Is Italy Losing its Reputation for Great Food?

John Mariani on why some of the best Italian food in the world is now made in the U.S.

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Just to allay any fears at the outset, the answer to the question above is a resounding no. Having eaten throughout Italy for the past four decades, I’ve seen only minor alterations to its gastronomy, several quite positive. For one thing, the Italians now venture out to restaurants more often than they used to and are more demanding about what they eat there. They now know more about wines beyond their region and happily search out good artisanal products.

On the other hand, Italy has become such a victim of its own success with tourism that there has been a gradual slide in quality in favor of quantity at many restaurants. Careful cooking has given way to mass feeding, especially during the tourist season — which for overrun cities like Rome, Venice, and Florence means April first straight through to November. When a restaurant’s clientele is principally touristic, authenticity suffers, and some Italian restaurateurs might end up believing that his customers wouldn’t know a good risotto, for instance, if it hit them in the face. Thus, on a recent trip to Siena, at a restaurant recommended by an American food magazine, I was served not arborio but Uncle Ben’s converted rice, which the restaurant owner proudly displayed to me, as if to say, “I know you americani prefer this stuff.”

On the other hand, I continue to eat spectacularly well in Italy, especially outside the tourist centers; I continue to swoon when served a plate of agnolotti del plin graced with butter and sage at a ristorante in Turin, or a massive bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence, or a sensational spaghetti all'amatriciana in Rome. The tempo of a meal in Italy, the simplicity of the cooking, and the much improved wine lists make a culinary journey to just about any region a pleasure.

But remember how Americans used to come back from Italy and shake their heads in wonder as to why the food in U.S. Italian restaurants just wasn’t as good as it was there. Why did it taste so different? The answer used to be that Americans simply didn’t have access to the same ingredients as the Italians did — and did even in village markets, with the season’s best artichokes and baby lamb and tiny clams coming and going within days. Now, however, availability is no longer any issue anywhere, ever since FedEx and DHL began bringing in overnight the best wines, olive oils, cheeses, and Mediterranean seafood, now readily available from a Houston Whole Foods to Seattle's Pike Place Market. 

A call by Chef Paul Bartolotta from his namesake restaurant in Las Vegas will bring him fresh mullet, branzino, and langoustines from Europe the next morning. At Spiaggia in Chicago, Tony Mantuano can import the finest bottarga, an array of artisanal cheeses, and wines only a handful of restaurateurs in Italy might obtain. And consider Eataly, New York’s offshoot of the Turin original, where entire aisles are stocked with scores of imported pastas, charcuterie, coffees, and chocolates.