Back in 1999, I took my first trip to Italy. I was dazzled by the ancient ruins, the magnificent cathedrals, and, of course, the food. It seemed no matter where I sat down, a good meal was waiting to happen. From pizza to pasta, in Italy, you were basically guaranteed something tasty. Oh, how times have changed.
Since then, I have returned to Italy on three separate occasions, and each time I have left dissatisfied with the cuisine. My most recent trip to Italy’s culinary heartland, Bologna, though, was certainly the most disappointing. This was supposed to be the mecca of Italian cooking: the home of ragù, mortadella, and tortellini en brodo. So why was my food a salty mess of garbage? Honestly, I found myself wishing to exchange my bowl of tortellini for at least some passable Russian pelmeni. And it’s not just me. Apparently, even destitute migrants are thumbing their noses at free Italian food.
I have two basic theories about what has happened to one of the world’s most iconic cuisines. The first being that Italian food was never that great. Italy was one of the first European countries that I ever visited. Maybe I was easily impressed. Maybe I have let nostalgia color my judgment. Or maybe Italian food just seemed good considering that the only thing I had to compare it with was the Olive Garden.
There is no doubt that the American culinary scene has changed immensely. Twenty years ago, restaurant options were limited unless you lived in a big city like New York. It was a world of diners and family-friendly chains like Applebee’s. For most people, authentic Italian food just wasn’t an option.
However, today it’s almost assured that you live within driving distance of some hipster’s bistro. And as much as I despise hipsterdom, they care quite a bit about the quality of their food. While America (and much of the rest of the world) experienced a revolution in cooking, Italian fare has remained provincial and uninspired.
My second theory is that mass tourism has completely altered the marketplace for restaurants in Italy. What is the point of serving up delicious meals when you’re never going to see your customer again? It’s much easier (and cheaper) to pour a cup of salt in the sauce than actually develop the skills needed in a kitchen.
The impact of tourism becomes obvious if you happen to venture away from the center of most Italian cities. Not only does the quality of the food increase, but the prices drop as well. One of the best meals I have had in Italy was in an outlying neighborhood of Rome.
But this suburban culinary boundary continues to be pushed further and further afield, making it progressively more difficult to sit down to a good meal. Again we are left searching for a few hidden gastronomic gems instead of being bedazzled by a plethora of options. It’s almost like the Italians have consciously decided to keep their food to themselves while serving second rate cuisine to foreigners. After all, they will never know the difference, right?
So what should one do? My best advice is to get as far away from a city’s center as possible, never eat at a restaurant that opens before 8 PM, and run for the hills if more than half of the clientele is foreign. Alternatively, buy the ingredients yourself and cook at home. There is plenty of fresh pasta, meats, cheeses, and vegetables for sale; it will almost certainly be better than anything you get in a restaurant. And if all else fails: go to Croatia. They may not have Italy’s art, but they sure know Italian cooking.