Is Italian food all it's cracked up to be?
Per niente, says Harriet Walker. She thinks it's just stodgy standards, endless courses and tired ingredients
Friday 04 November 2011
The Italians are understandably very proud of their grip on the world's tastebuds; they have done with forks and spoons what the Romans did with swords. They have made Italian food a global empire. Silvio Berlusconi is said to be such a patriot that he only serves food in tricolore when he entertains guests, to mimic his nation's flag. Italy has a reputation as one of the greatest gastronomic nations under the sun, whether you're talking pasta, pizza, parmesan or pannacotta, whether you're eating in Pizza Express or Locanda Locatelli. But does it deserve it? I'd argue not.
I have long wondered at my inability to pick the right thing on the menu at even the fanciest of Italian restaurants. Eating pizza in a proper place is a bit like being told you can pick anything out in Chanel and opting for a carrier bag. The same goes for pasta which, even if made by Marco Pierre White using Albert Roux as his wingman, would taste the same as it does when you buy it from Tesco. And both render you instantly comatose, bursting at the seams and engaged in a battle of sleepy-limbed wills to undo your top button before you become unconscious.
That's before you consider the gargantuan line-up of antipasti, primo platti, secondi and dulci, most of which contain potatoes, all of which engage cheese in some way and none of which ever gets finished beyond the antipasti, which everyone falls on like maenads before they realise there's enough food still to come to feed an army of fat medieval barons.
No, I'll say it loudly: Italian food has an unwarranted reputation for being much better than it actually is. The Italians are not a discerning nation of sophisticated palates, they're a bunch of people who like stuffing their faces. Which is fine, because so are we Brits. But we are mocked for shovelling in bad-quality food that tastes like polystyrene, and the Italians are praised. This doesn't seem fair.
When I was in Italy last month, I almost wept every time I had to eat. The bread was as dry as tinder, the fruit (no vegetables to be seen) was either rotten or so under-ripe as to be practically still part of the nitrogen cycle, and all those flavours that the world has come to associate with Italian cooking – the pungent basil, the heady oregano – had packed their bags and emigrated. The food was unmistakably terrible. And while I wasn't paying through the nose for the pleasure, I certainly wasn't frequenting those types of touristy traps that only ever serve plasticine and wet paper sculpted to look like food. But I might as well have been.
Then there was breakfast. Dear God, the breakfast. A dreary affair, cobbled together with some help from the French by way of rock-hard croissants filled with synthetic apricot custard and rolls that might be more efficiently used as weapons. And all of it washed down with a drink that the Signora assured me was the healthiest way to start the day. It was called "Ar-chay", she explained, full of vitamins A, C and E, as it dawned on me that it was Um Bongo with added lab-grown nutrients. It tasted like school trips.
These are not the staples of a nation that loves food. These are the things you put in your shopping basket when you're too tired to care and you hate yourself a bit.
And my adventures in Italian supermarkets were even less, ahem, fruitful. While I despair of British chill cabinet culture, which is so telling of the fact we refuse to cook or prepare our own food any more, there must be some mid-point between that and a culture that provides absolutely nothing quick and easy for weary travellers.
One late night after a day's working and running around, I foolishly bought a sandwich in a supermarket, the likes of which I have never tasted before and had to throw away. This I can overlook because a sandwich is culturally specific and that would be like castigating Germans for making terrible sushi (which they don't, actually). But the next day, in the absence of anything handheld, I had to plump for a packet of salami and a Kinder Bueno, which I ate sourly, contemplating the fact that Italian food is some of the best in the world.
So I will no longer collude in this myth. I'm no gourmand but I demand that the rubbish I eat at least tastes nice. Italy's culinary rep is as unfathomable as its government, and twice as stodgy.
Finally, of course, I gave in and ordered pasta and pizza. Which was satisfying enough before it knocked me out. But at least being unconscious meant I could stop reliving that sandwich.
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