Does the world really need another Italian restaurant? Apparently, yes. Every time an Italian restaurant opens up in New York City, I like to think that somewhere in the universe a puppy dog is wrapped in prosciutto, stuck with a giant toothpick and eaten. Well, not really. But as a denizen of the Big Apple, I’m continually amazed by the insatiable appetite New Yorkers have for Italian food. There’s an Italian restaurant on nearly every block in the city. Or so it seems.
But it’s not just New York. It’s the entire United States. It’s the entire planet, really. It wasn’t always this way. Italian food outside of Italy was southern Italian fare that morphed into Italian-American fare, the now generally maligned cuisine that is often perceived as sloppy and goopy and unsophisticated. And before World War II, big cities in North America were sprinkled with Italian restaurants here and there. Pizzerias were blue-color taverns but the pizza pie hadn’t really caught on yet.
But all that’s changed, of course, as Italian restaurants have become nearly ubiquitous on the American dining landscape. Just how did Italian food conquer the world (to reference the title of a recent book on the subject)?To find out, I went to Eataly, the ultimate response to the world’s insatiable hunger for all things Italian; that 50,000-square-foot behemoth in New York City – and, soon, Chicago, and god knows where else. It was on one recent night when a group of well-known Italian (and Italian-American) chefs were gathering for an event called Identità.
“Italian food was born in the home,” said Oscar Farinetti, the founder of the Eataly empire. “Unlike, say, French cuisine, which was born in restaurants. For this reason, Italian is replicable. I can’t make, for example, foie gras in my house. But I can make spaghetti carbonara.”
I rarely eat something in a restaurant I can make at home. And I don’t think I’m too anomalous in this attitude. So Farinetta’s point explains the popularity of Italian food, in general, and Eataly, in particular. But not really the legion of Italian restaurants in the United States and around the world.
“Who doesn’t like Italian food?” Chef Mario Batali asked, rhetorically. “It appeals to all that is good and stylistic about Italy. And it costs a lot less than a Maserati.” Gina DiPalma, the pastry chef at Batali’s flagship restaurant, Babbo, echoed her bosses point: “Italy belongs to the world,” she said. “With all the great art and fashion and style that has originated from there, it makes sense that Italian food, too, would have such a huge global presence.”
Then she looked over her shoulder and pointed to Batali. “That guy is the real reason Italian food is so popular outside of Italy. Or at least in the States.” She went on to say that when they first opened Babbo 15 years ago they couldn’t get things like farro and guanciale, which now are fairly common in most supermarkets.
It was then that Massimo Bottura, chef of La Francescana in Modena and number five on the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, jumped into the conversation. “Italian food really matches the modern palate and the way we like to eat now. There’s no excessive butter or heavy cream. Not a lot of fat.” And then he insisted I quote him on something “Italian food is actually quite healthy.”
I lived in Italy for two years and I didn’t see a lot of obese people in the way that one does when you’re in the land of processed foods (i.e. the United States). And that’s saying a lot
considering Italians are obsessed with food.
“When I lived in Italy,” DiPalma said, “I’d be checking out at the supermarket and the cashier would ask what I’m planning on making for dinner tonight. No one would ever ask that here. I even once got a great recipe from my garbage man.”
“We need to fall in love with Italy all over again,” added Bottura. I looked around at all the happy people eating at the biggest Italian food superstore the world has seen and realized that I think we’re already in love with Italy.