Boot Scootin'

Why is Italian food so popular?

Consider the curious relationship between Americans and ground corn.

Each food item we purchase or consume in public conveys information regarding social status and culinary knowledge. Nothing is more confusing, however, than the tangled messages we send and receive when ordering a meal. For a male diner, steak says strength--and early access to inheritance money for the trophy wife--while salad suggests a certain amount of gender uncertainty. Either that or the guy's just visiting from California. At the same time, the value we attach to an item is often misguided.

So consider, again, our perception of ground corn. Sophisticated diners scorn grits and belittle anyone who praises the soppy mush. Yet in a recent survey, 54 percent of the epicurean crowd expressed adoration for polenta, an Italian side dish consisting of ground corn boiled into a soppy mush.

Grits, in other words.

Much like the difference between snails and escargot, squid and calamari, pizza dough and foccacia bread, Bobby Moore and Ahmad Rashad, we attribute greater refinement to products with cool foreign names.

This week's Burning Question addresses another curious aspect of our culinary nature. American culture derives its various impulses from Europe, Asia and everywhere in between. Our population grew in waves as people emigrated from England, Ireland, Germany, Mexico and so forth. Professional kitchens were first organized by Escoffier, the famed 19th-century French chef, although Tim Penn of Mi Piaci claims, only partly in jest, that "Italians taught them [the French] how to cook." That may be true, but French is the international language of the culinary arts.

So why is Italian cooking so popular?

"Italian is a simple cuisine," says Michael Marshall, a chef at the now defunct French standout, The Riviera. "It's more accessible and up-front. French can be perceived as froufrou."

There are 20 fine French restaurants in the Dallas area and barely four German establishments, if we allow for a little lebensraum and include Austrian joints. By comparison, almost 400 Italian restaurants clog the local market, part of a global community of 55,000 Italian establishments generating close to $27 billion in annual sales, according to Italy's Ministry of Agriculture. Or the former Ministry of Agriculture, if their government changed in the last few days. When Bon Appétit surveyed its readership, pasta ranked as the No. 1 comfort food, Tuscany as the top destination and Mario Batali as one of America's leading celebrity chefs.

"Simplicity," reiterates Francesco Farris, chef at Arcodoro & Pomodoro, "that's the popularity. The ingredients, the freshness, the seasons, the simplicity."

He might as well mention the adaptability, as well. Italy saw fit to join both sides in World War II, and the constant flow of troops through the country helped introduce their cuisine to the world. French cuisine suffered not because of national weakness--hey, we all know they refuse to support war against Iraq just because they'd have to surrender yet again--but as a result of growing health concerns. Lots of butter, lots of cream and big portions of garden pests don't fit into low-cholesterol diets. As a result, some of our most common foods are now of Italian origin.

"Who doesn't know spaghetti?" Farris asks. "Who doesn't know pizza?"

Or Chef Boyardee, for that matter. From childhood on, Americans learn to consume dishes based roughly on Italian classics. "The mass-produced stuff is readily available and, in most cases, is produced with good ingredients," Penn agrees. "Spaghetti in a can is not good, by any means, but it's familiar."

Familiar, yes, but not authentic. The crux of this week's Burning Question is that the product Americans find so appealing barely resembles true Italian cuisine. "There are so many places that claim to serve authentic Italian," acknowledges Gilbert Garza, executive chef at Suze, citing Olive Garden, among others. "Even the chains use the right buzzwords," Mi Piaci's Penn complains. "They use 'Tuscan' whether they serve Tuscan or not." Tuscany is one of 21 different culinary regions in Italy. Arcodoro & Pomodoro, for example, is an authentic Sardinian restaurant and their dishes draw upon Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and other Mediterranean cuisine.

"This country is badly represented in Italian restaurants," Farris says. "They bend over to American tastes."

The Burning Question crew sat down with Farris to sample real Italian dishes, although we concentrated on grappa while he discoursed on the origins and preparation of several plates. He explained that authentic cuisine relies on fresh ingredients, often with little more than olive oil to dress up the flavor, a point reiterated by other chefs. "Because the food is so simple, the ingredients have to be fresh," Penn explains. "You can't hide a bad piece of fish." Well, you can, really. They're called fish sticks, but they're not Italian. And we're not even sure they're fish. "I was cleaning wild thyme and burning the feathers off chicken when I was in Tuscany," Garza recalls. "You can't get fresher than that."

The breadth of authentic Italian cuisine is surprising to those trained on Spaghetti-Os or frozen lasagna. Farris serves a wonderful array of olives and seafood and ham. "In Tuscany," Garza adds, "they have rabbit on every menu. They make squab risotto. It can be amazingly different."

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