A New Globally Inspired Italian Cuisine? Not Just Yet.

I was sitting at the bar of one of Italy’s most bizarre restaurants in one of Italy’s most bizarre towns about to watch a confrontation between a diner and a chef. A well-dressed man in his mid-30s had just wrinkled his nose at the menu and shrugged, murmuring something about not being able to recognize anything on the menu “You know what’s wrong with this country?” asked Pancho Garrison, 59-year-old Texas-born chef, who has lived in Italy most his life. The man shrugged again. “Italy is a country of mama’s boys. You’ve got the best cuisine in the world,” added Garrison, “but it’s time that you move away from your mama and start trying new things.” Then, as he usually did, he told the diner that he would bring out a procession of menu items for him to try and would not stop until he ate something he liked. On the house.

Sadly, the Grotta dei Germogli, located in Calcata, a medieval hill town about 30 miles north of Rome, recently shut down (but hopefully that’s just temporary). But if you were lucky enough to eat there, you wouldn’t have been wrong to think that Garrison was on a mission, that diner by diner he’s trying to change the way Italians eat. Watching Garrison work (and seeing people’s reaction to his cooking) was a thought-provoking exercise into the mind of the Italian eater. Thanks to people like Garrison and others in Italy who are actively trying to make the cuisine more progressive things are slowly changing in Italy. Is this going to be part of a revolution of a globally inspired Italian fare? Until very recently Italy was a country where the definition of “fusion cuisine” hardly went beyond mixing basil from Genoa and tomatoes from the Neapolitan countryside; where staunch Roman eaters considered northern Italian cuisine “foreign”; or digging up a baseball-sized truffle was easier than finding a non-Italian restaurant, eating outside the canon of Italian cuisine was nearly unthinkable. And, like at the Grotta, serving Italian-inspired dishes that included ingredients like peanut sauce, coconut milk, and curry to Italians seemed down right radical. But let’s not jump to conclusions. There are a lot more people who are perfectly satisfied the cuisine is lodged where it is.

But this night I was at the bar watching Garrison argue with the diner just another night. It’s perfectly fitting, though, that the Grotta was in Calcata, a hill town known as the “paesi dei artisti” because of the respected artists who moved here after the village was nearly abandoned in the late ’60s (among them are famed architect Paolo Portoghesi, sculptor Costantino Morosin, and painters Giancarlo Croce and Romano Vitali).

Garrison, who’s also an accomplished mosaic artist (he did all the work in the restaurant), said his menu worked because Mediterranean cuisine is so flexible. “It’s versatile enough,” he said from Grotta’s open kitchen, “that you can tweak it in ways that will change it just enough, but still keep its form.” Like the taglietelle with a coconut-tomato-basil sauce. It looks like it could be a standard tomato sauce, but then you try it and it’s like nothing anyone’s mom ever made. Or the gnocchi with almond pesto. To top it off, he would pair his menu with top-shelf (but surprisingly affordable) bottles of Italian vino.

And that diner who wrinkled his nose at the “unusual” menu? He said “buonissimo,” with the first thing Garrison brought out, curried meatballs on a bed of organic whole-wheat rice. He loved it. There’s one more convert.