Italians are not patriotic about much…except their food. They tell me French cuisine is the art of making a fine sauce to cover the taste of mediocre ingredients. In Italy, they say, “La miglior cucina comincia dal mercato” — “the best cuisine starts from the market.”
It’s the ingredients, stupid. And that’s the topic of conversation (which can become an animated debate) when a chef comes out to chat with his diners. “Arugula is not yet in season. But oh, Sra. Maria has more sun in her backyard…and her chickens give her a marvelous fertilizer.”
It occurred to me that high cuisine has evolved like flowers. The most attractive get all the attention, and over time get even better. I’m in hog heaven with my Amarone wine, cheese plate, and honey. When the fancy wine glasses come out, you know it’s a particularly complex wine. At my last fine dinner, the glasses seemed designed to function like a gas mask…or drug paraphernalia, if the truth be told.
Then Corinna, who ran the enoteca I was enjoying, takes things up a notch proposing “a dish of walnuts for acidity and texture…to give things a kick. And the walnuts rake your palate.”
To go gourmet and not go broke, I like a small, classy enoteca (wine bars are trendy in Italy these days) owned and operated by hands-on food evangelists. A great wine costs â‚¬8 (about $10) a glass. Rather than bog down on an expensive entrée (or secondi), I order top-end on the antipasti and primi piatti list. That’s appetizers — the best meats and cheeses possible, and the chef’s favorite pasta dish of the day. Again…it’s the ingredients.
Strangely for me, even in the finest places, Italian waiters and waitresses don’t think coughing into their hands is a problem. (There’s been no rain here for a month. People keep telling me that’s giving everyone colds.) When I complain about this to people who run restaurants…they look at me like I’m from Mars. I guess that’s the downside of a hands-on food evangelist.