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Italian Food | Italian American Food

■ 2 March 2010 by James Martin

Last Sunday night we headed over to Joe and Eddies in San Francisco. Joe and Eddies offers “Italian Cuisine” like they used to serve in the ’70s. Maybe the ’60s, too.

The thing is, we didn’t expect great, traditional “Italian” food; the draw was the rat pack impersonators, especially Matt Helm as Dean Martin (warning, “Italian” music).

Ok, so the crowd was mostly old farts our age, people who remember Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis Junior with particular (or perhaps peculiar) fondness. We sat in rapt attention as “Dean” crooned the old songs, his “cigarette” glowing with LED redness while the two olives in his “Martini” seemed glued to the glass.

(I likely have used up my quota of quotation marks. When you bring back the dead, expect some virtuosity in manufacturing the “props” (oops).)

So there we were in front of some of what folks used to call Italian food. You know, huge, heaping platters of all manner of meats troweled with tomato sauce so thick you could use what’s left over for Spackle, providing your walls didn’t mind the phosphorescent redness of it.

To be sure what was in front of us was Italian-American food. Now, there’s the rub. How do you review something which, like the performers, was brought back from the dead in an interesting way?

Surely you’d never find a thick, unctuous tomato sauce redolent—NO! REEKING of—garlic in Italy. (If you’ve never been, don’t be disappointed if your taste buds don’t get assaulted by the over-concentrated fumes of such a sauce; this kinda thing is virtually unknown these days in Italy).

On the other hand, we’re not reviewing “real” or “traditional” Italian food here. We’re looking at a reproduction of what Americans did to the thought of Italian food. They jazzed it up. They boosted the flavors to “heights unknown” as some tarnished TV chef might say. It’s the characteristic that sets America apart, this idea of cramming all manner of food ingredients together until the whole shebang doesn’t just sit placidly on your tongue while you contemplate its honesty and freshness; we feel compelled to transform most food into a goddam buzzbomb going off and rattling your senses. It’s not food, it’s an experience: you can’t taste the pork ribs under that sauce, or differentiate them from the hunk of pork shoulder; blanketed by all that sauce there are simply lumps of different texture, some still with bones. But you know you’ve eaten when you’re done. So does every one else. There’s that raw garlic we love and think the Italians do, too.

So, you know what? I sorta liked it. I wouldn’t want to eat it every day. It would mangle my taste buds into a useless clot within the month. But it was honest, authentic and true to its roots. The concept was clear, unlike places like the Olive Garden, where the food advertises itself as authentic while it’s almost pure American or at least badly tarted-up Italian.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? In Italy, the cuisine is codified through social controls that allow only for the minuscule modification of traditional recipes. What I’m sayin’ is this: Italians will refuse to eat food you’ve cooked for them if you haven’t salted it right or you’ve let the gnocchi cook a half a millisecond too long. Don’t try this at home if your feelings are easily hurt.

In America, however, the sky is the limit. You can cook just about any damn thing with just about any number of other odd ingredients and folks will say, “golly, that’s, well, interesting!” They will even have a second course if you force it on them. Folks are easy.

Which is why we don’t have a national, codified cuisine. At least we don’t have one not put on our platters by immigrants anyway.

Or maybe the 70s were just a superior time when minimum wage was enough to live on and we went out in our cars with their 400 cubic inch engines just waiting to burn the tread clear offa the tires because tires were cheap and so was gas.

Those were the days, eh? No candy-ass buckling up of them seat belt thingies either.

Which reminds me of Dean Martin:

When I die I want to die peacefully in my sleep just like my father did. I don’t want to go kicking and screaming at the top of my lungs like those other people in the car he was driving.

(There are other ideas of Authenticity in Italian cuisine floating about in the web-o-sphere these days. Try: Food For Thought: Evolving Ideas About Italian Cuisine)

Italian Food | Italian American Food originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 02, 2010, © James Martin.

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