In the autumn of 1977, John Mariani and his new wife, Galina, took a culinary drive across the U.S. that ground to a halt in Birmingham, Alabama, when a waitress in velveteen shorts served up a really terrible steak.
A lot of haute cuisine in those days came out of cans and would have brought tears to the eyes of his Italian granny, who stuffed little Giovanni with the most beautiful gnocchi.
Now we eat a lot better and, more often than not, Italian.
FedEx, visions of “La Dolce Vita” and a new generation of chefs all contributed to this happy evolution, writes Mariani in “How Italian Food Conquered the World” (Palgrave Macmillan).
I spoke with Mariani, who is the food and travel columnist for Esquire and a wine writer for Bloomberg News, at Felidia, an Italian restaurant in New York owned by Lidia Bastianich, who wrote the book’s foreword.
Hoelterhoff: Look at the menu and compare it to Italian restaurants, say, a generation ago.
Mariani: Nothing on this menu would you have seen in an American restaurant and very little of it would be available even in Italy, which is to say they didn’t eat raw fish. They didn’t eat sushi in Italy until very, very recently.
Chicken livers? We don’t kill chickens because they lay eggs. You only kill them when the bird gets very old and then you have it for Sunday dinner.
Hoelterhoff: I imagine polenta would be too common for restaurant eating?
Mariani: It was considered something that the poor ate three times a day, hating every spoonful.
Hoelterhoff: Some might be surprised at the complex attitude to tomatoes. I see there are a few lurking on this menu.
Mariani: You have to remember how regional Italian cuisine was and is. Italians from the south used tomato sauce, brought it here to the U.S. and made it the signature of their cuisine.
I just spent two weeks in Piedmont and Venice and never saw tomato sauce.
Hoelterhoff: What did you see?
Mariani: I saw butter sauces, I saw cream sauces, I saw vegetable sauces, I saw black cuttlefish sauces. I never saw any tomatoes at all.
Hoelterhoff: The pizza also got transformed in America, ending up supersized.
Mariani: It was really a snack food. Here, I think they just said, we can make it bigger, it’s not going to cost any more.
When Yogi Berra got a pizza delivered to the dugout, he looked at it and said, “They cut it into eight slices. How is anybody supposed to eat eight slices? If they cut it into six slices, I could eat the thing.”
Hoelterhoff: What’s the first memorable meal you had other than grandma’s gnocchi?
Mariani: In the summer of 1965 when I had my first bite of real French food at the Gare du Nord in Paris. It just threw me back in my chair, it was so delicious.
Hoelterhoff: What was it?
Mariani: Blanquette de veau in white cream sauce brought in a ceramic dish. The waiter put it in front of me, lifted off the lid, steam came up and hit me in the face like catnip.
Another catalyst was our 14-week honeymoon drive across the United States. The food was simply awful.
Hoelterhoff: Fresh from a can! You write that even New York only had a handful of great restaurants in the 1970s.
Mariani: They didn’t have the ingredients. There was no good olive oil, forget about extra virgin, they didn’t have real prosciutto, they didn’t have a real parmigiano. There was no imported pasta and nobody was really making fresh pasta either.
Hoelterhoff: For an evening out, you went to a French restaurant.
Mariani: Though they weren’t great either. Henri Soule, the owner of Le Pavillon, this fantastic haute cuisine restaurant, said that he might have the richest people on earth dining at Le Pavillon that night, but he could not obtain the ingredients that a French bourgeois housewife was serving to her husband. No fraises de bois, wild mushrooms, French cheeses or foie gras.
Hoelterhoff: Then in the 1960s, cheap international flights really changed everything, didn’t they? Americans got educated about how real Italian food tastes.
Mariani: Those 707s took off from JFK and from Paris, London and Rome loaded with young Americans, who had seen the movies “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “La Dolce Vita.” And in their backpack they had the most important travel book ever written, Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day.” Which could be done.
Hoelterhoff: Is there a part of the world that Italian food hasn’t conquered?
Mariani: It seems Peru might be an exception. I got this little reproach from The Washington Post’s book critic. But really, except for darker recesses of Africa, I honestly can’t think of any places.
Hoelterhoff: And they probably have Chef Boyardee.
Mariani: They’ll sell a million cans this afternoon.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)