Posted by: passagetoitaly | February 20, 2010

Italy v. America: The Myths of Italian Foods

Let’s get one thing straight. The food that you find in most restaurants here in the United States is not remotely close to what you find in Italy. Picture this, spaghetti swamped with a thick tomato sauce with big meatballs… Do you have the image in your mind? Good! Well, it does not exist all to your dismay as the author of At Home in Rome states. At least not together. Yes, there is spaghetti, and yes there are meatballs (they’re called polpette). But in the same dish? Unthinkable. The “authentic” dishes from Olive Garden and their statements of how chefs are trained in Italy? False! I mentioned this to a friend who had once worked there. First, they are not trained in Italy. Second, her reason for working there was not because of the food, but because she would not be tempted to eat it. The food is in fact frozen, everything is pre-made, and just thrown on the stove to be reheated. Hmmm… very Italian.

As one of the owners of Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana in Hell’s Kitchen, New York on Anthony Bourdains show pointed out, the sauce, in Italy, is used as a garnish. This all changed when Italians came to America, and their recipes began to meet the wants and needs of Americans. And so the dousing began.

Real Italian food is about everything being fresh. To see how much processed food there is in America is truly sad, and well, unappetizing. There is no such thing as a TV dinner, and I hope for the sake of the Italians, there never is one. The only ready-made food I have ever come across in a store are frozen pizzas and seafood with sauce. Not even close to what you may find here. It is very traditional for the mamma to go about on her daily walk to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for the meals of the day. And vitamin supplements? I am sure they may have them in Italy… but not really used. From the amount of vegetables, fruits, herbs, fresh fish, et cetera used in their foods, everything is already jam packed with all your essential vitamins and minerals.

I think Michael Tucker, author of Living in a Foreign Language, best sums up my banter.

The whole food situation was puzzling. In the States, Jill can’t eat garlic or onions; bread and pastas are no-nos; and she tries to stay away from dairy products. She has a delicate digestion. In Italy she has no problem with any of those things. She eats it all, happily, and her digestion works just fine. So, what’s the difference? Attitude? Lifestyle? Certainly. But there’s also the thousand-year-old tradition of eating well in Italy; there’s terreno, the soil that things grow in; and there’s the crucial question of freshness.

In Mill Vally we shop – as do all the dutiful yuppies – at one of those health-oriented megastores with dazzling displays of produce, condiments and packaged goods that all proclaim themselves to be “organic”. Well, they may well be organic, and they may be “artisinally grown” – but they damn well aren’t fresh. The produce – which looks great – tastes like it’s been on a truck for two weeks. Its vitality is gone. It’s all show.

Nostrano” is a word that pops up on hand-written signs at local alimentari and roadside stands in Umbria. It comes from the word nostro, which means “ours”. If the ricotta they’re selling today is proclaimed nostrano, it was made in the neighborhood and it’s still warm. When the porcini start popping up from under the oak trees, they’re suddenly everywhere – fresh and bursting with flavor. All the restaurants are serving them – in pastas, blanketing roasted meats, grilled on  their own like steaks, glistening with olive oil. And the fun is that this can only be happening now, on the day they pop up – and here, from under the trees you can see on the hillsides, just up the road from where you’re eating them.

Nostrano is also used when talking about meat. The pork we eat in Umbria is from pigs that have walked to the butcher shop where they’re sold. They’re neighborhood pigs. They know people you know. Same with the wine – they grow in vineyards that you can see out the window. They’re grown to be sipped with the food that grows near them. That’s why they go down so well. Nostrano.

The problem in the States is that the Caesar salad with grilled chicken in San Jose is the same one you get in Providence; the arugula salad with baked goat cheese is rubber-stamped and mass-produced until it appears on restaurant menus in all fifty states.

Are you getting the picture yet? How has the United States moved so far away from real food? How has processed food become the ideal for daily nutrition? What is your stance on all of this?



  1. […] edition of Italy v. America, following the posts of Supermarkets v. Shops, Social Views, and the Myths of Italian Foods, is not as American bashing. That’s not the image I wish to portrat as I love my country, and […]

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