Sunday, May 05, 2024

Why “Italian” restaurants in America still don’t get Italian wine - Pt. I *

A classic Vitello Tonnato in a Langhe restaurant

I know, I know. We’ve covered this already. But apparently some folks out there still haven’t gotten the memo. Are we standing still? Or are we falling behind?

But, falling behind, that’s not news to America. We seem to be sliding in many respects. Still, at my stage in life, most of the critical crises are beyond my reach. An Italian wine list? It might be something I can parse.

This was recently triggered by a new Italian restaurant that opened up in town. Lots of flash. The chef is a food media-superstar and recently went to Italy, and was inspired to come back home and, with the help of an enthusiastic investor, got after it in a big way. No indication, one way or another, that they might have skiplagged their way through the food research.

I don’t wish to pick on any one chef or restaurant in particular, but rather see this latest iteration as a pattern of digression. The food menu, along with the wine list, seems to ramble. Dare I use even a loaded comment such as this: It is my belief that Italian food has been culturally appropriated to the point that some of the items (and combinations) that I see on contemporary menus in America, veer so far outside of the deep-roooted, sui generis pantheon of la cucina Italiana so as to barely be recognizable to those of us who truly love all things Italian.

 Pasta alla Norma from a restaurant on Mt. Etna

Now, if you think I’m not for experimentation and elaboration, I'll stop you right there. As has been mentioned here, many times, all things Italian rely upon a steady stream of improvisation and refinement, coupled with a healthy dose of disruption. If not, we wouldn’t have pasta, tomato-based sauces, ice cream, maybe even rice. Never mind potatoes, and peppers. Corn-based polenta? Fuhgeddaboudit. Heavens to mercy, we might not have the chef-beloved (and ubiquitous) Calabrian sauce that peppers dishes from pizza to pasta to meats to fritto misto, to you name it – Caesar salad ala Calabrese anyone? And while we’re at it, let’s sprinkle the top with some gluten free panko breadcrumbs.

Indeed, Italy and Italian chefs have culturally appropriated so many things since the time of Jesus. Eggplant? Couscous? And on and on.

Thus, this rant, which might seem guileful, considering all the pilfering, plundering and pillaging the Italians, starting with the Romans, foisted upon the world, east and west, old and new.

Tajarin al ragu in Barbaresco

But, in the meantime, some wonderful recipes have been perfected, to the point that Italian food is a living museum of classic dishes. Why not start there? Why the urge to re-invent something that is already perfect? Oh, that’s right. In 2024, chefs are the new deities. Forget celebrities, they are picking out the patterns for their throne-seats on Olympus.

One suggestion I’d make would be to re-style one’s notion of Italian restaurants in America. There are many “Italian inspired” places, and that is perfectly fine. But that ain’t Italian, for those of us who’ve spent quality time in Italy. Italian food in Italy doesn’t have the baggage with which American entrepreneurs weigh it down, by and large. Simplicity is the essence of Italian food. But in America, doing things simply just isn’t the dominant mantra. If five ingredients are great, six are greater. Hence, Calabrian chili, 'nduja, guanciale, truffle oil and wagyu polpette nuggets are sprinkled about liberally over classic dishes that have passed the test of time.

Ew! Just ew!

And we haven’t even touched upon wine yet. Where to start with the shit show of wine lists that I’ve seen lately.

(not representative of the shit show, btw)

There’s no mandate to classify wines by region anymore. It kind of makes sense if there is a theme on the food menu that highlights or focuses on certain regional cuisines. But I haven’t run across a Piedmont trattoria like Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco, or a true Calabrese eaterie, like L’Aquila d’Oro in Ciro, Calabria, here in Texas. A strictly regional dining experience eludes most of us here in the States. There are exceptions. But the new wave of Italian inspired places draw upon a mish-mash of best hits, embellished with the chef’s notions of what would make the dish stand out. In their minds, anyway. A neo-convoluted sensibility rules the day. Wines lists follow.

The over-riding theme I am seeing is that a wine list creator is looking to put their left footprint on it, in keeping with the right footprint of the chef’s menu. Thus, we enter the labyrinth.

You want to start with bubbles? You asked for it. Anything from mainstream to esoteric grower Champagne could show up. Be prepared to pay $$$. Oh, Italian? Well, Lambrusco is currently a darling, so you could find anything from a light, pale frizzante to a deep purple teeth stainer. A Franciacorta is most likely there, thankfully. And then your guess will be as good as anyone’s as to how they deal with the Prosecco slot. It could be anything from an insipid extra dry industrial version to a artisanal col fondo (not sur lie). Hey, someone ultimately wins the lottery.

An oldie but a goodie

Ok, now my real beef. White wine from Italy. Why in hell, after all these years, have decision makers not learned what a good white wine is? Maybe because they didn’t have to spend years of their life trying to sell less than stellar examples of white wine from Italy? I was so relieved when Italy finally started making white wine that traveled well (and the corks didn’t pop and blow right through the eggshell thin boxes). Cold stabilization! Cold fermentation!! Temperature controlled steel tanks!!! Refrigerated shipping containers!!!! Air-conditioned warehouses!!!!! Only to have some knuckleheads decide that oxidized white wine is the bees knees and they’re gonna spread their manure-laced gospel to all their “guests.” !!!!!!

As one who wore Birkenstocks a million years ago when you could buy extra bottoms (at the health food store) to re-sole them, and am also in my 45th year of recycling (try doing that in 1979 in Dallas!), I’m not against organic or natural wines. I just want them to taste delicious. That’s all. If not, they remind me of a covey of bottles I keep in my wine cellar cemetery as a souvenir from whence we came. And to where I never want to go again.

So, if a natty section is "per rigore," there are countless examples which are both unfeigned and delectable.

But what I really enjoy about Italian white wine now, is that they can be crisp and dry and refreshing and simple but have depth and layers. And they don’t cost an arm and a leg. Wine for the people. Like Verdicchio and Vermentino and Friulano and Lugana and Greco and Carricante and Trebbiano. For starters. No oak. No butter. No preponderance of alcohol or glycerin. No funk. Wine made to go with food. Like a proper fritto misto, you know, one that includes seagoing creatures.    (see below)


Fritto Misto in Milan (above) and Rome (below)

Trattoria da Cesare al Casaletto in Rome be continued

[*Next week – Pt. II]

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