Several years ago, a co-worker of Italian descent came back from his first trip to Italy and asked if I could explain why the worst meal he had in Italy was better than his best meal in an American Italian restaurant. OF COURSE I had an answer. I’m the master of broad, over-encompassing generalities based on limited evidence, and this question fell right into my hands.
The flip side of my on-going complaint that it’s almost impossible to get good foreign food in Italy is that this loss is the result of the strong local pride which demands that the ingredients come from close-by and be prepared to semi-rigid standards. So while a good red curry sauce is out of the question, the food on the menu of even the most modest eatery will use the freshest ingredients available if it wants to maintain its business with local customers. The beneficiaries are tourists like my co-worker who are lucky enough to find those restaurants where the locals eat.
When I say “local”, I mean pretty darn local. To Italians, food from the next town could be considered foreign and the next region is definitely uncharted territory. I live in an area where Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio are packed right against each other. The relationship between Tuscany and Umbria can best be summed up by saying that the Umbrians think the Tuscans are snots, and the Tuscans think the Umbrians still go around in animal skins. The only thing they can agree on is that Lazians are philistines and certainly don’t deserve to be considered in the same category as Umbrians and Tuscans.
Local cooking traditions are every bit as important as locally available products. Probably THE standard for any family is the food nonna (the grandmother) used to prepare. They might permit a bit of fiddling, but I’m betting that if a dish doesn’t have enough fennel in it, the family will let the cook-of-the-day know in no uncertain terms that the meal was subpar, and nonna would have been both displeased and disappointed.
The locals are more generous with restaurants, since they probably figure that the chef is using his/her nonna’s recipe. They might allow for that difference, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be noted. To our undiscerning pallets a plate of pasta with cinghiale sauce (wild boar) tastes pretty much the same in all 3 regions. But I’m betting the majority of the locals would be able to tell you the sauce’s origin.
And I’m not talking about only the gourmets. We were in a VERY nice restaurant in Perugia one night and much to our surprise for a restaurant of this caliber, a team of soccer players in their late teens or early 20’s was at a long table in the middle of the room. Rather than yelling back and forth about their latest victory, we could hear them quietly discussing the food as each course arrived. They had wine on the table, but it was used to complement the food, not to over-imbibe. The young guys actually swirled it! In Italy, EVERYONE takes food seriously.