“Americans have had a long-standing love affair with the cuisine of Italy,” write Nina and Tim Zagat in the preface to Zagat’s America’s 1,000 Top Italian Restaurants. “Americans say that they prefer Italian food to any other type of food — even American food — in survey after survey.”
Leafing through the new guide, I was impressed by the radical transformation of Americans’ perceptions of Italian food and how they have changed over the last ten years. When I finished my doctorate in Italian in 1997 in Los Angeles and moved to NYC, people still thought of Italian cuisine as “northern” or “southern” (the former being preferable at the time) and few Americans could tell you the difference between gnocchi and cavatelli.
The appearance of the Zagat’s national Italian restaurant directory comes ten years after The New York Times published two articles that — in my opinion — marked the dawn of a new era in Americans’ perceptions of Italian cuisine.
One was Ruth Reichl’s 3-star review of Babbo, “A Radical Departure With Sure Footing” (August 26, 1998), where she anointed Mario Batali as the new prince of Italian cuisine in the U.S. (Just two months earlier, on June 26, she had written of Mario’s previous effort: “I should probably start by telling you that I am not a big fan of Po. So when I heard that Mario Batali, its chef and owner, had taken over the old Coach House on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village…, I was not particularly impressed.”) At the time, 3 stars from The Times for an Italian restaurant were practically inconceivable.
The other was Amanda Hesser’s “A Southern Italian Renaissance; After red sauce, America is discovering the real thing” (October 21, 1998). Albeit not the first but certainly one of the earliest fans of genuine southern Italian food, Amanda wrote convincingly that southern Italian cuisine deserved the epicure’s attention. Her interest in Salvatore Anzalone’s Sicilian restaurant, Caffè Bondi, and Nicola Marzovilla’s Apulian, I Trulli, showed readers that serious food writers (and restaurateurs) were taking southern Italy seriously. Regional Italian cuisine had arrived.
“In the past,” write Nina and Tim, “Italian restaurants in America described themselves as either Northern or Southern, but in recent years more and more Italian chefs have proudly emphasized their regional roots. Thus, Americans are coming to understand the distinct tastes of the many regions of Italy.” [There are 20 regions of Italy, btw.]
The Zagats were among the pioneers of “user-generated content” and the success of their guides is testament to their vision. The downside is that the user-generated reviews are not always reliable. The 2008 Zagat NYC restaurant guide named Babbo — surprise, surprise — the city’s top Italian restaurant. Number 2 was Il Mulino, one of the city’s worst tourist traps and most disappointing landmark restaurants: last year, I had what was possibly the worst and most expensive (adding insult to injury) meals of my life there.
America’s 1,000 Top Italian Restaurants wisely omits a top-5 listing and it includes a useful (however poorly translated) primer to Italian food and wine and regional Italian cuisine.
Whatever your favorite Italian restaurant or regional cuisine, one thing’s for certain: North America’s taste for Italian food has come a long way.