12 The NaTioNal CuliNary review • oCTober 2015
ethnic cuisine the real deal
early universally beloved in the U.S., Italian cuisine has helped
shape our culinary identity—and inspired a massive hybrid “Italian-American” category
all its own. But consumer expectations attached to “Italian” pose challenges to chefs
pushing the boundaries of authentic Italian cooking.
Italy’s hyper-seasonal, ingredient-driven approach to food and cooking continues to inspire
chefs regardless of their heritage. Food with a true sense of place engages them, from rose-hued,
nutty cured prosciutto di Parma smoked with local cherry wood to white truffles captured from
the yellowing hills of Umbria in autumn and the inherent hospitality of unpretentious multicourse
meals served by multiple generations of one family in a little trattoria.
Joe Flamm, chef de cuisine at Tony Mantuano’s 31-year-old award-winning Italian restaurant
Spiaggia in Chicago, calls this the elusive “lightning in a bottle” that every restaurant with some
tie to Italy tries to capture. “You go to Italy, and of course the food’s incredible—all about terroir,”
he says. “But there’s something about the way it’s served and the way people interact, too.”
“Italian food” in America is a loaded concept. It traces its roots to the some 5 million Italians who
immigrated to America—largely from Naples and Sicily starting around 1880, John Mariani explains in
How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). When those immigrants and first-generation Italian-Americans started opening restaurants and retail food shops, they cooked many
of the same hearty, rustic dishes they grew up eating in Italy, but adapted them, using American
ingredients and techniques. And over the ensuing 130-odd years, these popularized, red sauce- and
mozzarella-smothered adaptations of veal marsala, lasagna, and spaghetti and meatballs became
synonymous with mainstream Italian-American comfort food.
In the shadow of this hulking hybrid cuisine, a growing number of restaurants looking to
differentiate themselves as “real” Italian started going beyond generalized Northern and Southern
designations into “hyper-regional mode,” says Matthew Accarrino, chef of Michelin-starred SPQR
in San Francisco.
Just don’t call it Italian-American. by MaGGie heNNeSSy
opposite, clockwise froM top
left: 1) Sal’s old-school meatballs
with tomato potato at amis are a
playful nod to the italian-american
food chef brad Spence grew up eating.
2) agrodolce’s cured pork loin with
chili olive oil, fennel and chive.
3) scallop chitarra with orange and
olive oil at vetri.
4) spiaggia cafe’s
whole roasted branzino with fennel,
neonata, tropea onions, grapes, celery
and Marcona almonds.