the Authentic Italian issue

PASTA, RISO E POLENTA by Crescent Dragonwagon

distinctions of preparation are kept, though with this proviso, which we Americans are truly just beginning to catch on to: What’s fresh? What’s local? Now, my previous experience as an American eater who had not yet visited Italy was not just bastardized Italian-American food. My father, who for years wrote about wine and spirits for Playboy , would today be called a “foodie” (how he would have winced at the word!). Not for our family canned raviolis with an Italian chef ’s name on the label, or fast-food pizzas delivered in beat-up cars bearing lit-up blue rectangles. Though we did occasionally eat out at two family-style, classic, old-school, red- sauce restaurants nearby: they were called Scappi’s and Manzi’s, and I am not making this up. Both specialized in huge portions, zitis drenched in red sauce and covered in enough melted cheese to sink a battleship, and good enough in their fashion — but, I vaguely knew, not “real” Italian food. As I think about it now, and wonder how I knew this, I come back to two points. The first was pasta, as it was cooked in our home (by my mother) and explained (by my father). It was always al dente: “It means, to the teeth!” my father would exclaim enthusiastically. “It means, not mushy, still with bite !” The pasta my mother made was only rarely done with red sauce and meatballs; it was more often elegant and simple, tossed either with Parmesan and freshly ground black pepper or garlic, olive oil and finely minced parsley. (The first, cacio e pepe , I enjoy to this day.) This, by the way, was an era when not many American homes even had a peppermill. The second factor was the other Italian restaurants. These were in New York City, polestar of sophistication to the blander suburban planet where we lived. Of these, there were many such fine restaurants over the years, but the first and most vivid in my memory was the Isle of Capri. Intimate, white-tableclothed, its interior warm with brick and shades of rose and red — my father had told me about it for some time before he finally took me there. I was eight or nine. My expectations were high. “It’s different,” he told me. “It’s real Italian food.” When I first tasted the Isle of Capri’s lasagna, I remember pausing, sitting still in my chair, almost quivering. What was this?

You know pasta. You know red sauce. Maybe you know risotto and polenta. But that’s just the beginning of the love affair with the carbo- hydrate you’ll find in Italy. I knew I’d love Italy before I even got there. Everything I’d experienced — second-hand, from here in America — about that country and its people, history and art, and most of all, its food, had me convinced. And yet. For all the knowledge I’d supposed I had, when I actually went to Italy for the first time, what I ate there left me speechless with delight. I was especially dazed by the simplest things, like fresh fennel served as an appetizer, with only superb olive oil and coarse salt to dip it in — how could this be so good? How could everything be so good

(the nettle risotto! The tiramisu!)? How could everything , simple or elaborate, taste so much like heaven? And how, given that I had been an Italian- food-loving American my entire life, could I not have known this? Because, until I got there, I thought there was such a thing as “Italian food.” And this, it turns out, is … wrong. Italy is a land of fiercely regional cuisines,and to homogenize them as “Italian”(as happens inmost Italian- American restaurants, and certainly as I had previously done) is a dumbing-down and grave — if unintentional — culinary disrespect. Though in recent decades the regional cooking has traveled — for instance, you can get risotto, traditionally Northern, in the South of Italy nowadays —



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