What Is - and Isn't - `Real' Italian Cooking

Author-chef couple debunks myths about spiciness, sauces, and `more is better'. The Italian Menu

ASK Margaret and Franco Romagnoli about America's love affair with Italian food and they'll say it's good - and bad. Good, because their favorite cuisine is now one of America's favorites. Bad, because America's idea of Italian food is a little, well, overdone.

Franco refers to it as his ``car fin theory.'' Like the cars that sported tail fins in the 1950s, ``Italian cooking now has become so faddish,'' he says, with prople adding extras. ``We've been terribly conscious of authenticity,'' says Margaret in an interview along with her husband at their home.

The Romagnolis have a unique perspective on Italian-American cuisine: Margaret grew up in Michigan and Connecticut, and Franco in Italy. They met in Rome, when Margaret was an information officer for the Marshall Plan and Franco was a filmmaker, and married in 1952. In 1955, they moved to America and through the years nurtured a joint culinary career, stemming naturally from their broad exposure to Italian cooking. They have hosted their own cooking series on PBS-TV (``The Romangnolis' Table''), opened several restaurants, and written numerous cookbooks. Parents of four children, they have no formal schooling in cookery, but share a love of the food and culture of Italy, which they consider their second home.

``I approach Italy with love. He approaches it as home,'' explains Margaret. Italian cuisine as a trend erupted in America after French nouvelle, says Margaret, during the late 1970s. ``Italian food just sort of swept everything away after they got rid of the souffl'e and omelet.'' Now you see Italian food on menus, made up at supermarkets, offered as fast food, and manufactured by food companies. High-quality ingredients from Italy are in markets and specialty shops as well.

But even though America is smartening up about Italian cuisine, people are still twirling their forks in misinterpretations.

As true traditionalists, the Romagnolis worry about bad translations. Misconceptions about Italian cuisine include: spiciness, emphasis on sauces and toppings, and an overall ``more is better'' mentality.

Margaret says she laughs at advertisements that promote the image of the Italian mamma ordering her family to ``Eat ... EAT!''

Franco chimes in: ``You would never get away from the table feeling too full in Italy.'' Says Margaret: ``In Italy - where I've spent about half of my adult life - rarely do you have a dessert during the week. It's fruit and cheese.... You don't see a lot of fat people in Italy. That fat mamma in the kitchen - she doesn't exist.''

The Italian diet is largely based on bread and vegetables. That surprises many here who think of thick sauces over heaping plates of pasta. As with many ethnic cuisines, ``America puts a heavy hand'' on Italian cuisine, says Margaret. Spaghetti and meatballs isn't even a dish in Italy.

Italians place more importance on the pasta than on what goes on top of it. Americans are the opposite, stressing the sauce, says Margaret. Same with bread, adds Franco: ``I cannot have a meal without bread,'' he insists.

And those spaghetti-sauce commercials showing a pot of sauce that simmers on the stove for hours? Culinary quackery. ``That's as un-Italian as you can get,'' says Franco. ``Ninety percent of pasta sauces are made by the time you bring that pasta to a boil.''

One possible explanation for all the exaggerations is affluence, Margaret says. And creative chefs find it difficult to stay within the traditional bounds of an ethnic cuisine. Franco calls such departures ``flights of fancy. Some work, but many do not.... Rose petals in balsamic vinegar,'' he says derisively. Or tortellini and pesto, he adds. ``Oh! Sacrilege!'' cries Margaret, sweeping her hands up to her face.

IT'S the car-fin theory again: More is better. Some chefs take the ``ballistic'' approach, firing mushrooms and peppers and sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and virgin olive oil. Then they make it ``Italian'' by putting a vowel on the end of the name.


``Less is better,'' says Franco, fist in the air.

Spiciness is another misconception. ``You don't use a lot of garlic,'' says Franco. Some people are making ``cilantro pesto'' or ``red pepper pesto'' or ``walnut pesto.'' True pesto is made with basil as the main ingredient. ``It's cashing in on a fad,'' Franco says. Simplicity and natural taste mean that one flavor dominates and gives the stamp to a dish, he says. If you add more, it detracts.

``The American palate began to expect certain things,'' explains Franco. Take pizza, for example. Traditional Italian pizza appears in about four basic variations using fresh tomatoes, cheese, oregano, mozzarella, and anchovies. ``There was no pepperoni, garlic ... no tennis shoes.''

He tells of a billboard he and Margaret chuckled over in Sicily. It read: ``Real American Pizza.''

Interestingly, Franco is completing an American cookbook for Italians (written in Italian) called ``Cucina Americana'' (``American Cooking''). Margaret has two Italian cookbooks in the works (for Americans): an Italian one on fish, and one on home-style cooking.

Despite Americans' overkill in Italian cuisine, the Romagnolis say great progress has been made in authenticity - especially in the past few years. Restaurants are ``a little smarter about olive oil,'' says Margaret. Before, poor-quality olive oil was in the stores. Restaurants drenched things with it. Today, exporters in Italy tend to ship a better product, says Margaret. ``Now, it's hard to make a mistake.'' Also, the breads have improved immensely, she adds.

In the markets, radicchio is now available. The quality of most pasta - though not up to Italian standards - is pretty good, Margaret notes. ``But I have not found acceptable egg pasta yet,'' she adds, so she makes her own.

The best meals they've ever eaten, says the culinary couple, have been in small trattorias in Italy. ``Frequently we travel off the beaten path,'' says Margaret. ``You end up eating whatever they have on hand, but it comes out tasting heavenly.''

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