You’ve come a long way, baby.

“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.

3 thoughts on “You’ve come a long way, baby.

  1. Zagat is unreliable shorthand. I avoid restaurants that emphasize Northern Italian, i.e. French-Italian, smaller portions, larger tab. Neither do I like nondescript tomato sauce on everything. Even on Sicily there are regional variations. There no one Sicilian cuisine. The southern and west coasts have more North African influences. The Aeolian Islands have their own twist too. The east coast has more Greek touches.

  2. Yes, Marco, you see the same provincial-level nuances all over the country. It’s very exciting to discover them while there, even more gratifying to see such cooking popping up in America. The beauty of it is that we now have the “education” and desire for more and more specific, subregional Italian cuisine in this country. It bodes well for the long term appetite for “Italian” food over here — and for the country’s wine. I’d just like to see the public’s awareness of the wine catch up with their savvy about the grub!

  3. BTW, Jeremy, I have similar reservations about Zagat. My partner, however, has arrived at the point where he won’t go someplace unless it has a certain Zagat score on food.

    Hurry back to NY, will ya.

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