My dad and I often have a debate about food. It usually begins when my dad says, “This restaurant sucks.” You see, my dad likes food that is familiar and when it comes to food that’s familiar he loves Italian food. But a very specific kind of Italian food: he loves American Italian food.
I like American Italian food too, but I don’t like it as much as Italian Italian food. To me, American Italian food is food you’d find on the menu at The Olive Garden: Caesar salad, Chicken Parmesan, Tiramisu. Yes, these dishes have their roots in the real Italy (and some of them, I’m sure, are actually still prepared there) but, like a game of telephone, the dishes morphed and evolved as they made their way across the ocean. The American version of these dishes hits you over the head with garlic, tomato sauce, with cheese–and that’s all very well and good, but when you eat that way you’re eating like an American, not an Italian.
Italian Italian food is, to me, ingredient driven. It’s the food Paul Bertolli talks about in the original Chez Panisse cookbook, it’s the food Mario Batali makes on reruns of Molto Mario, and it’s the food I most often try to make at home. As Mario says on his show, Italian Italian food is all about balance–you dress your pasta like you dress a salad: it’s all about the noodle, not the condiment.
The best way to illustrate these points is to talk about two meals I recently ate with my parents: one at Carmine’s in Midtown, the other at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side.
Carmine’s is a New York institution. We ate there all the time when I was growing up: it’s right in the heart of the theater district, and has the best location for a pre-theater dinner. It’s also a mob-scene: you can barely squeeze through the door at 6 o’clock and if you don’t have a reservation? Fuhgetaboutit.
Sfoglia, on the other hand, is a quiet little hole-in-the-wall with only ten tables, all of which are incredibly hard to book.
There’s one waiter (at least the night we went there) and a relatively small menu that belies the authenticity of the place. It’s like eating at someone’s house: the food takes a while, but–quite clearly–it’s made with love.
I mean, let’s look at the bread. At Carmine’s? You get this basket:
It’s a familiar little combo of plain white bread and then those lovable tomato-topped pieces of focaccia that you’ll find at most American-Italian restaurants. The focaccia sort of hits the spot, but it arrives cold and who knows how many days ago they made it?
The bread at Sfoglia? Our waiter said, “It’ll be a few minutes, it’s just coming out of the oven.” Just coming out of the oven?
Now this is bread: crusty and deeply caramelized, pillowy and fragrant. And hot! Seriously, how can you beat hot, homemade bread? What bad thing can you say about it?
“It’s burnt on the outside,” said my dad.
It’s burnt on the outside.
It’s funny, actually, because I remember a long, long time ago I went to Babbo with my friend Lisa and she said the same thing about the bread: that it was burnt on the outside. Maybe Italian Italian bakers cook their bread more aggressively than American Italian bakers? In any case, I give the bread prize to Sfoglia.
As for starters, Carmine’s offers the classics. Here’s my dad’s perennial favorite, Caesar salad:
Now I won’t lie: I love Caesar salad, and I love it for exactly the same reason my parents love it, my brother loves it, and everyone else I know loves it–because it’s such a powerhouse of flavor. It lashes you with garlic, with anchovies, with Parmesan. Caesar salad is not for the timid and that’s what’s so good about it: eating Caesar salad is a robustly satisfying experience.
At Sfoglia, we had this trio of antipasto:
The traditional Italian Italian way of eating dinner is to start with antipasti, move on to the primo (first course: usually pasta), then the secondo (second course: usually meat or fish) and, finally, dessert. This antipasti is representative of all I was talking about earlier: a balanced mixture of vegetables–on the right golden beets, at top endive, and at the bottom bruscetta topped with fava puree and lardo. Unlike a Caesar, the flavors don’t attack you: they’re subtle, they work at you gently. You actually taste the ingredients and each bite brings a surprise–a new texture, a new sensation.
There’s nothing gentle about the clams oreganato at Carmine’s:
They’re loaded with bread crumbs, garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice and they’re out of this world good. But once you’ve tasted one, you’ve tasted them all: your mouth is almost numb from all that flavor.
The pastas at Sfoglia, on the other hand, are beautifully bold–the flavors are assertive, but there’s also a measure of restraint. Like this duck bigoli:
The pasta (homemade) is pushed through a meat extruder so the resulting noodles are thick and chewy. The sauce is made from braised duck (I’ve made something similar before) and there are–this is the best part–dried cherries hidden throughout the dish that work beautifully with the duck, giving it a fruity almost acidic-note to cut all that fat. Notice how the sauce just clings to the noodle, it doesn’t pool at the bottom of the plate; and notice how the cheese grated on top is just enough to add some extra flavor. Nothing it done extraneously, every element plays its part and the resulting dish is something of a masterpiece.
Our entree at Carmine’s was Chicken Scarpariello–a big heaping plate of lemony, garlicky chicken:
Again, it explodes in your mouth–all that lemon and garlic and wine–and it’s immensely satisfying. My entree at Sfoglia was a simple grilled pork chop topped with radishes:
That radish salad is just the kind of thoughtful touch that, again, makes me love a place like Sfoglia; the bittenress of the radish works with the sweetness of the pork. And the pork, by the way, was wonderfully tender–they must’ve brined it before they cooked it.
We didn’t have dessert at Carmine’s the night we went (we had tickets that night to see “West Side Story”) but this dessert at Sfoglia was the grandest of grand finales:
A fruit tart that you had to order at the start of your meal because it took 20 minutes to prepare–you can see the pastry is made by hand and that each fold that encases the fruit (fruit that included some berries and apples, I think) is lovingly placed.
The real foodies among you will have no trouble selecting which meal, between these two, you’d prefer; but I do think there’s a place for both. In my DVD collection there’s “The Goonies” and “Nights of Cabiria.” Sure, I’d like to pretend that I’d always choose Fellini over Mouth and Sloth and the truffle shuffle, but sometimes you want big bawdy entertainment (dinner at Carmine’s) and other times you want something challenging, thoughtful and deeply beautiful (dinner at Sfoglia). Thus in the battle of American Italian vs. Italian Italian, there are no winners: they’re both valid.
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