I’m always skeptical when friends or customers return from Italy and report that they never had a bad meal. I get it though. Everything certainly seems and tastes better on vacation, and Italian food is frequently done so poorly in the US that experiencing the cuisine on its home soil can be a revelation, even when executed imperfectly. And, of course, taste is subjective.
Still, as Victor Hazan has recently noted:
It’s a myth that everybody cooked well [in the old country]. Only a few people cook really well. It is a form of craft.
In Italy, the gift of cooking is not distributed equally and everywhere. It’s true that in general standards are higher and there is a more widely distributed cultural sense of what tastes good, but it is still possible to eat well or mediocrely based on the taste and personality of the cook or chef.
In Bologna tonight, I had a mediocre meal at a restaurant I won’t name. I did something I know better than to do…follow the recommendation of an American journalist writing about the best places to eat in Bologna. He said all the usual things…”in an out of the way neighborhood….unkown to tourists….the favorite of a Bolognese friend since boyhood”.
But if there is one myth that needs to die, it is that locals eating at a restaurant in Italy is proof of its quality. It’s true that many restaurants become touristy and lose their way, not caring enough because they don’t have to. But the opposite can also be true. At Armando al Pantheon in Rome, more than 50% of the clientele seem to be tourists, but Claudio has the gift, and he cares, and he sends out from his kitchen the best, most careful cooking.
Another myth that needs to die is that bread in Italy is of high quality. This perhaps was my greatest surprise and disappointment on my first trip to Italy in 2005. Most bread in Italy is terrible: industrial, stale, and completely lacking in character. A bread revolution has been sweeping the US in the past decade or two, but one disadvantage of having a traditional food culture like Italy is that change is slow. Italians have a lot to learn about the best baking going on in America, but to most Italians, the idea of learning from an American chef or baker is laughable, even though it is completely necessary.
What was wrong with my meal tonight? What made it mediocre? This is always hard to put in words. But for me the best cooking is characterized by its freshness, balance, purity, and lightness. Tonight, after the stale bread I was served a glass of overly warm “house” sangiovese, without enough respect for the winemaker to even show me the bottle. This, despite having asked for a glass of Lambrusco Secco, the lovely spritzy wine famous throughout the region. There was an amuse bouche appetizer plate, but the vegetables included just tasted re-heated and old. My tortellini in brodo were oddly hard, like they had been partially dried and then not cooked properly. At this point, I called things off. Not wanting to waste time, money, or appetite on mediocre dishes, I scrapped plans for ordering anything else and instead begged for my bill. Is it fair to judge a place on just a few dishes? Of course not, and this is nothing like a proper review. But I’ve eaten enough to know the signs, and they weren’t encouraging.
In Italy, people go to a place because it is in their neighborhood, or just familiar and comforting, or they’ve just always gone there. This can lead to staleness for sure. For me, one warning sign is the checkered tableclothes so associated with old-world restaurants in Italy. No doubt some good cooking can come out of such places, but I can’t say I’ve personally ever had a good meal at one of them. I certainly want the cooking in Italian restaurants to be deeply traditional, but I also want their approach to be modern in the best ways, with proper wine glasses and wine storage, an insistence on freshness and the best, high-quality ingredients, and a sense of doing things not as they’ve always been done but on how they can be done the best.
Restaurants like this are not always easy to find, in Italy or at home. But when one does find one, it is a gem to treasure and enjoy wholeheartedly.