Why Is Italian Food So Amazing?
New York City, my birthplace, is ringed by Italian neighborhoods. Go to Staten Island, to the Bronx, to Long Island or to New Jersey -- it doesn’t really matter where you go, as long as you are within 50 miles of the Empire State Building. Within that fortunate circle, you will find that you are always reasonably close to a neighborhood, or at least a street, full of little stores and restaurants of unprepossessing appearance and fantastic culinary achievement.
Tragically, such neighborhoods are a blessing of erratic and patently unfair geographic distribution.
In the rest of the country the quality of the prosciutto seems to be directly proportional to the number of hand-crafted teak display cases, and also to the elevation of your heart rate when you view the prices posted inside those cases. In Italian neighborhoods, by contrast, the older and more scuffed the linoleum, the barer the badly plastered walls, the more tattered the appearance of the single 1956 Mass card taped into the cash register by way of decoration, the more likely you are to discover the single best piece of charcuterie you have ever eaten.
Unlike some enclaves that develop great restaurants and markets as they gentrify, Italians do not need to seek out good food as a way of expressing that they have arrived, financially and socially. Italians are already there. And being a cheerful and kind people, they are willing to invite the rest of us in.
I appreciated this anew while on vacation in Italy. Having spent years in a food desert of Washington, DC, I was practically weeping over the ease with which one could secure decent pizza. I am not the only American to have noticed that everything tastes better in Italy, and no, that’s not just because you’re on vacation and surrounded by charming ancient buildings. (You may notice that few accounts of vacations in Reykjavik or Dublin begin with “The food was amazing.”) The quality of produce in Italy is, in fact, much better, because Italians demand that it be better. And having gotten their hands on better ingredients, they prepare them with the care their treasures deserve.
It’s not quite clear why Italians have such an amazing array of exquisite regional dishes, nor why they have held out so fanatically against the blandifying forces of modern commercial food processing. We can guess that the Roman Empire probably had something to do with it. Empires facilitate trade in exotic foodstuffs, and rich imperial barons employ chefs who dedicate considerable ingenuity to finding the best possible uses of those ingredients. Arguably the oldest cookbook in the world dates to the Roman Empire, and it is reasonable to suppose that even after that empire collapsed, its culinary influence lingered among the citizenry. (Though it's worth noting that Italian cuisine as we know it today evolved with the arrival of New World foods like tomatoes.)
A long growing season also helps. Without vegetables or abundant herbs, there are only so many possible variations on “hunk of meat,” “piece of fish,” “egg” or “things you can make from milk.” (It’s not an accident that the northern reaches of Europe are little famed for culinary excellence, or that the most interesting and appealing local specialties tend to be either cheeses or some kind of alcohol.)
Ironically, the tenacity and abundance of Italian food culture may also be attributable in part to the intense regional strife that followed the Roman Empire, and the poverty of Italy’s long decline from its Renaissance peak. As my colleague Tyler Cowen has noted in his marvelous book, "An Economist Gets Lunch," in places that industrialized early, mass commercial canning, and television, preceded the technological and logistical innovations that made it easy for us to get decent produce year-round. In those places, hungry and relatively poor people developed a taste, or at least a tolerance, for bland processed food made palatable by lashings of sugar and fat. Then came television, which favored meals that can be eaten one-handed in front of a screen. And women moving into the workforce, which favored anything that can be prepared quickly.
Thanks to its relative poverty, Italy came to these things late, and at a time when global food supply chains were improving. So Italians held onto a food culture that prized care and taste over efficiency and ability to withstand a harsh shipping process.
All these things are probably part of the explanation, but they cannot be all of it, because why, almost a century after the great wave of Italian immigration ended, are Italian Americans still noticeably better-fed than, say, their Irish-American counterparts?
As the anthropologists are fond of telling us, culture is a mystery, difficult to describe, hard to destroy, impossible to create. It’s the emergent sum of millions of individual decisions. So we cannot replicate Italian food culture; we can only try to figure out how to let as many people as possible free ride on their cultural labor.
New York has more than its fair share of Italian cuisine. Perhaps some denizens of a town or neighborhood of a certifiably Italian-American character will take pity on more barren culinary climes. Of course, without a critical mass, the food culture will dissipate into a sea of Oreos and tater-tot casseroles, so we need at least a few thousand to move en masse. (Which reminds me: If only we could spread French cuisine the same way! But since America has pitifully few recent French immigrants, this may require some sort of special visa program.)
Towns could even entice Italian food-related businesses with tax abatements and special grants enabling them to relocate their linoleum, their Mass cards, and their battered steel display cases to new homes within the Great American Food Desert.
This may seem a little extreme to you. Must thousands of our fellow citizens uproot themselves, simply to improve the food culture elsewhere?
To even ask such a question demonstrates how dire the problem is. If you cared about food properly -- which is to say, as much as Italians do -- you’d already be recruiting in and around New York.
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Philip Gray at email@example.com