Food can get weird when it crosses the ocean

I’m talking, of course, about the food here in Italy. Note that I didn’t say “Italian food.” There’s no such thing. This country has existed as a political entity only about 160 years and food here is intensely regional. Hell, until the postwar-WWII era, people from different parts of the country barely understood one another due to the prevalence of regional dialects and languages, let alone had national dishes.

But I digress. Yes, the food. Yesterday’s lunch was a Sicilian peasant thing, short whole wheat pasta with local chicory greens, diced potatoes, and grape tomatoes, all sautéed together with a decent amount of olive oil. You can see it here. It definitely wasn’t fancy stuff, but The Spartan Woman is a terrific instinctual cook and we actually sighed as we ate.

Cheap and delicious, at home

There was no “sauce” per se. The bottled sauce industry in the U.S. would have you believe that Italians eat pastas topped with tons of red stuff or “Alfredo,” whoever that is. (I kid. The original dish, as though you could pin it down, is “pasta in bianco,” pasta with tons of good butter and parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a dish fed to kids, the elderly, and people with stomach aches.) Instead we, like a lot of people here, paired the pasta with seasonal vegetables, and used some of the pasta cooking liquid to keep it moist.

But I’m not going to go into the Italian vs. Italian American rabbit hole. I’m going to try to demystify what eating here is like, and highlight the differences in food culture between my two nationalities.

To simplify things greatly, Italians eat locally-plus. There’s a strong base of local tradition, upon which they add what’s trendy right now. This applies both to eating at home and at family gatherings, and eating out. Unless people are going out to an ethnic restaurant on purpose—here in Umbria there are Chinese, Japanese, and Indian places, among others—they kind of expect what’s familiar in a restaurant. It’s because people go out for different reasons than Americans do. Or at least the Americans where I come from, New York City. In my 10 years as a part-time restaurant critic there, I remember going through Paris bistro, Belgian, French country, Tuscan, Southern Indian, Catalan, and new American phases. It’s all about a celebrity chef or the latest find, and is rarely rooted in any kind of culinary tradition.

I’ll concede that a lot of that trend-seeking is peculiar to New York. But where the city goes, the culture tends to follow. Italians, however, especially those who live outside of the big cities, eat out to be with friends in a large group, or to celebrate a big occasion. Often, their home kitchens are small and they simple don’t have the room to have 10 people at a table, so they see the osteria in the country as a home surrogate.

I’ll compare apples to apples, or pizza to pizza. Earlier this spring I went to a newish pizza place on Staten Island. Yeah, Staten Island; its North Shore has suddenly become a hipster kind of place, with really good and inventive restaurants popping up in spite of the Covid pandemic. The pizza restaurant, Seppe’s PizzaBar, has an industrial look—it doesn’t do that Olde Worlde schtick that used to be common in NY Italian restaurants. It featured beer from local microbreweries and organic/biodynamic wines. The pizzas had slow-rising, chewy crusts and inventive toppings.

Pizza in hipster Staten Island

But here’s the thing: The tab. I’ll break it down. Two people. so two pizzas, $20 and $21. Two beers at $7 apiece. Espresso at $3 each. It ended costing the two of us about $50 each for an okay, not transcendent meal, after tax and tip. And I think we got away cheap. In Perugia, our closest big city (population about 165,000), a similar outing would’ve run us about €28, or $30 total. For one thing, you don’t tip in Italy; waiters and cooks make decent salaries and tipping is not part of the culture. Sure, in touristy places in Rome, the staff have gotten used to foreigners leaving some cash on the table, but here, the credit card receipt doesn’t even have a line for a tip.

Perugia’s finest, only €7

There are lots of reasons for the price disparity. New Yorkers are paying for the restaurants’ rent, plus all the other overhead, like chefs’ salaries, the computer system, the expensive stoves and cookware, etc. And you can’t forget the ingredients; stuff like mozzarella and parmigiano cheese. All of that is just regular food in Italy; you can get fresh mozzarella for a couple of euros, and even exotic like fresh black summer truffles are €15 for the equivalent of a couple of ounces.

This brings up something I’ve been thinking about for some years, ever since I wrote about food and restaurants mid-career. Maybe it’s obvious, but stuff that’s just normal in other countries becomes almost a fetishistic object in the U.S., especially if it’s Western European and has become a part of the culture at large. Decent Italian restaurants in big East Coast cities charge $25-30 for very ordinary pasta, for example. Steak frites have become a luxury item, and a drink that might cost a few euros in Barcelona or Milan becomes a $20 “curated” cocktail.

I think it’s more than just economics at play here, and it’s almost as though a good reason for being a world capital like New York manifests itself in bad ways. There’s a disconnect between the food producer and the consumer, and that leads to what I’d call a cult of connoisseurship. The thing—whether it’s burrata cheese, or an espresso, or even Nutella—may be just something you find in a supermarket here, but in the U.S. is foreign, therefore it’s exotic and a luxury. I once bought coffee from an online source based in (where else?) Seattle. I keep getting sales emails for $2,000+ espresso machines. Trust me, you can make a decent cup of espresso with a machine that costs a tenth of that. I wonder sometimes if those super expensive machines are like Viking stoves and the like, there to impress guests more than be useful kitchen tools.

American media plays this great dishes of the world stuff up. Food mags tend to be upscale creations, big city restaurant critics pride themselves on knowing what a proper cacio e pepe is like—and so up goes the price, apart from the economic factors that boost the prices and preciousness of imported goods. I’m grateful that someone like Guy Fieri is looking out for the quirky, downscale, noncorporate eateries that still manage to survive.

The good reason? Americans, at least not the fearful types, are adventurous, at least when it comes to trying new cuisines and foodstuffs. But because of the incredible centralization of food production—remember, there are only a handful of U.S.-based meat producers and distributors, to give one example—people are alienated from their own food, the kind of food that used to be grown or pulled out of the ocean just a few miles away. I’m reminded of the difference when I drive around our area in rural Central Italy; we’re surrounded by farms and vineyards that produce the food that we see in the markets and on restaurant tables. It wasn’t that different decades ago in the U.S. Growing up in my New York neighborhood, the guy three houses up the street was a big fisherman and he gave mackeral and bluefish to the neighbors. Truck farms only a few miles away grew produce, which was sold in local markets.

When I was reviewing French/Belgian/Sicilian/Catalan/Burmese restaurants back in the 1990s, I was always asking myself if there indeed was a local cuisine. New England and the South have held onto their traditions. I did a little research and yeah there was at one point. Fish lovers went crazy every spring when the shad swam down the Hudson, and local oystermen on Staten Island supplied the taverns and high-end restaurants alike. Some New Yorkers are rediscovering local produce at greenmarkets. Maybe high energy prices and a breakdown of the global supply chain will bring the mid-Atlantic back to its roots.

In the meantime, let them eat overpriced cacio e pepe.

[Edited/updated to fix typos and clarify some points.]

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