“You’re so lucky living in Italy,” people tell me. “The food’s so divine.” Oh no, it isn’t.
Italian food is tedious—so tedious that I gave up going to Italian restaurants of my own free will long ago. I was never a Michelin Star-obsessed gourmet, but I had passion. Not anymore. That passion died in Italy.
The Emilia-Romagna region, which is in the “red” mid-north and whose capital is Bologna, is famous for its cooking. I cannot for the life of me see why, and I have lived here since the summer of 1998. We share a border with Tuscany, and Florence is only 60 miles away across the Apennines. How about the food there? Worse, in my experience. The tourists who go there are easy meat.
For the purposes of this argument I define “Italian food” to mean the food served in Italian restaurants rather than in Italian homes.
Italians are so provincial that there are hardly any foreign restaurants outside the major cities to relieve the monotony of those run by the natives. I could murder a curry, as we British say, but there is no Indian restaurant within a 30-mile radius of Forlì, the very provincial city where I live.
Granted, Italy boasts fabulous ingredients such as many different varieties of tomato and types of olive oil, and its prosciutti and salami are impressive. How could an Italian chef possibly go wrong? That’s a very good question. It is what an Italian chef gets up to once let loose on those ingredients in his cucina that lies at the root of the problem.
The idea of eating in an Italian restaurant and handing over scarce money to its smug owner who has an unshakably deluded belief that his chef is a culinary genius would not be so difficult if the menu differed from restaurant to restaurant. But the menu in every restaurant I have ever been to in my neck of the woods is identical. I suspect this is yet another toxic derivative of the communist infiltration of Italy until the Berlin Wall fell.
Italian first courses, usually pasta-based, are all right, but second courses are definitely not. The Italians haven’t got a clue what to do with fish or meat. There’s nothing wrong with a grilled sea bass or a fillet steak, but any old fool can do that at home with a wild fish or free-range piece of cow for a third of the price without having to deal with Italian waiters.
Unlike the French, the Italians are incapable of producing interesting sauces. Their sauces are either red (tomato) or white (cream), and they drown everything with them. Nor are they capable of surprising you with the imaginative juxtaposition of something sweet, say, with something savory.
They cannot cook potatoes well. Their chips are dire, their roast potatoes flaccid. Green vegetables are cooked without enthusiasm, either boiled to the quick or baked dry. Their puddings are much too sweet and showy. Their ice creams, I concede, are fantastic, as is their coffee. Their wine, as I know better than most, is perfectly drinkable.
But give me a Big Mac and large fries over an Italian pizza any day. You can’t get a decent pizza north of the Gustav Line, which is way to the south of me. It was the frontline in the winter of 1943/44 and ran, roughly speaking, between Pozzuoli in the west (where Sophia Loren was born) and San Giovanni Rotondo in the east (where Padre Pio, the flying friar with the stigmata, died).
The potato is a far superior basic ingredient than pasta: It is far tastier and healthier, far more versatile, and it is not man-made. True, the Italians have dozens of types of pasta, but what actual difference do length or circumference make when we’re talking about pasta? Does it matter whether it is shaped like a hat, a shell, or a star; a piece of straw or hay; a length of string, rope, or tubing; a dishcloth; or even a bloody butterfly? It is all just pasta, isn’t it?
George Orwell wrote in his superb 1945 essay “In Defence of English Cooking”: “It is commonly said, even by the English themselves, that English cooking is the worst in the world.…Now that is simply not true.” Orwell, who lived much of his short life abroad, singled out for praise “the various ways of cooking potatoes peculiar to our own country” and in particular “potatoes roasted under the joint.” He spoke of the wonders of English puddings and cakes, of Devonshire cream, Dublin prawns, Oxford marmalade, and English bread: “If there is anything quite as good as the soft part of the crust from an English cottage loaf…I do not know it.”
There are one or two types of decent bread in Italy, but nearly all are light as dust and dry as a bone. And there is nothing here to beat a good old English Sunday roast with potatoes roasted under the joint of course. Furthermore, there has been a revolution in British cooking during the past 25 years inspired by immigration. British chefs such as Nigella Lawson pop up on television screens all over the world to explain how it’s done.
When I tell Italians that English cooking beats theirs 10-nil, they angrily refuse to countenance the idea: “Just fuck off back to England, inglese di merda!”
By pure chance the other day, after years of insipid Gorgonzola and leathery old Pecorino, I found a decent cheese in a local delicatessen. At 38 euros a kilo, it is obscenely expensive. But by God, is it good. It is Stilton, the king of cheeses—English, of course.
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