Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Week That Was: Resuming the Hunt for La Cucina Italiana

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo

This past week it seemed I had been trapped in a time warp. I’m sure the deaths our family experienced in the past two weeks had something to do with it. One spends time with relatives going over the good times, telling stories, recounting this event or that episode. It takes a lot out of one to go back and look at all those things.

The death of our family friend Mario really signaled the end of a chapter in all of our lives. Friend to my father, the man who gave me a start when I stepped into a new city with nothing, along the way finding something that would occupy my time and passion for years, Italian wine. It wasn’t about wine, though. The overarching theme centered on elevating la Cucina Italiana to a place one takes for granted in Italy. But in America, it was rarely found.

I saw it, experienced it, was indoctrinated in the school of la Cucina Italiana. I saw it grow up in my adopted town, saw the rest of the country embrace it, take it run with it. It has been a great time to witness this moment, a golden age for Italian cooking in America.

And then I walked out into the sunshine and went about my business. I stepped into an Italian place and ordered a chicken dish, piccata, with capers. On the table was a bottle of wine, a Shiraz from Australia. That should have been the first signal. Then the chicken arrived.

Boneless, sitting in a pool of anemic oil. If that oil came from an olive, I’m Bill Gates. And those capers. The institutionalized ones, sitting in a briny slew, without any color or life remaining. My reentry into the world of the living.

Later in the week I ventured out again to another Italian place. I arrived before my colleagues and was assaulted by a barrage of waiters trying to upsell my solitary glass of wine. “Don’t you want some Panna or some Pellegrino?” they asked. No, I did not.

Looking over the wine list, I saw the usual subjects, the Sonoma Chardonnay and the Napa Cabernet, the overblown Barbaresco and the way too important Super Tuscan, with price tags to boot. And then I saw the rosé offering. It was French! The GM of the place is from Puglia and the rosé is French? It was like stepping back 30 years, when Italian places thought they had to have French wines because they felt the Italian offerings weren’t good enough.

The food wasn’t any easier to navigate around. I had to make sure I didn’t order anything with truffle oil. I asked that they didn’t prepare my dish with garlic (nothing against garlic, I just don’t prefer it as a side dish). Again and again I had to ask them to leave things out of my preparation, all the while dodging the ever-present server constantly filling my glass of water to the rim. I thought of my recently passed away friend and knew he would be sighing with me, like he did when we talked about these things.

Eventually I surrendered to spaghetti and meat balls (no garlic bread please) and did my best to move the soggy noodles round the plate to approximate a robust appetite for such things. And the place was filled to the rafters with diners. Why do I try so hard to wish to have real Italian food when those around me don’t know or don’t care? They really don’t want real Italian food. They want to eat cheap food in noisy places and think this is the real thing. But it isn’t.

The next night I presented wines to a private group. I should say, tried to present wine to them. Less than a minute into my presentation, they started talking among themselves. So I wrapped things up, knowing I’d have to come back before the main course and go over the next flight, something I was not looking forward to.

I’d picked out some wines, Prosecco, a Cococciola, a Nero d’Avola, A Barbera d’Asti, a Brunello, a real nice Moscato d’ Asti. Wines I don’t mind to drink.

So many of the folks had such a hard time deciphering which red was Barbera, which was Brunello, even though I told them we were going left to right and the Barbera was on the left and the Brunello was on the right. They just weren’t paying attention and they wanted me to tell them what was what. But then when I tried to talk to them about the wines (again) they couldn’t stay quiet enough for even a minute. So I ran through them, wrapped it up and went into a shell. Thinking again about my old friend, he’d be turning in his grave.

I was discouraged. What kind of hell had I arrived in? Three unfortunate experiences with Italian wine and food as we have arrived at in this moment. Not an evolution, as I see it. A regression. I headed to a non-Italian place afterwards to purge myself of these experiences.

I walk in, the chef says hi, the manager comes up and hugs me, the wine steward greets me. A fresh bottle of Verdicchio arrives to my table; things are looking up. And then food shows up. I don’t have to tell the people here not to use truffle oil, or not to use too much garlic or salt. They know. I feel like I have found an oasis, all with a bottle of Italian wine. Things are looking up.

I’m sure it will take some time to process the life of a man whose work shaped a large part of my adult life. The community I live in doesn’t owe it to me to keep up his standards. But when it happens, I feel like we are at least not going backwards.

Thankfully I get to go to Italy to effortlessly experience la Cucina Italiana. I sure could use a trip back to the source, to recharge, to reflect and to resume my hunt for La Cucina Italiana. We cannot go backwards, not after all these years, and especially not after this past week, the week that was.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Mangiatutto said...

When you go back to the source, you sense the ways in which food and wine are more than integral to the way of life there. There it IS the culture and way of life that is rooted in the earth. What a radical idea. Extraordinary people like your mentor Mario still lived that way of life as best they could in America. I remember the first buffeta rustica we had in Sicily. Wood grilled Tunisian-strain eggplant, white anchovies, sweet red peppers over a foot long...

James Biddle said...

Another step back--La Cucina Italiana magazine was abruptly cancelled! I fear our digitally infected multi-tasking is rooting out vestiges of Slow Food and La Cucina Italiana.

Anonymous said...

My condolences for the loss of your friend, but it seems his spirit still lives on with you so that you may groan together on the fabrication of Italianility.

But seriously, spaghetti and meatballs?!

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