- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2011

By John F. Mariani
Foreword by Lidia Bastinich
Palgrave Macmillan, $25, 270 pages

John F. Mariani, whose dust jacket heralds him as Esquire magazine’s “food & travel correspondent,” argues that Italian food used to be the Rodney Dangerfield of cuisines, the one that got no respect. His gustatory history reports how all that changed until today when Italian has become the reigning cuisine - in his view - the culinary colossus. Buon appetito.

His argument begins with a negative notion. “There was no Italian food before there was an Italy,” that is until King Victor Emmanuel II unified the boot’s city-states, provinces, princedoms, principalities and regions in 1861. Before that, nothing except perhaps the language could properly be termed Italian. One could find Tuscany, Naples, Florence and Milan on a map and thus viands called Tuscan, Neapolitan, Florentine and Milanese on a plate. Then, as now, the important distinctions of Italian dishes were not national but local.

What came to be known as Italian restaurants, in America at least, invented what he calls Italian-American food. It was, he opines, a diet found nowhere on the peninsula bounded by the Alps, the Adriatic and Mediterranean. It featured spaghetti doused with a red sauce and meatballs or sausage; and veal sliced, hammered and smothered in parmesan (i.e. cheese from Parma). The prices were modest, the tablecloth checkered, and the waiter a guy named Tony while Mamma worked the cucina. The ambiente was romantic, every table lit by a drippy candle stuck in a fiasco at no extra charge.

Whether in Baltimore or Ohio, in New York, New Haven or Hartford, in Atchison, Topeka or Santa Fe - any of the towns linked by the tracks laid by immigrant Italian gandy dancers -“the little Italian place” was the dating venue of choice. Everyone of a certain age (count me in please) remembers it fondly. Mamma mia, it was cheap, exotic, romantic and Italian - well, Italian-American.

There were grander establishments, some of them very grand of course, from Delmonico’s, that icon of New York’s Gilded Age, to Galileo in our time and town. Mr. Mariani seems to have gotten the goods on them all, going so far in a postscript as to note the fate of just about every ristorante and trattoria that was known farther away than the next block - along with every Italianate brand of faux food, e.g. Chef Boyardee and Rice-a-Roni.

This treatise has endnotes too, written in bland academic style, to reinforce the author’s intent to make a contribution to the literature of food. The narrative is even garnished with a few recipes: from the simplest marinara sauce in Christendom (it’s delicious, I’ll attest) to polenta with burrata and caviar (which I haven’t tried). In terms of bookmaking, I give the publishers two stars for apt design, graphic elements and old photographs, though they cut corners with the pulpy paper.

As a history, Mr. Mariani’s pudding is larded with nuggets of information: Marco Polo didn’t introduce the Chinese noodle to Venice, rather he compared it to vermicelli. Italian pasta comes in more than 500 named shapes. Booker T. Washington, a former slave, thought blacks in our South had a better lot than Sicilians. Sales of oregano in America increased 5,200 percent between 1948 and 1956. The word “paparazzi” comes from the name of a photographer in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”

But dyspeptic as it sounds, Mr. Mariani overbastes his bird and overlooks another trend that was rising in step with his chosen phenom. When Americans’ idea of Italian was spaghetti and meatballs, our notion of Japanese food was sukiyaki, that concoction of meat stir-fried with soy and vegetables in electric pans at tableside. This was exotic, too. French food was vichyssoise and coq au vin; German meant schnitzel and bratwurst; and Chinese was chop suey, chow mein and sweet-and-sour whatever.

For the first half of the 20th century, most Americans’ diets were bland, repetitive and cooked to death. Then in the decades after World War II, we started eating out, until every kind of food conquered my world at least. Consider: Within blocks of my office in Bethesda, Md., I can choose among Afghan, Belgian, Chinese, English, French, Indian, Irish, Japanese, Lebanese, Malay, Mongolian, Spanish and Tex-Mex - plus, of course, Italian, Italian-American, sports bar and New York deli.

A food snob, Mr. Mariani lets his superiority spoil his palate. Driving across the country on an eating odyssey for his honeymoon 35 years ago:

“What we found was a depressing and dismal array of restaurants of every stripe - French, American, Mexican, Chinese and Italian - that disabused us of any idea that America had come of age as a gastronomic power. … Even in New Orleans … we found … out-of-date wine lists, inedible turtle soup, gummy rice dishes, and overcooked shrimp. … After a wretched steak dinner served by a waitress in velveteen shorts at a well-recommended restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., my wife burst into tears and said ‘We can’t go on eating like this all the way to California.’ “

That was before Italian conquered all.

Philip Kopper, author and publisher of Posterity Press Inc., writes, edits, cooks and eats in Maryland.

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