Rick Steves on what Italians really think of American food
When Italians sit together for dinner, a special joy emerges from their mutual love of eating well: the flavors, the steam, the memories, the dreams…the edible heritage. Food is a favorite topic of conversation. And it seems every Italian has an opinion on American cuisine.
Over a long Italian meal, my friend Claudia says she loves American food. His favorites include the BLT sandwich and the “chili soup”. She is charmed by our breakfast culture and that we “meet for breakfast”. She says you would never see families going out for breakfast in Italy.
But she notes that in the United States, size matters more than quality, and dishes try too hard. She says the average number of ingredients in an American restaurant salad or pasta is 8 or 10, which is double the ingredients of the typical Italian salad or pasta. And she can’t understand our very fragrant salad dressings. “If your lettuce and tomato are good, why cover them with a thick dressing? We only use oil and vinegar,” she says. When I try to defend fancy dishes as complex, she says, “Maybe ‘pell-mell’ is a better translation.
My Tuscan friends praise the merits of their regional cuisine. In Florence, I join my friend Manfredo and his girlfriend Diana for dinner. She places a large plate of bruschetta in front of me. Each slice of toast looks like a little brown ship, with a toothpick mast on which floats a clove of garlic, as it sails its oily deck. We greedily destroy the well-arranged flotilla. Pulling up a mast and rubbing the sail on the crisp deck, I said, “My family eats bruschetta at home. But we all agree that it’s better in Italy.
“Real bruschetta needs real Tuscan bread,” says Manfredo. “This is made with only flour, water and yeast. No salt. Great today. Rock hard tomorrow.
Diana says: “Because bread ages quickly and we are a poor region, in Tuscany there are a lot of dishes made with yesterday’s bread.”
In unison, they go through a short list as if it were long: “Minestrone di pane, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro”.
Manfredo explains: “Ribollita is for the poor. You always cook and toss beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, old bread and olive oil for at least two hours. Very hearty. It is not good with fresh bread.
Manfredo picks up his knife, looks at the lasagna on the large plate in front of him. “In America, a restaurant doesn’t look for what is good food. What is good is what sells. He sticks his knife through two inches of hot lasagna. “Real lasagna is only so thick. In the States they make it twice as thick,” he says, flipping another portion on top, “and they fill it with mozzarella. Then he says, ‘He there is no mozzarella in the lasagna.”
Diana laughs in agreement.
After a sip of wine, Manfredo continues, “If you go to an American restaurant and say the food is bad, you get a coupon for a free meal. No more bad food. If you say the food is bad in a restaurant in Italy, you get fired. To get free food here, it’s the other way around. You say, ‘This is the best steak I’ve ever eaten.’ The chef will then say, “You have to try the dessert. You say ‘Oh no.’ He says: ‘Here. Please. Take it for free. ‘”
Diana says: “In a real Italian restaurant, when you complain, the chef will tell you, ‘I cooked this when I was a kid like my grandmother cooked it. It can’t be wrong.
I ask, “What do you think of French cuisine?”
Manfredo, spicing up a puddle of oil on a small plate, replies, “The French make fine sauces to help mediocre ingredients taste. Among the French there are two wonderful things: their wine and their art. Since the time of Napoleon, they only think about their wine and their art. In the south, they are like the Italians. But of Paris and the north, they are so proud that they are bored.
Tearing off a piece of bread and dabbing it in oil, Diana said, “For me, French cheese is Italian cheese with mold. If we have cheese that doesn’t sell, it molds. After a few days, it’s perfect for the French.
Raising my glass of wine, I toast to Italian cuisine: “To cucina italiana!
Manfredo follows this by saying magnanimously, “Bacon and eggs!”
We all agree that American breakfasts can’t be beat.
“Omelettes, hash browns…” recalls Manfredo with a nostalgic sigh. “During my last visit to New York, I gained four pounds in three weeks.”
Raising our glasses filled with good vino rosso, we all say: “At the American breakfasts!
Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the Love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.