How's the family? Give me a minute, I'll come over and sit with you. That is vero Italiano. And it's something Olive Garden and Carrabba's and the other imitators can't touch.

Tutti a tavolo a mangiare, amare, ridere, e di essere una famiglia!” Everybody come to the table to eat, laugh, love, and be a family. Enjoy the food then sit back and enjoy the company. Savor the experience and appreciate life. That's the Italian way of eating.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Passing of Marcella Hazan, Godmother of Italian Cooking

I Don't Think The Void Will Ever Be Filled

I never had the honor of meeting Marcella Hazan. I know a few people who experienced her first
hand and from all I've been told, she was a force to be reckoned with. Like any Italian cook worth his salt, I own a dog-eared copy of her "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking."

Food personality Alton Brown turned me on to Marcella's seminal work, a book he received as a wedding gift: "I spent a college semester in a small town in Italy—and that is where I truly tasted food for the first time. Upon returning to the States, I tried to hunt down recipes for the dishes I had come to love, but the few that I found produced results that fell far short of the meals I remembered. Then a friend gave my wife and me Marcella Hazan's 'Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking' as a wedding present. I decided to try out one of the risottos, a recipe calling for porcinis, no less. It was a success: At last I had found a way to recapture the flavors of Italy that I had known. But I had also found an appealing cooking companion. Hazan's tone and manner put her right there with me in the kitchen. She didn't beat me to death with hard-to-find ingredients, she wasn't snobby or fussy—she was just a nice Italian mama showing me the ropes. (Even the desserts are terrific; check out the stunningly simple and delicious chilled black grape pudding.) In the years that followed, I read and cooked my way through probably a hundred Italian cookbooks, but in the end I always came back to this one."

The book is near the top of his recommended reading list, as well it should be.

Marcella Hazan died yesterday at the age of 89. Sometimes when important political figures pass away, flags are lowered. When prominent entertainers die, lights are dimmed. I don't know how to recognize the void Marcella will leave in the culinary world, but I don't think the void will ever be filled.

There is a fascinating backstory to this woman who has been called by some "the Julia Child of Italian cooking." I've seen the words "legend," "icon," "famous," and "influential" liberally dispersed throughout numerous tributes today. And the sentiment that she changed the way Americans cook Italian food, or that she caused Americans to fall in love with Italian cuisine has been expressed by nearly every writer I've read. So I'm not going to attempt to add anything and I'm not going to reconstruct her life and career here. If you knew who she was, I don't have to tell you and if you didn't know who she was, I suggest you first do a search for her then go out and buy any of her cookbooks, especially "Essentials," the one that is a veritable bible when it comes to the principles of Italian cooking.

After the marvelous and eye-opening contributions Marcella Hazan made to my culinary education, all I'll say now is, "addio, grande signora, e grazie."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A (Not So) Brief History of Italian Cuisine

Italian cuisine is arguably the most popular cuisine in America today, and its popularity keeps on growing.

Without resorting to a lot of dry statistics to back up this statement, let’s just take a peek at the Yellow Pages. While you might find a great number of restaurants featuring French, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, German, Thai, Korean, Indian, Russian and other ethnic food, you can’t sling a wet spaghetti noodle without hitting significantly more listings for Italian eateries. Any town with a population of more than.... two is going to at least have a pizza joint of some sort.

So why is Italian food so popular? Well, Italian cuisine is based on two general precepts: freshness and simplicity. The simple techniques make it easy to prepare, thus delighting both restaurant chefs and home cooks alike, and the use of only the finest and freshest ingredients make it good to eat, thus delighting everybody.

Much of the Italian cuisine served up in America’s kitchens, both home and professional, is actually an amalgam of Italian and American food. But more on that topic later.

Let’s hit the dictionary. The word “cuisine” is, of course, a French word that literally means “kitchen.” According to Webster, its application in modern language is “a manner of preparing food: a style of cooking; also: the food prepared.” The word “Italian” goes back to the 14th century and relates to “a native or inhabitant of Italy.”

Of course, one has to realize that there was no political entity called “Italy” in the 14th century. The name “Italia” dates back to Roman times and originally applied only to the Roman province itself. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, “Italia” came into common use as a descriptive term for a broader area. The peninsula that now appears on maps as “Italy” was populated by a collection of diverse and often aggressively disagreeable regions and city-states until the middle of the 19th century when il Risorgimento, or “the Resurgence,” resulted in the unification of Italy as we know it today.

As is to be expected, each of these independent regions – all twenty of them – had their own local culinary customs and cuisines, based upon what was produced or readily available in the area. In the truest sense, there is no “Italian cuisine” on a national level. Regional dishes still rule today in much the same way as they have for the last two millennia or so.

The Etruscans are the first people documented to have occupied the Italian peninsula back in the 8th or 9th century BC (or “BCE,” depending on your level of political correctness). In 2005, the central Italian town of Marzabotto (near Bologna), a town rich in Etruscan history, conducted “A Tavola Con Gli Etruschi Di Marzabotto” (“Dining With The Etruscans Of Marzabotto”) which explored various social aspects of the ancient civilization, focusing on its food resources and dining habits. Based on studies of surviving art and artifacts, the Etruscans, according to an Italian News release, “cultivated barley, spelt, wheat, pulses and figs and produced their own oil and wine. Meat and dairy products came from domesticated sheep and pigs, which were supplemented by wild game and venison. Wealthy Etruscans are thought to have dined lavishly, with roasted or boiled meat served with sauces of cereals, vegetables and spices. The meat, a luxury reserved for the higher classes, was probably accompanied by flat bread, eggs and vegetables, while fruit and sweet pastries would close the meal.” The foods enjoyed by the Etruscans are said to be the basis for modern-day Tuscan cuisine.

Further traces of the development of an Italian cuisine go back to the 4th century BC and the writings of Archestratus, a Greek poet who lived in the Sicilian towns of Gela and Syracuse. This early-day James Beard devoted much of his scrivening to the topic of where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world. In his Hedypatheia ("Life of Luxury"), Archestratus promotes the use of only the freshest, top quality seasonal ingredients. He further advocates that the flavor of dishes, particularly fish dishes, should not be overpowered by heavy use of spices, herbs, and other seasonings. These ideals remain as the cornerstone of Italian cooking today.

By the time the Romans came along with their popular cookbook De re coquinaria ("On the Subject of Cooking"), things had changed. The use of exotic – and expensive – spices in cooking was a reflection of wealth and prominence. More than four hundred recipes promoted the heavy usage of spices and herbs to disguise the natural flavors of foods. This was a trend that was prevalent all over Europe until well into the Middle Ages.

Not only was this over usage of spices a sign of wealth, it was a practical matter, as well. What with medieval food transportation and preservation techniques being what they were, the more spices you heaped on a dish, the less likely you were to taste the rottenness of the food itself.

Many of the advances in what we now call Italian cuisine came about as a result of both trade and conquest. The Italian peninsula was overrun by darn near everybody at one time or another. Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Lombards, Franks, Goths, Vikings, Normans – everybody got in on the party and they all brought elements of their own food cultures with them. Venetian explorer Marco Polo and his legendary Chinese trade adventures notwithstanding, pasta – that iconic staple of Italian cuisine – may actually have been introduced by Arab invaders who called Sicily home in the 9th century.

But trade did play an important role in the development of Italian cuisine. Ports like Venice and Genoa were major stops on the developing spice routes from the Far East and, consequently, exotic new spices like nutmeg, cardamom, and saffron began to appear in Italian kitchens.

By the early years of the Renaissance, the culinary pendulum began to swing back. In the 15th century, a visionary cook, Martino de Rossi or Maestro Martino, ran the kitchen for Ludovico Trevisan, the Cardinal Patriarch of Aquileia. Around 1465, he produced his Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking.) A modern translation of the book is available through the University of California Press. UCP publication notes state: Maestro Martino of Como has been called the first celebrity chef, and his extraordinary treatise on Renaissance cookery, The Art of Cooking, is the first known culinary guide to specify ingredients, cooking times and techniques, utensils, and amount. This vibrant document is also essential to understanding the forms of conviviality developed in Central Italy during the Renaissance, as well as their sociopolitical implications….The Art of Cooking, unlike the culinary manuals of the time, is a true gastronomic lexicon, surprisingly like a modern cookbook in identifying the quantity and kinds of ingredients in each dish, the proper procedure for cooking them, and the time required, as well as including many of the secrets of a culinary expert.”

Maestro Martino re-introduced the concept of fresh, locally produced ingredients and simple preparation techniques. (Okay, his recipe for “flying pie,” which incorporates the inclusion of live birds that fly away when the dish is opened may be a little out there, but I’m sure he vigorously advocated using only local birds.) Martino also eschewed the use of excessive amounts of heavy spices, preferring, instead, to enhance natural flavors with fresh herbs.

A few years later, soldier, scholar and papal scribe Bartolomeo Platina included Maestro Martino’s work in his De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health.") Platina refined Martino’s writings, focusing them on a regional level and enumerating for perhaps the first time the various specialties produced in the several regions that now comprise Italy.

About a hundred years later, another Bartolomeo took Italian cuisine a step closer to the modern era. Bartolomeo Scappi was the personal chef to Pope Pius V. His five-volume treatise on cooking contained over a thousand recipes which defined the state of Italian cooking at the time. Scappi was a major advocate of simplicity. He fostered a culinary movement that abandoned game animals and exotic meats in favor of more readily available sources, such as cows, pigs, sheep, various domestic birds, and fish. He diverged from traditional cooking methods like boiling and roasting and employed, instead, broiling, grilling, and poaching. His cookbook included not only recipes, but descriptions of kitchen tools and table utensils as well as notes on catering banquets and parties. His work also was among the first to include strange new ingredients from the New World. (No tomatoes just yet.)

Another hundred years and another Bartolomeo, this time Bartolomeo Stefani, produced a cookbook that contained a section on ordinary food and also outlined proper serving techniques and table manners. (Did you know, for instance, that Italians were primarily responsible for the spread of forks?)

Now comes the part that every Italian cook loves – poking holes in French pomposity. Although they hate to admit it, much of the basis of French haute cuisine is rooted in Italian cooking.

The Medicis were an extremely powerful and influential family in the early years of the Renaissance. Rulers of the Republic of Florence, successful merchants, and bankers to most of Europe, the Medici family produced a number of popes and other dominant political figures. They also fostered the arts and sponsored many famous Renaissance artists. Their patronage extended not only to painters and sculptors – you may have heard of that Buonarotti fellow, Michaelango -- but to culinary artists, as well.

In 1533, Katherine de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, married the future French King Heinrich (or Henry) II. In what many consider the most important event in the history of gastronomy, she brought her Florentine court chefs with her, and they began practicing their art in the French court. Thus, “Classic French Cuisine” was born – in an Italian kitchen!

This proved to be something of a two-edged sword as the immediate result was a lull in the further development of Italian cuisine as a frantic fervor for the new French cooking swept the Continent. That and two hundred years or so of those pesky Italian Wars, but that’s another story.

It wasn’t until after the unification of Italy that another culinary leap forward occurred. Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”), first published in 1891, became noted as a major culinary work due, in part, to the fact that it was directed to the middle-class home cook rather than to the upper class professional chef, as was the custom at the time. (An English version of this work is available through This trend led to a revived focus on natural flavors and quality ingredients in everyday Italian cooking. Nineteenth century improvements in transportation and preservation techniques made regional ingredients, specialties, and tastes accessible across all of Italy and throughout the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the North American continent.

Despite political unification and a democratic constitution, everything was not coming up roses in Italy, especially in the southern provinces, where poor economic conditions, coupled with farmed-out soil and epidemics of cholera and malaria, reduced the population to desperate poverty. As a result, a massive exodus began.

America was the land of opportunity. Between 1876 and 1924, more than four and a half million Italians arrived in the United States. Establishing “Little Italys” in major American cities, these immigrants brought their customs – and their food – to their new homes. And this is where the latest division in Italian cuisine occurred.

Italian immigrants soon discovered that many of the ingredients they had back home were not to be found in America. At the same time, there were many more new ingredients available. So, in true versatile, adaptable Italian fashion, immigrant cooks began experimenting and developing new dishes based on what was at hand.

As these immigrants moved around in their new country, their cooking diversified depending upon their location. Much as it had been in the Old Country, the cuisine differed from New York to Philadelphia to Chicago to St. Louis.

At the same time this diversification was going on, Americans were beginning to “discover” the Italian neighborhoods and the wonderful foods that could be found there. The combination of these factors resulted in the creation of a new type of cuisine – Italian-American.

The popularity of this new hybrid cuisine was fortified by an organization that is actually thought to be one of the oldest trade associations in America, the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, forerunner of the modern National Pasta Association. Founded in 1904, the group's mission was and is to “increase the consumption of pasta.” This influential organization published many so-called “Italian” recipes in the early years of the 20th century, including one for “Italian Spaghetti and Meatballs.” The fact that no such dish ever existed in Italy didn't seem to matter.

Italian-American cuisine became even more firmly established with the 1953 publication of a book entitled “Italian Cooking for the American Kitchen” by Garabaldi Marto Lapolla (Wilfred Funk; 1953; New York). Lapolla was born in Potenza in 1888 and emigrated with his family to New York in 1890. Far from becoming a world-class chef, Lapolla was a teacher in the New York City public school system. He wrote textbooks, novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. His father had owned a bakery and cafe back in the Old Country, so this, apparently, qualified Lapolla to write cookbooks. To be fair, I suppose, his biographer does note his “passion for the culinary arts”. Anyway, recipes from this popular work were widely published in newspapers and magazines to a post-WWII audience hungering for the new cuisine. Unfortunately, as TV chef and culinary celebrity Alton Brown commented in his “American Classics 4” episode of “Good Eats,” “...despite vast popularity, [the book] was about as Italian as Florence.......Henderson!”

So now, broadly speaking, we have three forms of Italian cuisine; Northern Italian, Southern Italian, and Italian-American.

Traditional Northern Italian cuisine is rich in dairy products, with a decidedly Germanic influence. Rice, corn and potatoes are common in the north as are meat-rich dishes comprised of both wild and domestic animals. From the north come the rich Milanese risottos, the polentas, and gnocchi. And, of course, prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano both originate in the northern regions.

In Southern Italian cuisine, pasta is king. Often eaten twice a day, it is seldom prepared the same way twice. The poorer soil and rocky terrain of the south does not lend itself well to raising cattle, but lamb, goats and pigs are everywhere. Olive trees thrive in the south, so olive oil is the fat of choice over the butter and lard employed in the north. Warm coastal waters teem with fish and seafood. Fruits and vegetables are also common in Southern Italian dishes. Perhaps the most important vegetable-that-is-really-a-fruit is the pomo d’oro – the “apple of gold. I refer, of course, to the superstar of Southern Italian cuisine, the tomato.

Non-indigenous to the Continent, tomatoes were among the exotic foods brought back to Europe by Cristoforo Columbo, the Genoese explorer shamelessly co-opted by the Spanish under the name Christopher Columbus. But unlike corn, sweet potatoes, bell peppers and other New World comestibles introduced to European palates by the voyages of Columbus, tomatoes were considered ornamentals. Indeed, they were long thought to be poisonous. (Although the French called them pommes d'amour, or “love apples”, and believed them to be aphrodisiacs. But then we are talking about the French.) It wasn’t until the 18th century that tomatoes began to appear in Italian recipes and on Italian tables.

Naples is considered by many to be the culinary center of the Italian south, and it was in Naples that the tomato really caught on. Especially the luscious plum tomato grown in the volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius in the neighboring town of San Marzano. And it is from Naples that many Italians emigrated, taking with them the most famous creation made with their favorite condiment. We're talking, of course, about pizza.

The history of pizza being a fascinating and detailed topic of its own, suffice it to say that pizza is the first thing that comes to the American mind when you mention Italian food. Pizza is, of course, an authentic Southern Italian food that can now be found all over Italy and all over the world. It is also, along with the aforementioned spaghetti and meatballs, the staple of Italian-American cuisine.

As noted, Italian-American cuisine blends native Italian dishes with American ingredients and cooking techniques, a fusion that sometimes overshadows its roots. You will not, for example, ever find “deep-dish-Chicago-style” pizza in a real Italian restaurant. Nor will any real Italian pizzeria feature the “kitchen sink on a crust” pies so common in American eateries. Those are strictly Italian-American variations.

Similarly, while you may enjoy stromboli in Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, don’t look for them in a restaurant in Rome. (Unless it’s a ristorante turista.)

Yes, Italians have spaghetti and they have meatballs, but the combination commonly found in cans of Chef Boyardee is a purely Italian-American concoction.

Don’t look for garlic bread in Italy, at least not in the form sold in frozen loaves for American consumption and piled into baskets at Italian-American restaurants. A bruschetta made with fresh garlic and olive oil, yes. Garlic bread made with garlic powder and butter, no.

Italian-American cuisine uses lots of meat, especially beef. Not so in Italy, a country not usually known for its great herds of cattle being driven across the vast open plains by guys who look like Clint Eastwood.

Addressing one of my favorite culinary rants, Alfredo di Lelio spins in his grave every time another “Italian” restaurant chain perverts his simple, authentic butter and cheese dish into still another “Alfredo sauce” creation of questionable parentage. And, speaking of sauces, if you have the occasion to visit real Italian restaurants, you’ll quickly learn that “sauce” and “red” are not intransigently, incontrovertibly, and indelibly married to one another as they are in typical Italian-American establishments.

Fortunately, thanks to that ever-swinging culinary pendulum, Americans can now discover authentic Italian cuisine without having to travel to Italy, if they know where to look and what to look for. Visiting restaurants operated by Chef Mario Batali will get you a lot closer to Italy than opening cans inspired by Chef Ettore Boiardi. You’ll do better opening cookbooks authored by Lidia Bastianich than you will opening packages sold by Mama Celeste. And just because something sounds Italian – like the chain restaurant that touts its piatto di pollo – doesn’t make it Italian. (Piatto di pollo, by the way, means “plate of chicken”.)

Think about the old adage “just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ‘em biscuits” the next time you see “autentico” attached to a restaurant or food product whose name ends in a vowel. Always remember, la prova è nel budino (“the proof is in the pudding.”}(Actually, that proverb started out as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, but that’s another article entirely.)

Remember, too, che mangia bene mangia Italiano (“who eats well eats Italian”).

Buon appetito!


Culinaria Italy, Claudia Piras and Eugenio Medagliani, 2000.
The Concise Gastronomy of Italy; Anna Del Conte, 2004
Food Network; Good Eats; S13E4P2, American Classics 4: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce