■ 21 September 2012 by James Martin
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about why I am so happy to come to Italy. How can it be different than the good ol’ US of A? Well, there are castles. And health care. And, really good food.
But America has really good food, too. So how is it different? Well, darn it, the way food is experienced in each country is almost the opposite I’m thinking.
Let me give you an example. In the US, we have chefs. They (usually) go to something called a “culinary institution” that gives them a hat to wear that is taller than the other hats kitchen slaves wear. They source good ingredients that nobody else gets access to and put them together in a way that no other graduate of a “culinary institution” might have put them. They become famous for this unique trait. By the way, the only other thing we call an “institution” in the US is a place we put crazy people when they become to much for the local constabulary to handle—if a political party will not accept them for grooming that is.
In any case, to access these famous chefs you first find an apartment in a city. A one bedroom hovel will cost you what a six bedroom house on the waterfront in a village outside the city will cost, all because the city hovel has access to chefs.
So, on a sunny day when your favorite baseball team is out of town and you have nothing better to do you phone one of the palaces of good eats owned by one of these famous chefs at least six months before you intend to eat in order to get a table linked to your name. You mark your chosen day carefully on your calendar.
When the day comes you dress in your Sunday best. You exit your apartment, carefully stepping over the homeless who are camping out in front, and walk to your destination—or if you have the extra cash, you hail a cab. When you arrive you marvel at the grit and grime of the neighborhood and you are afraid just a little. You pass up frequent if expensive offers of chemical substances that will ease you into a nighttime ecstasy and—finally!—push open the door to the culinary palace of your dreams.
The scene changes. The room is warm and inviting and glows with light. Hip people with chains embedded in their nostrils and heaven knows where else shout at each other to be heard; the restaurant has been specially designed at great cost to reflect sound so that you will take home a memory of the place in your (sore) throat. (People used to get the same effect by smoking, now outlawed.)
You are seated. You look at your sweet honey. She is looking at you. You wonder why. You pick up the menu, figuring you will use it as a shield from her uninterpretable gaze.
Which allows you to see the prices. Your eyes pop open more violently than a can of shaken Coca Cola.
But you’ve saved up for six months for this. So you suck it up and order. Your friends at Visa Card Services smile.
Your main course arrives. It is arranged. Matisse-like squiggles of moose snot colored with cranberries form a net-like grid over your owl liver, which is stacked upon a swirl of nettles steeped in yak sweat. Your fork quivers in your hand.
What’s on your plate is art. You haven’t seen anything so beautiful in years. You can hardly force yourself to plunge a metallic object into it.
But you do. Ahhh, it’s comforting eating food nobody else in the world is ever going to replicate. Ever. From there, of course, you coast. It’s all coffee and paying.
Now, let’s take Italy. You go to a restaurant in the country where there are no chefs but instead you are likely to find a wobbly grandmother in the kitchen who has been making fresh pasta longer than the homeless have been fornicating in front of your apartment in the city. You can call her a chef if it makes you happy, but she has nobody to be the chief of, so she’s really just the cook.
On the way to the restaurant you have perhaps come upon a castle. Its crenelated walls fill your childish heart with joy. The eye candy of it all lifts your spirits. Then you imagine the arrows flying, the skittish horses waiting for their mounts to flop to the ground into the waiting pools of blood…
Oh, wait, of course you don’t. Scratch that. You think the castle has a perfect form, blending with the surroundings harmoniously, the perfect scene, one that makes you swoon with delight. Or, if you happen to be in a small village in northern Tuscany like Filetto, you walk through a town with archways passageways that invite you to explore. Like in the picture. Nice bit of eye candy, isn’t it?
You enter a restaurant oddly named, like Ristorante Alla Piazza di Sopra, the restaurant of the upper square (or something). You order a plate of pasta. It’s pretty white, except where it’s a little beigey-gray. Perhaps we are in the clouds and they threaten rain.
But oh the taste! Ravioli stuffed with speck and goat cheese, with warm pear slices and clods of pecorino cheese and a drizzle of the most delightful olive oil. To die for. We are in heavenly clouds indeed.
So, it is simple. In America, ugly surroundings, famous chefs, eye-candy arrangement of food. In Italy, inspiring eye-candy surroundings, food that looks, well, like food, and it’s all put together by people who’ve been doing it for years and have no celebrity and expect none. City vs. country. Glorious opposites.
Italy: inexpensive yet tasty wine plunked down on your table for you to be the king of.
America: Expensive wine the waiter keeps so he can dole it out to show you who’s boss.
Opposites. Are we seeing a trend here?
Now to bed. Happy with memories of a fine pasta. Of a carefully sourced olive oil. Zeri lamb and porcini mushrooms just yanked from the forest floor. And quarter liter of fine wine that sets us back all of 2 euros.
You can’t beat that with a stick.
Oh, wait, there’s more! We’ve left a little tip! But no, the cook comes over, looks at the money, and returns the tip and an extra euro to make the bill come out to an even number!
Try to find that in your American palace of fine foods, buster.
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