« Simple Zakka | Main | Chinese needles »

Faux Italian

  This is for my American friends who want to try real Italian cuisine without flying to Italy. There are plenty of so-called Italian restaurants in the U.S. Unfortunately, most of them are not what they claim to be. So, how do you find an authentic Italian restaurant?

First, a disclaimer. There really is no such thing as Italian cuisine. There is regional — and even more localized — cuisine: cucina romagnola, veneta, toscana, siciliana… you get the picture. Consequently, there is no such thing as an Italian restaurant. If you go to Italy, wherever you are, you eat regional dishes. In Toscana you'll eat zuppa di farro, in Romagna passatelli and in Veneto risi e bisi. You won't find dishes with couscous and sundried tomatoes in Val d'Aosta or a lot of lard and butter in Sicilia. An authentic restaurant outside Italy should give at least a rough indication of the provenance of their dishes; as a bare minimum a distinction between northern and southern dishes.

So, how can you have a true Italian experience here in the States? It's probably easier to explain how to recognize faux Italian.
Signs that you may not be sitting at an Italian restaurant:

  • It's part of a large chain (i.e. The Olive Garden).
  • All the dishes have pasta on the side. In Italy, pasta is considered a first course (primo) and served before the main course (secondo).
  • All the dishes come as combos and you can't mix and match. In Italy, side dishes (contorni) are listed as separate menu items so you can have asparagus with your roast chicken or roast potatoes with you sole, if you so wish. Set menus do exist, but tend to be optional features in addition to the regular mix-and-match menu.
  • Several things on the menu are mispelled (I'll have to make a separate entry for this)
  • The kitchen staff is shouting in Spanish
  • Your server says "broushedda" instead of bruschetta
  • No Italian region is mentioned in the restaurant name or menu

Now that you have an idea of how to spot the fakes, how do you go about finding the real thing? Find some first generation Italians in your area, better if they haven't been here long and are still in culture shock; they'll know where the good restaurants are. If you live in a big city, there will be organizations for Italian expats and there's always the Web. Universities are also a good place to find people from other countries and they often have clubs. In Pasadena, for instance, there is a strong Italian group at Caltech. The Italian Club at Caltech is very active and friendly; they have weekly events such as movie night and lunch on campus. You don't need to be Italian or a PhD student to participate.

For a glimpse at what it means to be Italian when it comes to food, check out the movie Big Night. It's a great movie that revolves around the preparation of a big Italian dinner, but not just that. I wish they'd use real Italian actors to portray Italians in movies, but I like Tony Shalhoub anyway and they did cast Stanley Tucci and Isabella Rossellini. Well, looks like I digressed a bit… Whatever. Rent the movie.


aah, zuppa di farro. i absolutely love it, but unfortunately it is seemingly impossible to get farro in japan. i usually stock up when i'm in the states or italy, but i've been out for a while...mmm...now i'm hungry!

I have trouble finding farro even here in California. Occasionally there's a lonely package at Whole Foods, but it doesn't taste exactly like the farro I had in Maremma. If you know of a good source, please do tell. Also, is it called spelt or does it have a different name? There seems to be some confusion about the exact translation of the word farro. The one I've used so far requires a much longer soaking time than any recipe from Toscana calls for. I wonder if it really is farro after all or a different variety. The farro in Tuscany is sometimes referred to as farro perlato. If I can find the right kind, I'll add a recipe for zuppa di farro to my to do list. :)