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Some of the most memorable Italian dishes have been produced by the humblest restaurants
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The Independent Culture
A restaurant reviewer in Italy - and that, by and large, is all that Italy has in terms of food writing, and a corrupt business it is, too - has a relatively circumscribed problem. Italian cuisine has a narrow but intense band of choices, and at most there are regional differences and specialities. The critic's task, then, is to note whether a restaurant maintains the standards of Italian cooking. Standards are changing - the trend, there as elsewhere, is towards ever lighter food - but fancy Dans among cooks are mercifully few and invention is consequently limited.

I am talking about consistency, and within its fairly limited range, Italian food is about as consistent as you can get; to my mind, some of the most memorable dishes have been produced by the humblest restaurants. The cook does not pretend to produce dishes beyond his means and experience. It is equally true that to find slightly less good food in Italy, you often have to go to a restaurant whose main attraction is something besides the food: a view, a spot by the sea or, as with the famous Cambio restaurant in Turin, the attraction of eating at the table where Cavour, one of the founders of modern Italy, ate daily - I hope, for his sake, somewhat better than I did.

The reason for the Cambio's failures is plain: people eat there because it's something one "ought" to do. Its chefs cook on the theory that if you get enough history you won't mind that your raviolini are stuck together or that the sauces seem to have been made up, if not in 1860, at least not long thereafter. This was known as the "grand hotel" syndrome, whose law was indifferent cooking and high prices. It remains only partially true today.

Much more typical of what I mean by consistency was a meal I ate at Mamma Licia in Turin. I fell on this place by accident, attracted by its cheerfulness, its general buzz, even at 9.30pm, and the way a look inside revealed tables laid with bread, enormous olives and two-litre bottles of wine. A prix fixe of L35,000, or about pounds 15, for all you can eat or drink. Excellent antipasti of hams and bacons, a minestra of white beans, a delicious main course of rabbit with potatoes soaked in butter, ample cheeses and fresh fruit. Utterly reliable and, I'm sure, consistent, day in and day out. Like eating at home.

I harp on this because I think one of the real pleasures of Italian food is that sense of knowing what you're going to get and knowing that it will be made of fresh ingredients properly cooked, at a reasonable price, with no great show of virtuosity. At any trattoria in Piedmont you're going to get the same regional specialities (asparagus was in season and figured large), the same meat-based sauces, the same delicate pasta, the same flavourful meat, the same ripe fruit and fresh vegetables and the same miraculously good wine. Wherever you are, the food will reflect what is locally harvested: throughout the Veneto, fish and sauces in white wine; in Emilia, a much richer cuisine based on butter and cheese; and, as you go south, an increasingly tomato-based cuisine with ever stronger and more ebullient tastes.

Italians believe good restaurants should reflect good home cooking, and though this is a disappearing art, it remains highly desirable. A restaurant for the Italian is where one goes if one is not eating at home; it is not, as among Anglo-Saxons, an "experience". Indeed, most humble Italian restaurants, family-owned and managed (Mamma Licia's 49 customers that night were handled impeccably by a single waiter), are little more than extensions of someone's home. The kitchens are largely presided over by women who've brought up their families with pride in the table, and the atmosphere of such places is designed to make the customer feel at home, rather than subject to the arrogance of chefs, managers or waiters who feel themselves superior.

This kind of eating makes food reviewing somewhat superfluous. Indeed, it consigns the Italian restaurant reviewer to testing out the "foreign" aspects of Italian eating places, those where the chefs are out to make a name for themselves rather than to please their clientele

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