Italian Cooking in the United States

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This morning I was reading one of the many Italian blogs I subscribe to.  There was an article about one of the best known ambassadors of Italian cooking in the U.S., Piero Salvaggio. If you are not familiar with him, he’s credited with the revolution of Italian dining here in the states.  He opened Valentino restaurant  in Santa Monica in 1972 and it has been a success almost from the beginning .   It was that same ‘Italian’ food served throughout the country; heavy sauces, rubbery mozzarella and those straw wrapped Chianti bottles everywhere. In other words, that Italian American cooking that so many still believe is Italian.    Then a ‘foodie’ told him that his food was awful and his wines worse.   After Piero recovered from his shock,  the diner suggested he go to Italy and see what Italian  food was really like.  Salvaggio took him seriously and made a trip to Italy to see what he had missed since he left Sicily in his early teens.

It was truly an awakening for him to understand what Italian cooking is really about: simplicity and quality.  That changed his entire concept at his restaurant and that awareness of the elegance of Italian food has continued since 1979.   It has made Valentino’s restaurant one of the highest rated in every food journal for all these years.  In fact, Bon Appétit magazine included Valentino it in its “Millennium Special” about the places that changed American dining forever.

Salvaggio was the one who introduced Americans to fresh mozzarella, burrata, real prosciutto, extra virgin olive oil, risotto, balsamic vinegar and white truffles, items on every Italian restaurant menu now, but that were considered exotic back then.    It’s amazing to realize how recently all these were not even available in the U.S.

It is always a  surprise to me that so many people have not realized how different real Italian cooking is to what we here think of as Italian.   Our familiar Italian dishes are really Italian American dishes devised by  immigrants who arrived here finding few of the ingredients there were familiar with so they adapted.

I know that for me, living in Italy completely changed not only my concept of Italian food, but my whole way of cooking.  Having cooked my whole life I was always considered a very good cook, but this life-changing awareness of the ‘Italian way’ made me a much better cook.   It simplified my life, changed my shopping and made preparing meals much faster.  It is surely true that many Italian meals can be made in less than half an hour. That’s fast food as far as I’m concerned.   And, a much healthier way of eating.

Every region in Italy has it’s own specialties and regional variations.  Some are differences only in the shapes of the pastas  or some the sauce ingredients and some are the methods of preparation.  The consistency seems to be in the  use of the  ingredients that are local, in season and the freshest available.  And, it is okay if the ingredients are basic and simple. And, let nothing go to waste.

In Rome, the traditional pasta dishes of  Cucina Romana usually incorporate Pecorino Romano cheese (similar to Parmesan, but saltier and a little sharper in flavor), Guanciale (which is pork jowl) rather than pancetta,  peperoncini (chili flakes) and black pepper.
Yep, that with one or two additional ingredients comprise the bulk of their local pasta specialties – Caccio e Pepe, Bucatini all’Amatriciana, Alla Gricia, Arrabbiata and Carbonara. The differences in these sauces are minute. Gricia is Amatriciana without the tomatoes. Carbonara adds eggs to the  basic ingredients of Caccio e Pepe. All of them are made in the time it takes to cook the pasta.

Truthfully though, the other end of Roman specialties is offal, which are those parts of the animal that Americans rarely see, let alone eat. Tails, intestines, sweetmeats and all those parts we normally toss are savored in Rome.   And then many Roman specialties are fried.  Suppli’ al telefono, baccala’ those fabulous (and famous) carciofi alla giudia (artichokes in the Jewish way).  But, the defining issue remains always to use the highest quality foods, fresh as possible and cleanly prepared. My mouth is already watering just thinking about some of these things.  A lunch of Suppli’ always thrills me.

I do think that Italians, always quick to offer food, confidently know that there are a number of dishes that can be prepared from any Italian kitchen at a moments notice. No planning, no thinking, no shopping.  That kind of simplicity is the essence of Italian cooking:  use the absolute freshest and best ingredients generously prepared with love.  It really is easy and oh, so good.

As an example:  When we first were living in Rome we were shopping at a local mall, with a wonderful Italian friend.  The conversation of favorite pasta sauces came up (I’ve mentioned that all conversation eventually is about food) and my husband said I still think my all time favorite is spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti with clams).  Our friend said “My spaghetti con vongole is the best”.  We were about to leave to stop for lunch and our friend, Germana, said “Wait, we go into the market”.  We said, sure and followed her into the Carrefour market.     She walked to the fish section grabbed a bag of clams and said,  “Let’s go.  I make lunch”.     We were eating some of the best spaghetti con vongole we’ve ever had in less than a half hour.  That’s a perfect example of what living around Italians proves:  There are many dishes that take no time from thought to mouth;  never say you would like to try or eat something in particular unless you do not want it on the table shortly thereafter or  the next time you meet;  and,  never forget that food is love and sharing, from purchase to preparation to eating.

Try making real carbonara. No cream please!

Spaghetti alla Carbonara                                                                           For 4 people
1 pound of spaghetti
6 ounces guanciale (I do use Trader Joe’s pancetta often)
3/4 cup fresh grated Pecorino Romano cheese (plus more for serving)
4 egg yolks and 1 whole egg
Pepper to taste (cracked pepper is best)
Extra virgin olive oil

Start the water in a large pan for the spaghetti, add a handful (yes, handful) of salt. Remember, pasta water should taste like the sea. When the water is at the rolling boil, add the pasta. Cook the pasta 1 minutes less than the package suggests.
In the meantime, dice (or make strips) of the guanciale and put into a pan on medium heat. Cook slowly till the fat is transparent and the bacon is crispy. (This takes 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it cool slightly.
Put the eggs in a bowl and whisk lightly adding at least half of the cheese and a good sprinkling of pepper. Drain the pasta quickly and add to the bowl along with the guanciale, stirring quickly to mix. Top with the rest of the cheese, more pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and eat.

There is some thought that the American version (using cream) was developed because this is a creamy sauce. But actually, when you add the hot pasta to the eggs, it develops into a creamy sauce that is healthier and tastier than using cream.

Enjoy and buon appetito!

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