Buona? Forse. Autentico? No.
I was in Washington, DC and I went hunting for some good Italian food on 23rd Street South in Arlington. And I found it.......sort of. By that I mean the food I found was good, but was it Italian? That's another question.
This isn't a restaurant review, so I'm not going to name the place, but one of the reasons I went there was the claim on their website: “Authentic Italian Recipes.” The site touted that the restaurant was started up by an Italian family and “for over 30 years has been serving great and authentic Italian dishes, providing an outstanding ambiance and an excellent customer service.” Read on, however, and you'll find that the place changed hands more than a decade ago. The poorly constructed verbiage on the website is an indicator that English is not the primary language of whoever wrote it. And since not a soul in the place understood or spoke a syllable of Italian the night I was there, I'm fairly certain the “new” ownership is not so “autentico.” And neither is most of their food.
When the first item on the salad menu is a Greek chicken salad, you gotta wonder about “Italian-ness.” And, of course, there's the ubiquitous “Fettuccine Alfredo – tossed in a rich creamy cheese sauce” that makes its way onto every “Italian” restaurant menu in America even though it's about as Italian as Florence....Henderson! And, naturally, the next item on the menu adds chicken to this already non-existent Italian dish. Let me tell you something: adding chicken to pasta – and damn near everything else – is strictly an American practice. Autentica ricetta italiana? Negli occhi di un maiale!
My son, recently back from six years in Italy, passed on the Spaghetti Carbonara, containing “Parmesan cream sauce, Italian bacon and white onions.” Well, at least the “Italian bacon” is autentico. Except it really should be guanciale instead of pancetta. The “authentic” menu also featured both chicken and veal parmigiana, neither of which exist anywhere on the Italian peninsula. And don't get me started on “pepperoni” pizza.
I decided on a nice, safe spaghetti marinara. And in decidedly modo non italiani, it came in a bowl big enough to feed my entire party of four. More disappointingly, it was served in typical American fashion: they plopped a huge portion of pasta in a big bowl and dumped a quart of runny red sauce on top of it. My son decided “when in Washington, do as the Washingtonians do” and ordered the Fettuccine Alfredo. My daughter-in-law braved the tricolore tortellini, “Tomatoes, Spinach and white three cheese filled tortelline [sic] and a pink vodka tomato sauce,” and my wife got the seafood ravioli.
Don't get me wrong; all of it was good. None of it was Italian.
It is really difficult to get a good read on what is “authentic Italian” and what's not. This is because you will seldom find two Italians who make the same dish the same way. As nearly everyone who writes about such things will tell you, there is no such thing as “Italian food” or “Italian cuisine.” While Italy unified politically in the 1860s, the cultures of the different regions remained quite independent. That independence extends to the culture of the kitchen. And it's not always just a matter of Northern versus Southern, or butter versus olive oil, or pasta versus rice. Oftentimes the differences go down to the micro-regional level, to the town or the village or even the street level. Two households on the same street can prepare the same dish in different ways. Sometimes dishes made with the same ingredients can have different names, depending on where they were prepared. My nonna's nonna may have made a dish differently than your nonna's nonna. Does that mean one is less autentico than the other? No. Of course not.
That being said, however, there are some common threads that run through all regions and help define “Italian food” in general, if not always in specific. These are the things you will not find anywhere in Italy, and yet they are commonly represented in the United States as being “authentic Italian.”
“Fettuccine Alfredo” is one such thing. Yes, there once was a Roman restaurateur named “Alfredo” and he did make a dish that involved fettuccine. But that's about where the resemblance ends. What Alfredo di Lelio served to American tourists was a simple concoction of pasta al burro e parmigiano; pasta with butter and cheese. To most Italians, it's a dish you would prepare at home, but one you would never think of asking for in a restaurant. Alfredo didn't really have it on his menu; he was feeding it to his pregnant wife because it was light on her sensitive stomach. That's kind of what it's good for. You fix it up if you're not feeling well, or if you don't have anything else in the house, or if you're just plain lazy. Some Italians call preparations like this “pasta dei cornuti,” or “cuckold's pasta” because traditionally it was something that errant wives could whip up in a jiffy should the need arise. Alfredo's “dish” became a “thing” after American tourists got hold of it and touted it as the best creation they'd ever had. And when they brought the dish home, American chefs couldn't get the hang of it because they didn't have the right ingredients. It wasn't as rich and creamy because American butter and cheese weren't the same as Italian butter and cheese. So, in order to compensate, American cooks dumped cream into it, thus creating the ubiquitous “Alfredo sauce” that you can even buy in jars at the supermarket. The bottom line here is that if you see the word “cream” associated with “Alfredo,” you're not getting anything even remotely “authentic.”
Italians love pasta. And they love chicken. Just not together. In fact, meat and pasta are very rarely combined in the same dish. In the Italian culinary structure, they are two separate courses. You have your primo course, which is pasta, and then you are served your secondo course, which is the meat course. Most Italians just don't get putting chunks of meat in bowls of pasta. And when it comes to “authentic Italian recipes” like “Chicken Alfredo”........well, that's just a double whammy of inauthenticity.
Fish, on the other hand, is okay in pasta. Don't ask me why; it just is. But putting cheese on fish and pasta is not. Anyplace that serves “cheesy” pasta and fish is not authentic.
While we're on the topic of pasta, let's look at a few pasta “rules” that can help you determine the authenticity of an “Italian” dish. Italians don't ever put oil in the water when cooking pasta. A sufficient amount of water and a little stirring is all you need to keep pasta from sticking. So if your pasta is oily and the sauce won't stick to it, it's not authentically prepared. If your pasta is bland and you feel like you have to empty the salt shaker on it to get it to taste like anything, it's not authentic. The only way to flavor pasta is to aggressively salt the water in which it is cooked. The flavor has to develop as the pasta is cooking. No amount of salt added later will have the same effect. It'll just taste salty. Is your pasta the consistency of the stuff you get out of a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it? Not authentic. Mushy, overcooked pasta is anathema to the Italian palate. If your pasta isn't al dente, meaning it has a slight “bite” to it, it isn't authentic. And if your pasta shows up on a plate as a gob of noodles with a gob of sauce dolloped on top, it's definitely not authentic. Nobody in Italy serves pasta that way. Any properly prepared pasta dish is a fusion of sauce and pasta. The sauce should be mixed in with the pasta to maximize the flavor of both. In authentic Italian kitchens, the pasta is finished in the sauce. By that I mean the cooks take the pasta out of the water when it is barely done and add it to the pan with the sauce, thereby allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce, bathing it with the flavor of the sauce. And the pasta is never “oversauced.” In a good pasta dish, the noodle is the “star.” The sauce is a condiment. Neither should dominate. Dumping a quart of runny tomato sauce on a pile of bland noodles is not, never has been, and never will be “authentic.”
With the possible exception of a small area in the South, nobody in Italy puts meatballs in spaghetti. And even in that area, the meatballs are tiny. Those big, fist-sized meatballs that are served on top of spaghetti that has been drowned in runny tomato sauce are a foreign concept to most Italians. Oh, they like their meatballs, alright, and have many delicious ways to prepare them. But if you order “spaghetti and meatballs” anywhere in Italy, they'll likely serve you just that – a plate of spaghetti and a plate of meatballs. And they'll gape open-mouthed if you mix them. Remember that the next time you see an “authentic Italian recipe” for spaghetti and meatballs.
Now, meat sauce is another matter. Everybody's heard of the famous rich, meaty “bolognese” sauce. And “spaghetti bolognese” is on every Italian restaurant's menu. Except for the ones in Bologna or anywhere else in Italy. Some of those pasta “rules” I talked about extend to shape. Certain shapes “go with” certain sauces. Tagliatelle or pappardelle are traditionally served with bolognese. Sometimes other shapes like cappeletti or short, tubular pastas are okay. Spaghetti? Never.
Sunday “gravy”? Fughetaboutit! There isn't even an Italian word for gravy, much less an “authentic” recipe.
If your “Italian” restaurant serves “garlic bread,” it's not authentic. Bruschetta or crostini, yes; “garlic bread,” no.
With the exception of eggplant, anything “parmigiano” or “parmigiana” is inauthentic. Chicken parm, veal parm, meatball parm, and anything else “parm” are American creations. So are lobster fra' diavolo and anything served in a vodka sauce.
And the stuff “authentic Italian” restaurants pile on pizza is enough to make chef Raffaele Esposito weep. (He's the Neapolitan guy who really popularized pizza, if you needed to ask.) But that's a lost battle: pizza has become so Americanized as to be unrecognizable outside its native country. There's practically no such thing as “authentic” pizza anywhere outside of Italy. Just make the crust as thick as a loaf of bread and then load it up with “pepperoni,” sausage, hamburger, pineapple, peppers, olives, onions, chicken, barbeque, and anything else you can find in the kitchen. I'll sit over here in the corner quietly munching my thin, flat crust with a little tomato and cheese, thank you, and not even try to argue about “pizza.”
One more knock on “authentic Italian” places in America: friends and neighbors, nobody in Italy pigs out like people do in Italian-American restaurants. The portions I'm served in most “authentic Italian” places would actually insult most Italians, who would consider them grossly excessive and wasteful. But some slick advertising genius sold America on the idea of “abbondanza”, a strictly Italian-American tradition that has few, if any, roots in real Italian culture. Italian-American food is a category unto itself. It came about when Italian immigrants arrived on American shores and quickly discovered two things: one, a lot of the ingredients they were used to back home simply weren't available here. And two, what was available here was available in great abundance. And so they adapted. Which is really what the heart and soul of Italian cooking is all about. Adaptability. You can't find guanciale? Use pancetta. You can't find pancetta? Use uncured bacon. You can't find uncured bacon? Use regular bacon, but be aware the dish won't taste exactly the way it did back home. Adapt. It's okay. And it's okay to display your new prosperity. Hey! Back in Napoli, you were lucky to get meat once or twice a year. Here in America, you can have it every day! Abbondanza! And when the Americans started wandering into the Italian neighborhoods and enclaves, they saw all that abbondanza and assumed that that was just the way all Italian people ate. The ad people encouraged the myth, and before long, ecco! Instant obesity.
I've brought the subject up many times with real Italian restaurateurs of my acquaintance. “Why do you serve this food in this way,” I ask. “You know your nonna is spinning in her grave.” They reply, “I know. But Americans expect it. If I serve food like I would at home, they'd all go to Olive Garden and I'd be out of business.” Sad, but true.
Now, before anybody starts invoking the spirits of their dearly departed grandmothers and siccing them on me with vats of tar and sacks of feathers, allow me to defend myself: I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Americanized Italian or Italian-American food. I just don't think it should be foisted off as “authentic,” that's all. There's nothing “authentic” about P.F. Chang's China Bistro. It's an “Asian-themed” casual dining restaurant that admits to “creative takes on Chinese fare.” And does anybody really think Taco Bell bears any resemblance to “authentic” Mexican cuisine? So you want to serve up vaguely Italian-sounding food at your place? Fine! But admit it. Own up to it. Say your dishes are “Italian-style” or “Italian-inspired.” Just don't throw chunks of chicken into an oversized bowl of overcooked pasta and cover it with a quart of cream sauce and then tell me it's an “authentic Italian recipe.” I know better. And I hope maybe now you do, too.
Okay. Enough preaching. I gotta go now. My neighbor says it's “Italian Night” down at the all-you-can-eat place, and they've got unlimited garlic bread, pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, and spumoni ice cream. I've got to save him!