What we Look for in a Restaurant – Part 2
by Brian Alex | February 24, 2023
Have you had any good Italian food lately?
I’ll bet that Fettuccine Alfredo from Olive Garden was calling your name after church on Sunday!
No, this isn’t a paid advertisement for the OG. Although, we all know their soup, salad, and breadsticks are to die for! As for the rest, at least it’s a step up from store bought lasagna. You might be surprised to know that, even here in Italy, it’s possible to walk away from your favorite mom and pop shop with a taste in your mouth that even your uncle’s grappa won’t wash clean.
So, let’s dig into restaurants and find out why that is!
But before we get there, we need to clear the table, so to speak, and make some room for new thinking. As Americans, we tend to believe lots of crazy things about Italy and its food. Some true, and some not.
Many italophiles have Italian heritage, grew up around Italians, or adore specific aspects of the lifestyle. Truth be told, we end up with some quirky ideas about what it means to be Italian or what Italian cinema, culture, and cuisine are really like. The stereotypes ensue, ad infinitum. Our picture of all things Italian tends to be more of a carnival, funhouse mirror version of reality. Even in Italy this can be a challenge, with every region having its own identity, culture, and traditions.
Some examples we’ve talked about before are how spaghetti and meatballs isn’t a “real Italian” dish, or how you shouldn’t order a cappuccino after breakfast time. That’s true no matter where you are in Italy, and for us it’s common knowledge. So, let’s go a bit deeper and circle back to that Fettuccine Alfredo for a second. If you asked your average Italian, and I have, whether they’ve heard of this dish, they’d laugh and say “Who?”
After all, Alfredo is a common first name in Italian, and here it gets put together with a well known type of pasta. Where did that odd mashup get started? We’ve got to go back a ways to find out. The year was 1908 and a small trattoria in Rome churned out a cheap, easygoing crowdpleaser made of egg pasta, butter, and parmesan. It was unconventional, light (compared to other dishes), and cheap. The name of the restaurant? Da Alfredo located on Via della Scrofa.
The wide, egg-based noodle we’re talking about is still popular in Rome and Tuscany. Fettuccine. And while Fettuccine Alfredo has become one of the most famous and top selling pasta dishes in the United States, it is by no means a traditional Italian dish. It was a short-lived workaround (in Italy) during hard times. Turns out that Alfredo (the restaurant owner), just prior to World War 1, was looking for a cheap dish to prepare for his sickly wife and poor neighbours, near the Tiber River in the Eternal City.
It was a hit initially, especially between the great wars, when ingredients were hard to come by. Shortly thereafter, American actors filtered through the restaurant, complimenting Alfredo for his noodles, and eventually took the recipe back to the states, where it became a huge star. His restaurant is still there, and the noodles are still good! However, Alfredo’s famed dish faded a bit in Rome, and rightly so, next to more modern and sophisticated Roman staples like Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe.
It’s not that Fettuccine Alfredo “isn’t Italian”, so much as it’s not recognised by Italians as a traditional dish. It was a practical invention during lean times, and came to have someone’s name attached to it. It was known by the locals of the neighbourhood, but virtually nowhere else. Traditional Roman dishes, like Bucatini all’Amatriciana and Pasta alla Gricia, simply outweigh “Alfredo”. Funny thing is that nowadays you might actually find Alfredo’s dish on touristy menus in Rome… why is that? Because the Americans tend to ask for it!
A lot of what we tend to imagine as “good” Italian food isn’t actually traditional or … sorry for this … all that good. I mean, there’ve been tons of culinary tradeoffs and swapping going on for decades, especially where Americans are concerned. Makes sense. After all, Germans and Americans visit Italy more than any other foreign nationals. And they’ve left a huge impact. Don’t get me started on how many würstel shops are popping up in Italy, along with hot dogs on pizzas! They call it “The American”. Thanks guys.
At any rate, American visitors frequently say things like, “yeah in Italy, it’s all good.” Or “it’s so much better than the food we have back home.” And while that may hold up in some contexts, you’d be surprised how often folks don’t actually find a traditional, decently priced, authentic experience. Now we’re getting to our point, becuase that is what we’re after! But alas we’re out of time for today, so we’ll have to wrap up. I’ll leave you with this.
Think about a place like Rome. About 3 million people live in Rome, but it bears the weight of over 10 million visitors each year. Consequently, many restaurants have had to adapt to (and sadly, take advantage of) the teeming crowds. They’ve learned to game the system a bit, as they know it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever see any of these rosy-cheeked, seasonal, food glam seekers again. Pushing Tripadvisor comment cards in their faces as they file back outside in search of gelato… Basta così, next client please!
Italy has never seen its culinary arts as any sort of “turn-table, make-profit” industry. Well, it never saw it that way … until recently. Next time around, we’ll see just how deep this rabbit hole goes, and what we can do to avoid it!