If my independent study could be a collection of newspaper clippings, blog articles and photos I’ve taken, I would know exactly what to say. I would know exactly how to describe my ‘food community’ theory. Specifically, I would know exactly how to describe the foreign Italian food community.
The foreign Italian food community doesn’t describe a cuisine. It’s not Italian-American cooking, nor any other Italian-dash culinary phenomenon. Rather, this food community represents a manner of interacting with the concept of Italian cooking. This concept includes responding to seasonal and regional variances, but views this as an attribute as opposed to the cuisine’s defining characteristic. Osteria Morini, as Pete Wells aptly highlights in his review, describes their cooking in this manner as “pan-Italian regional cuisine with a menu that covers various seasonal specialties, both inland and coastal.” The immediate contradiction of ‘pan-regional’ and ‘regional’ should alert the eater (call them foodie or gastronome if you wish) that their food is more Italian-inspired as opposed to Italian, full stop.
Once you open your eyes to the foreign Italian food community, you’ll see traces of it throughout the culinary world. Looking at myriad Italian restaurant menus demonstrates its characteristic interplay between specific regional rhetoric and the comforting umbrella of Italian food. Babbo, which Frank Bruni once described as “too elaborate to be genuinely Italian,” delightfully displays this interaction. Besides highlighting a ‘region of the month‘ (which, confusingly, seems to be a provincia within a region), the menu borrows from culinary traditions that are unabashedly not-Italian. The obvious example is the black spaghetti garnished with jalapeños, but the idea of an ‘asparagus milanese’ and orecchiette with nettle pesto and sausage demonstrate a similar freedom interpreting Italian cooking. While it might be a stretch to say that, within the New York restaurant world, these dishes aren’t Italian, in comparison with risotto milanese, trofie al pesto and spaghetti al nero di seppia they freely interpret tradition. This is the foreign Italian food community.
The foreign Italian food community also manifests itself in the Italian cookbook canon. At Eataly New York, under the heading ‘Italian Cooking’ (begging the question: what else would they have?) each book seems to have a region proudly attached to it. The cooking of Puglia, la pasta ‘Emiliana,’ fish the venetian way. Group these regional cuisines under the blanket category ‘Italian’ negates their individual characteristics. While it’s understandable that Italian cooking would be altered for a foreign audience, this altering seems to be more like a switch, a switch which alters the very unique, contradictory nature of Italian cuisine.
If I could paste Osteria Morini’s ‘pan-Italian regional cooking’ statement in my essay, follow it up with a citation of Babbo’s menu and the photo of Eataly’s cookbook shelf, I’d be set. If I could follow this up with a twitter style ‘THIS,’ my essay would already be written and edited. But I can’t and that’s not appropriate. On that note, I’ll go re-read John Dickie’s ‘Imagined Italies’ and think about the etichetta narrante some more.