In my post last week, I noted that Joanne and I had taken more than a ten-year hiatus from visiting Italy. It’s not that we no longer liked the country…. quite the opposite…. I just didn’t want to become jaded and numb to the surprise and adventure it promises travelers.
So last month when we took our grandkids, it was refreshing to watch their eyes pop and jaws drop at the splendor of it all: the history…the ruins… the architecture – and, of course, the food.
I was reminded how fascinated my partner Pete and I were with everything Italy when, years ago (in advance of opening Pronto Ristorante), we attended Marcella Hazan’s cooking school in Bologna.
Under Marcella’s tutelage I learned that there was a rather strict protocol about the progression of a proper Italian dining experience at the ristorante’s … not so much at the trattoria’s. And as we visited Rome and the Vatican, with all of the clergy wandering about, I was not about to break any rules and get on the wrong side of “you know who.”
Over the course of that trip, we observed in detail what Marcella taught us. When dining in Italy, for example, one adheres to a structured sequencing of dishes that departs from the American norm of appetizer, main and dessert.
First some information …..
Cuisine in Italy is hyper-regional. Classic Roman dishes like Cacio e Pepe pasta and pasta Amatriciana stand apart from signature Florentine specialties like Ribollita and Bistecca Fiorentina. And Tuscan cuisine is a marked departure from that of Sicily. I also observed that the cuisine in these regions rigidly follows what’s in season. We did not get strawberries in November.
Water is not automatically served. We paid by the bottle, with a choice of still or bubbles. Secondly, we were charged for bread. That appears on your bill as “pane e coperto.” It’s usually two or three bucks American ….. per person.
Away from the touristy places, we found that service is not rushed. In fact, we generally had to ask for our check (“Il conto, por favore”).
And to our surprise and delight, there was no tipping. Service was included in our bill. Always.
In America, the evening meal frequently starts with cocktails. Not so in Italy. Here, one usually starts with wine.
Then the progression begins. First the Antipasti – modestly sized plates of items like Bruschetta or Prosciutto and Melon. Or in Tuscany, perhaps Wild Boar Salami or Papa Al Pomodoro (thick, thick, Italian tomato-bread soup that you eat with a fork).
Next comes the Primi – typically small bowls of pasta, maybe three or four ounces.
The Primi is followed by the third course, called the Secondi, or what we know as the entrée – meats or fish, often simply grilled (except in Milan, of course, where the bucket-list dish is Osso Buco with Risotto Milanese, laced with saffron and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese). Most dishes come à la carte, so if you want a side dish, look for the Contorni offerings.
The drill continues with the Dolce, or dessert. Panna Cotta or Baba Rhum, perhaps? Or maybe just a fresh peach in the summertime. In years back, Joanne and I most often had chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese simply drizzled with a little aged Balsamic vinegar. Finally, to cap off the long evening we would share an order of Biscotti for dipping one-by-one in Vin Santo dessert wine. Oh yes, sometimes we ordered Limoncello instead. Limoncello can be dangerous.
All of which leads me to our recent trip…about which, I have to admit, I’m more than a little puzzled.
Things have changed over the past decade, and I’m not certain what to make of it. Perhaps if we’d continued to visit year after year, I wouldn’t have noticed a culinary creep. But after such a long time away, I was startled by the accumulation of changes to the Italian dining routine. I have no concrete conclusions, only observations that don’t appear to have much connective tissue with one another.
First, let’s stipulate that there are boatloads of Americans in Italy these days – more than I remember from past visits in June.
Now, one of our favorite restaurants in Florence has always been SOSTANZA. It still is. But here’s the deal: Sostanza has lost some of its cachet. They now take reservations, whereas before they did not. Indeed, patrons used to line up outside before Sostanza opened in hope of snagging a spot. Part of my buzz was watching with delight from our table as the pour souls vied for the remaining tables (Is that Shadenfreude – taking pleasure in others’ misfortune or struggles?)
And so it was, with confirmed reservations, we arrived at Sostanza and were seated right away, with no one outside to cast envious eyes on us. And although the small dining room eventually filled, there were empty tables through most of the evening. Was that because now, ten years later, Sostanza had started accepting reservations? I don’t know.
But I do know this: The signature dish at SOSTANZA has always been the kilo-and-a-half (about 3 lbs) BISTECCA FIORENTINA, a two-inch thick Porterhouse steak of Flintstonian heritage. Of course we ordered it. But what came to our table was a much smaller RIB EYE steak masquerading as a BISTECCA FIORENTINA. It was very, very good, but NOT very impressive to look at.
Why would they do such a thing? Again, I just don’t know. Too expensive these days?
Another dinner and another mystery: this time at our favorite Tuscan restaurant in Rome, GIRARROSTO TOSCANO (Okay, okay, I know. I tried and failed to replicate Girarrosto about ten years ago, but Eden Prairie would have none of that.)
To my delight, Girarrosto has not tampered one bit with their Bistecca Fiorentina. Nor have they downsized or diluted anything else on their menu. Girarrosto was just exactly as I remembered it. Check out the image of their Bistecca below.
What was not exactly as I remembered was that the place was virtually empty. Along with our group of seven, there was another couple seated near us, and what appeared to be an American tour group of 15 – 20 people. Why? Why? It’s so good! (I’ve been recommending this place for decades, and it ALWAYS delivers).
Rome is not noted for an abundance of seafood restaurants. But one of the few – and very, very best – is QUINZI & GABRIELI. They have remodeled since Joanne and I were last there, but the seafood remains as it always has: pristinely fresh and perfectly prepared.
Just like Girarrosto, however, the restaurant only had a smattering of customers on the night we visited. What’s wrong here? These are all top-tier restaurants that deliver on their promise. Are they out of touch with today’s consumer? Has the Italian economy cratered so badly that the locals are trading down? But why aren’t they at least filled with Americans? Although none of these places is cheap, neither are they crazy-nuts expensive.
Some other observations…..
Here’s something that has changed. Three times on the trip, I was annoyed when servers asked us to leave a tip on top of the service charge included in our bill (“The owner, he keep everything,” we were told in beseeching tones).
As I noted earlier, Italians usually start their evening meal with wine (or perhaps a low-alcohol aperitivo of Campari & soda. But I noticed that several patrons along the way started with a Negroni (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth – a boozy cocktail indeed). Maybe because it was warm, I observed more than a few folks sipping on gin & tonics or maybe vodka & tonic). Were they Americans? Don’t know.
But something else was noticeably different. Fewer restaurants were serving pasta as a Primi before the main, and more were heaping it up AS THE MAIN COURSE. Have Italian restaurants discovered what Olive Garden figured out decades ago – that the masses really like great big bowls of over-sauced five-cheese tortelloni or fettuccine Alfredo topped with chicken breast? One thing’s for sure: I saw more pasta main courses at tables than I did proteins on the plate.
What’s next? Will Italian restaurants dispense with the aperitivo and embrace popular cocktails like Olive Garden’s Italian Margaritas (made with Jose Cuervo tequila) or their signature Milan Mai Tai?
Will they start offering breadsticks? (If so, you can be damned sure they won’t be free).
So which is it: Have the American tourists prompted Italian restaurants to offer jumbo martinis and entrée-sized pasta platters? Or are they just knuckling under and being shrewd operators by giving folks what they want? “Turn on the green light. The man wants a green suit.”
To be perfectly honest, I am flummoxed. Were my observations just a one-time blip? Or have Italy’s ancient culinary traditions stepped on to the slippery slope?
One thing that Marcella taught me was that spaghetti and meatballs should NEVER, EVER appear on the same plate together.
But I do remember dining at Olive Garden not long ago (this is what you do as a grandparent) where, to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed my lasagna topped with meatballs – something that would cause Marcella to burn truck tires in the street. Then, three weeks ago, for the first time EVER in Italy I spotted a diner eating Spaghetti & Meatballs. Lord have mercy.
But even with all of this….I ate like a satisfied pig.