Monday, February 9, 2009

Tutti a Tavola!

When I think of Italy - or perhaps more accurately, when I think of Italians - the things that best define it (or them) are: an abnormal attachment to mothers, the inviolable belief that it's the most beautiful country in the world, and the supremacy of its food. Mama, Italia & pasta: that's Italian. At least in my mind.

And with the rallying cry: tutti a tavola - everyone to the table! - Italians dig into their antipasti and primos and secondos and contorni, their frutti and dolci with gusto. Did they not give us the word gusto? (- actually they didn't. It was the Greeks.)

But I'm not a huge fan of Italian food. At least Italian food in Italy. And it's not because the guidebook staring at me defiantly from the coffee table advises that " ... vegans ... can all be accommodated in Italy with some planning." Planning?!! Is this not the home of the tomato?
(- actually it isn't. It's native to the Americas and was brought to Europe, probably, by Cortes. A Spaniard.)

Yet, in a rare moment of self-indulgence self-reflection, I must own to the fact that it's not Italian food I take exception to but rather the Italian food served in restaurants which by definition are Italian restaurants as they are in Italy. And more specifically, restaurants in the north of the country. So, with no further ado, I present ...

What I Take Exception to

1) Cover charges. In theory the c
operto takes care of the cost of the breadsticks on your table and/or a glass of tap water. In reality, it takes care of the restaurateur's kids' tuition at university. The cover charge can range from a euro & a half to a whole fistful of euros. I have yet to eat a breadstick worth 5 euros. Which leads us to ...

2) The Breadstick. Or the bread. Buy it fresh and you will willingly inhale a whole loaf in 7 seconds. On the table of a restaurant it is invariably cold and hard. Hard meaning stale. Restaurant bread is sad bread. Bread should never be sad.

3) Ordering the primo. Ordering a first course is a
problem for me because, more often than not, pasta is my primo and ordering only a primo effectively brings my meal to an end, and this seems to irritate my waiter. I really don't want to order a meat dish - being a vegetarian notwithstanding - and a vegetable dish to follow my spaghetti al iol. Stick a fork in me because I'm done. Seriously.

4) The pacing. This isn't about the slow food movement - I have no bone to pick with pacing your meal over 4 hours. My issue is that when you order a primo, secondo and a
contorni, you normally receive all 3 courses separately. So a typical meal of pasta, a plate of some dead animal and then a salad or side of veg will be brought to your table one after the other. Thank God those breadsticks are there.

5) The flavour. Again, limiting myself to vegetarian dishes, I've been on the receiving end of a lot of bland food. The Land of Basil has let me down
(- actually it isn't. It's native to India and Iran.). Why is everything created with a tomato here so tasteless? Friends of mine never cast their shadows inside a restaurant without a bottle of spice tucked away in a purse. It astounds me to admit that I have had better - and by better I mean more flavourful - Italian food in Morocco. O the shame of it all!

Perhaps food is served up differently in the south where the sun kisses the earth with more - well - gusto. After all, it's overcast and rainy and foggy here and perhaps that's coloured (or discoloured) the food somewhat. And frankly, I am disappointed that I've been disappointed. After 4 months in Slovakia my taste buds yearned to be titillated. But this is not to say that I haven't had excellent meals since I've been here because I have: I can now recommend a kick-ass Indian restaurant in Ferrara and an equally fabulous Middle Eastern one in Venice.


I do accept the fact that most people would disagree with me wholeheartedly because, for many, Italy is a sacred cow. But to conclude rather hamfistedly with that analogy, the Italian sacred cow would be served up with stale dinner rolls and a plate of green beans to follow and have a cover charge smacked on top. Thank God the wine is so good.

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