An ocean away from home, Ombretta Bellomi crosses a roundabout in Manhattan, walking to a brunch date with friends. Her long, curly black hair and shiny fuchsia dress betray a sunny temperament.
But just as the Italian architect from Verona is about to cross the last zebra crossing leading to his coffee destination, his smile turns into a frown and his pleasant chatter takes on the tone of pissed off.
“Too much garlic! Garlic everywhere,” exclaims Bellomi.
The 28-year-old, who has been living in New York for two years, has a problem with the way Italian food is prepared in the United States.
“It makes me want to cry,” she said, quite seriously.
Garlic, you see, isn’t quite the staple of Italian cuisine that Americans think it is. Depending on who you talk to, onions are also a controversial ingredient – and don’t even think about combining the two in one dish.
The idea of tear-inducing ingredient misuse might seem a little drastic, but Bellomi isn’t the only one with an emotional reaction to Italian cooking‘s missteps. After all, Americans play with their grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s recipes.
Giacomo Silvestris, 39-year-old operations manager for CAI Italian Foods in New York, says the way non-Italians drink cappuccino makes him swoon. Drinking one at any other time of the day apart from breakfast is unacceptable, he says.
Drinking a cappuccino at the end of lunch or dinner, or even worse, together with any of these meals is what causes Silvestris’ most intense reaction (wide eyes, gesticulation of hands).
Bartenders in Italian cities are notorious for refusing to serve tourists asking for inappropriate drinks. You can order one before noon, or simply forget about it.
“Cappuccino East the meal,” says Silvestris definitively. “The only food you can have it with is a croissant – which you eat at the bar in the morning.”
Silvestris moved to New York from his native Milan, where he co-owns one of the trendiest restaurants in the fashion city. He says coming to terms with what passes for “Italian” here in the United States has been an exercise in patience.
“Fettuccine alfredo is not a thing in Italy,” continues Silvestris as calmly as possible. As he speaks, he slows down, making every syllable count.
Pasta Alfredo may never be served to the affluent, bohemian Milanese clientele that Silvestris used to meet at home, but in the United States it has become a staple in many restaurants that are making their Italian mark.
In Italy, the dish most closely resembles what the Italians call burro and parmiggiano pasta (pasta with butter and parmesan). Italians eat it, but at home, and would never dream of ordering it in a restaurant, says Simona Palmisano, 37, a Roman and tourist guide who recently moved to New York.
Palmisano explains that in Italy this way of making pasta is often called cornuto pasta – which translates as “pasta de cuckold”, because the preparation betrays an absence of time or care given to the simple meal, with the consequence of the hypothesis that the [romantic] attention must be elsewhere.
The even more popular way to serve pasta alfredo in the United States – with chicken – is unimaginable.
It’s not just poultry and pasta that aren’t allowed to mix – meat and pasta are very rarely found on the same plate. Pasta is one dish (primo) and meat is another entirely separate dish (secondo).
“Except in a particular region of the south [of Italy], where they put very small meatballs in their tomato sauce, you would never put meatballs in pasta. Who ever heard of spaghetti balls?!” exclaims Silvestris.
His rhetorical question rings funny when uttered in America, where spaghetti-meatballs as a dish are the epitome of Italian American cuisine (think the kissing scene in Lady and The Tramp or Clemenza in The Godfather ).
With pasta, Silvestris explains, come rules. And these rules are not negotiable.
“Pasta is a ritual for Italians. You can play with anything but not pasta. There are rules that come with cooking pasta, rules that you never change.
The rules for making pasta are long and exhaustive, but the most often repeated are:
No oil in boiling water, ever (you stir the pasta every few minutes while cooking so it doesn’t stick).
It is absolutely forbidden to add cheese to a seafood pasta recipe.
You associate pasta shapes with specific sauces, and some can never be combined (ceps go with pappardelle or tagliatelle, for example, absolutely not with spaghetti).
The pasta is always al dente (very slightly undercooked).
You finish cooking the pasta in its sauce after having drained it from the boiled water; you never put one over the other.
“The pasta and its sauce must be combined like the salad and its dressing”, explains Jason Spiehler, Palmisano’s husband. “The sauce should never be overdone in order to allow the pasta and its grain to be equally enjoyed as the stand-alone delicacies that they are.”
As he walks to their New York kitchen where the couple are showing Italian hospitality, Spiehler gestures to a bottle of olive oil his wife has placed on the table.
“You bought a Californian? Do you think it will be good?
Palmisano shrugs and says she’s willing to give it a try.
Italian imports are much harder to trust these days: you don’t know where the olives come from. Good quality olive oil is worth every extra penny, the couple say, and these rules apply to everything you eat.
Spiehler recently helped launch a food tour of Greenwich Village in collaboration with celebrity Italian-American chef Mario Batali, whose cooking style is inspired by “authentic” Italian cuisine.
Part of that philosophy is to shop like a boss, he says: let what looks good at the market or store dictate what you buy, rather than a shopping list.
So maybe the most authentic answer to Italian food in the United States wouldn’t be to cook Italian at all, but simply to go to your local farmer’s market and think of how you could use a northern spy apple in a salad.
Serena Bass, executive chef at Lido, a popular Italian restaurant in Harlem, operates under these lines of fresh, quality ingredients and simple recipes that change seasonally.
Bass, an author who owned a restaurant business in New York for three decades, calls the Lido’s food “Italian-ish,” “soft-edged Italian food.”
The 69-year-old isn’t afraid to break the rules of Italian cooking, as long as the food tastes the best it can.
“We’re very purist about our ingredients,” says Bass. The handmade pasta is made by a family down the street in Brooklyn. No need to go to Italy. “Italians understand purity, unmarred flavors,” she says.
But Bass, who is decidedly British and has strong words for anyone who thinks Brits can’t cook, isn’t afraid to take food invention from there.
One of his favorite things on the Lido menu?
Amalfi’s lemon tart, which is made – of all things – with salty crackers.
“Putting salty crackers in a lemon pie would never hold up in Italy,” she admits. “But if they [Italians] tasted, they might cry the lemon pie is so good.
Shedding tears for rules that are being broken for good reason then, this time.