Esquire food writer John Mariani documents Italy's march to the head of the table
John Mariani has been compiling Esquire's Best New Restaurants list for as long as I've been a subscriber to that magazine, something like 28 years.
Like anybody who writes critically about food and the people who make it, he's a lightning rod for controversy, whether it comes from Anthony Bourdain's broadsides in "Medium Raw" or livid practitioners of molecular gastronomy. Agree or disagree with his disquisitional work, the cat knows his Italian food, from the misunderstood history to the simple osterias. His work on the subject includes "The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink" and "The Italian-American Cookbook."
But with his new book, "How Italian Food Conquered the World" ($25, Palgrave MacMillan), Mariani's mind is on empire-building, with explorations of history, geography, wine, organized crime, fiercely regional cuisines and even fiercer personalities. We learn that Italy came together as a country only about the time we were fighting our Civil War and that Italian food still doesn't have a collective identity, unless you count the Italian-American spaghetti-and-meatballs canon. Which you shouldn't.
Mariani will speak and sign copies of his book Friday at the Backspace pizzeria. We talked about the ascendency of Italian food, Austin's restaurant scene and how long we take to order (too long).
American-Statesman: In "How Italian Food Conquered the World," Italians and Italian food pop up as a kind of culinary Forrest Gump, stumbling into newsreels of great moments in food: Delmonico's as the first true foreign restaurant in the U.S., the birth in Mexico of the Caesar salad, opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini as the namesake for the bane of school lunches everywhere, the actual Forrest Gump being nurtured at Elaine's by way of credit extended to his creator, Winston Groom. Was this Italian omnipresence an accident or an inevitability?
John Mariani: Its omnipresence spread out very quickly from New York and the Eastern cities as of the 1920s, because it was very lovable comfort food. It was extremely cheap, just like Chinese American food was and Jewish American food was and Irish American food was at the time, as all ethnic foods were. You could never, ever charge for an Italian meal what you would at a French restaurant.
That it became far more enormous than any of the other ethnic foods, including even Mexican, that is remarkable. And I think that is a function of the post-World War II era when Americans started to regard Italy via the movies and television and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, as an unusually attractive people whose food was abundant and never pretentious. So the ball was really rolling as of the 1950s and early '60s.
You talked about how Italian food conquered the world, and I think by the end of the book, you certainly see that it's kicked French food off its throne.
French cuisine, especially French haute cuisine, has been in trouble for some time because of its ultra-refinement, its elitism and its outrageous expense. Concomitant to that, when Italian restaurants, specifically in America and to a lesser extent in Italy itself, when they began to use the more expensive, for lack of a better word, artisanal ingredients and to ferret out the very best olive oils and the most delicious of all prosciutto hams and great balsamic vinegars, they said, "You know, it's time to move away or at least to move up from the meatballs and spaghetti, the lasagna and manicotti. We can do it. We want to show people that we can be as refined as any cuisine in the world."
The turning point in this book, to me, was FedEx.
No question. FedEx and DHL delivered big-time. They made it possible to get wild mushrooms and truffles that weren't rotten by the time they got to the dock. Prior to FedEx and DHL, even the French used nothing but crummy old white mushrooms.
In the book, you mention Italian food futurist Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, who advocated spraying perfume in darkened dining rooms and eating pineapple with sardines in place of pasta. Any future for our modern incarnations of food futurism?
I've been doing this for 35 years. I wasn't around for Marinetti's fusions. But he knew what he was doing. He was simply somebody who loved to stick his finger in everybody's eye. They didn't take any of this food futurism seriously, although he did believe that pasta was making Italian men soft and lethargic.
What you have with contemporary modernists or molecular cuisine is pretty much the same thing, and without the recognition that when you're using gels, colloids, blenders, centrifuges, various oxides and so forth that they're just really doing what Kellogg's and General Mills have been doing for a very long time. Look at Lucky Charms. This is modernist cuisine. Somehow they have gotten these little marshmallows and they've colored them and they're all exactly, precisely the same shape.
Speaking of molecular cuisine, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago was pretty hard on you in his book "Life, on the Line." He said you took notes on, then left with, one of his expensive wine lists, then he alluded to a story about how you made rock-star demands on a restaurant. How do you account for the animosity there?
The curious thing is that I've found in my career that if you say nothing about a restaurant, about a chef with a great ego, it enrages him more than if you just criticize him. The fact that he did not make it into Esquire's Best New Restaurants of the Year that year — because I didn't think that much of the food, and I thought it was overblown, and eating 28 courses was a kind of elitist gluttony — he became so enraged that six years later in his book he has to write about me, when in fact I never wrote a negative word about the guy. That seems to be the basis of it. That he makes these ridiculous accusations about me lugging a wine list — an expensive wine list, which amounts to, in my mind, a criminal act — he should have called the police if in fact I did that. And the fact that both my editor friend and his own publicist were at the table and didn't see that happen, I don't know where this comes from.
My main point about Achatz is that while he's gotten enormous media attention, as anybody who does this kind of extravagant food, he and the other molecular cuisineers have not had any influence whatsoever on the world of gastronomy.
In your Best New Restaurants piece in Esquire in 2008, you'd had enough of farm-to-table and cocktail programs, things that are everywhere now. Did you dismiss those too quickly, or do you just have a low threshold for pretense?
I would say the latter. The farm-to-table thing, what bothered me about it is not that it's not the greatest idea in the world, but that it is so patently obvious. It's like you love the flag or the United States. If you said to a Frenchman or an Italian or a Chinese cook, "Where do you get your ingredients?" they'd look at you like, well, we get them from the farm, and we try to use the most local stuff and freshest stuff. What's the big deal? I don't think I've seen a press release in two years that didn't use "farm-to-table" and "locavore" in its promotion. It's just meaningless.
Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar in Austin made your Best New Restaurants list in 2009. Bourdain said nice things about our food trailer scene last year. What's your perception of Austin as a restaurant city?
I've been there probably four or five times in the last dozen years. I'll be coming back this year. Aside from just the hip dining scene that appeals to young people — places like Parkside and others — it's pretty darn solid across the board. There is good barbecue and there are good beer joints, but there's also good little French places and bistros. For the kind of city that most American visitors would probably spend 3.4 days in, you can eat very, very well in Austin.
A common complaint I hear is that there's not enough good Italian food in Austin. What makes for "good Italian" in the first place?
It should be simple and respect the traditions of certain dishes. If you're going to be making a spaghetti alla carbonara, you should really try to get guanciale or pancetta, and don't put heavy cream in it and don't put a bunch of other things in it. Make it according to the traditions that have made it such a famous dish for decades and decades. Second thing, as with any food, just buy the very best ingredients you can find. And then I don't mind seeing it transformed by a young chef, but I would have liked that chef to have spent some time in Italy. Since (Austin) is such a sophisticated city, why it does not have Italian restaurants on the order of Houston, Dallas, certainly baffles me.
I gave my first five-star review a few weeks ago, to David Bull's Congress. One of the things that pushed it over for me was correct service. Proper flatware, good china, proper glasses, tablecloths that are starched and hung so they fit the tables sharply on the corners. The tables are cleared and crumbed after every course.
The greatest thing when I was a teenager that I saw, and this was not unique to Spark's Steakhouse, but I remember the first time seeing it there. They had this marvelous ritual. You've eaten your steak and potatoes and you've got all this (stuff) all over the tablecloth. Then for dessert, they not only crumb it, but one waiter comes with a rolled-up tablecloth, puts it on one edge as the other waiter rolls the dirty one, this gesture like changing a record. You have this wonderful little ritual played out. I just thought that was the height of sophistication. Still do.
The fact that service set this place above what I've experienced in Austin made me worry about the state of service in general.
It's a state of decibel levels, too. Much as I like places like Parkside and others, they're deliberately loud. And they're supposed to create this excitement and youthful buzz. I don't demand fine dining everywhere I go, but by the same token, I think that being able to talk to the person at your table is one of the basic requisites of going out to eat.
You wrote last year that "a gentleman never takes more than one minute to decide on his meal." I say please and thank you and I don't blow my nose at the table, but no way can I order anything in less than a minute. Does that make me a lout?
Maybe you should reconsider your priorities, that's all. My father and your father would go to a place, and it wasn't always a damn steakhouse. They'd sit down, they'd open the menu, the waiter would come over and say: "Mr. Mariani, we got a wonderful rack of lamb." "OK, that sounds good, Ted. I'll have it." Boom. Done. The trouble is when you go with another couple. "I think I'll have the salmon." "Oh honey, I was going to have the salmon." "Oh no, you go \u2026" "No go ahead, have the salmon." "Maybe I'll have the scallops. No, I don't really want the scallops." Spare me.
From Mariani: While most Italians north of Rome rarely used tomatoes in their sauces, Italian American immigrants from the south made the simple tomato sauce called marinara into a staple of their cooking, usually using canned tomatoes imported from Italy.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, crushed
Two 28-ounce cans Italian-style tomatoes with juices, crushed or chopped
3-4 leaves of fresh chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add garlic and cook until lightly browned. The garlic cloves may be left in the sauce or removed.
Add the tomatoes and parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
— From John Mariani's "How Italian Food Conquered the World"
John Mariani will discuss and sign copies of his new book ‘How Italian Food Conquered the World' at the Backspace pizzeria (507 San Jacinto Blvd. 474-9899) at 5:30 p.m. Friday. $50 includes a copy of the book plus antipasti, Neapolitan pizza, wine and beer from the Backspace. Reservations at www.thebackspace-austin.com .
CORRECTION: This story originally included the incorrect day of John Mariani's book signing. The signing is Friday.