It's a somewhat embracing admission, but growing up in the US there is a typical vision that comes to mind when recalling the Italian restaurants we frequented on family outings: dark wood paneling, raffia covered wine bottles as candle holders, and tables draped in red and white checkered cloth..ah yes, you know the one. Coast to coast, across the nation named for a Florentine cartographer and navigator who successfully proved a Genovese explorer was incorrect when he insisted the land he'd "discovered" was in fact Asia. Yes, America, the nation named after an Italian, who other than the Godfather trilogy or the HBO series “The Sopranos”, hasn't done much to honor her Italian roots and certainly not where it counts most: en la cucina.
Steerage versus first class, unfortunately for one of the world's finest cuisines, Italian arrived as a pauper on America's shores. French, on the other hand, arrived as the principled choice of the elite. From the days of Jefferson, it was French cuisine that quantified the dinner parties of a new nation's moneyed class. As such there has perpetually existed an aspirational quality to the French restaurant in the US. Where as the ubiquitous corner pizza parlor may have been the place you took your first date, when it came time to propose marriage, one made a reservation at the most expensive French place in town. The reason for this is that French is one of the few cuisines in the world with a distinct class structure. There is a clear divide between what is eaten by rural French, and what is served in the chateaus of the aristocracy.
The cachet of French haute cuisine attained it's zenith with the arrival of the Kennedy administration in 1961, when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy hired the French born and classically trained René Verdon as White House chef. That same year the wife of an American diplomat in Paris, a woman named Julia Child, would publish The Art of French Cooking, a how-to manual of classic French recipes which became a nationwide best seller. Child spent years perfecting her English translation of traditional French cuisine in order to be as accurate as possible. She presented the food first hand and without compromise.
Italian or more correctly, the heavily disseminated immigrant version of Italian cuisine, propagated itself across the US in the form of bland, muddled versions of mostly northern recipes: spaghetti with meat balls, ravioli with meat sauce, lasagna, fettuccine alfredo (which does not actually exist in Italy), chicken parmesan, and pizza. The menus were limited and the prices cheap. These were the kinds of places our parents took us to when we became old enough to go out for dinner.
Even the venerable American champion of Italian cuisine: chef and restauranteur Mario Batali, who declared after his sojourn in Italy that he would return to the US in order to firmly plant his foot in the middle of the red and white checkered tablecloth, has had only a moderate impact. He is admittedly, an interpreter of Italian cuisine, recognizing that to be successful, even the most passionate advocate must adjust his menu to suit American tastes and expectations; such a pity. Especially given the fact that those very same tastes and expectations are largely based on gross inaccuracies.
The inherent simplicity of Italian cuisine made it all too easy to corrupt through the American tradition of mass production. What may have been traditional amongst first generation immigrants has long since been washed away by a decades old tide of commercialization. The delicate sophistication, the purity of the dishes, the unimaginable variety, the regional distinctions: millions of "Italian food" patrons in the US have never experienced these wonders. The mental image of what Americans think of as Italian is so indelibly etched into the collective food psyche as to be adamantine. Therefore It's virtually impossible to adequately delineate the difference between what is available in the US versus what one encounters once standing on Italian soil, that said, I'll give it a go.
It's been five years since my husband and I moved from the US to Europe. My own reason for leaving was simple enough: I was tired of the US. I knew there was so much more to the world than what one could discern through the pinhole lens of Fox or CNN. I knew because I'd done what only a fraction of Americans do- I ventured out beyond the boarders. Travel is the single biggest eye opener a person will ever experience- I kid you not. When one is standing in a place, they'll know the truth of it. A person can read about a particular foreign land for years, and then destroy nearly all of what they thought they'd learned with just a few days spent in the actual location. Travel is knowledge, which is probably why it's so discouraged in the US. The mode of transport is very important. Currently we travel by boat, by sailing craft to be precise. When we started out in our quest to experience the rest of the world, my husband and I first went by aircraft- not in the typical way however, but in a single engine aircraft we piloted ourselves. In 2006 we circumnavigated the South American continent, in 2007 we flew the length of Central America, in 2008, we flew ourselves around the world, and in 2009 we left the US permanently. During this time we've visited nearly one hundred countries, crossed the airspace of dozens more, navigated and negotiated our way through countless airports and boarder crossings, seen incredible things, eaten amazing food, met wonderful people, and over the past five years have developed a special affection for one country in particular: Italy.
So here we are, back where we started: terra Italiana. Attempting to explain to you dear reader, the epiphany that is a perfectly prepared pasta pomodoro, (what Americans know as "Marinara sauce") It's a tough row to hoe as my Grandfather would say, so allow me to relate a personal experience I had while visiting the city of Parma, in the region of Italy known as Emilia- Romagna. For anyone interested in serious food travel in Italy, Parma is the place to begin- it's an epicenter of classic Italian delicacies: Aceto Balsalmico di Modena, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Prosciuto di Parma. It was here, during a tour of a small family Proscituo maker that my eyes were opened to the true difference between what is available to the American market via import, versus what is available inside Italy. We were shown every stage of the Parma ham making process from the time the fresh meat arrived by truck to the sampling room where we tasted the finished product.
This particular facility was the family's oldest, it made Prosciuto di Parma D.O.C. Denominazione di Origine Controllata this designation is a quality assurance issued by the Italian government, a certification of authenticity. We visited the curing rooms where hundreds of hams aged gently against wood racks stacked to the ceiling. The building was centuries old, made mostly of raw stone, and was lined with tall narrow windows that were open to the fresh summer air wafting in from the fields that surrounded it. The air is important, it carries with it natural pollen, mold spores, and yeast that aid in the curing process. We also saw the room where each ham is lovingly massaged by a team of women armed with a mixture of lard and herbs that they rub on by hand. What impressed me most was the number of times each ham is touched by human hands: dozens. During a process that can take as long as two years.
What was most fascinating however, was that this family owns a second facility, a facility they did not wish to give tours of, the one that makes the Prosciuto for US export. There was nothing nefarious about the export plant, it's just that to the Italians, it wasn't real Prosciuto. It wasn't worth a tour because it wasn't a proper example of traditional ham making. Over at the export plant the parking lot had to be paved, the workers had to wear special coverings and gloves, the racks were all stainless steal, the air was circulated by machine, and although technically what this facility produced was "Prosciuto di Parma made in Italy", in reality and thanks to the US FDA, it was actually something else, something no Italian would want to eat.
So there you have it, the sum of my argument and advocacy for true Italian cuisine, something every American thinks they know all about. Fact is if you love Italian food you have to go there. Unless you've traveled to Italy, and not the tourist centers of Rome or Florence, but into Italy proper, into the true food producing regions, where the menus only come in Italian: you haven't experienced the real thing. Walk the streets of Alba in October during la festa di tartufo bianco, and experience your own personal epiphany with a plate of fresh handmade taglietelle covered in razor thin slices of white truffle and a glass of the local Barolo. You will forget everything you thought you knew about Italian food and be left weeping with joy.
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