Comments: Whither Italian Food ELV?

ELV note: The following exchange took place today in the comments thread about Parma, and we thought it was interesting enough to be brought forward on the site. Loyal reader Tom writes:

Dear ELV,

I love Italian food; for me it is the best food in the world. I feel that you can eat it every day a be very very happy. I like the fact that it simple and all based on great ingredients. Or at least it is in Italy.

I had the fortune to live and work in Italy and discover that Italian food is quite different then what is served here. Here we eat “Italo American” that for me is crap and has no tie to Italy at all.
I went to Parma ( or what ever it’s called) for lunch once because of your other good comments, and again, it was the usual ItaloAmerican Menu. The food was very average.

I spoke with Italian Chefs that work here in LV and they tell me that that they can’t really cook Italian because the clientele dose not want nor understand it. They are always asked to cook the same American Standards (fried calamari, linguini with clams, fettuccine Alfredo, chicken parmigiana..) so at the end they also loose passion and send out food that they would never ever serve in Italy. It’s almost like hiring an American Chef to work in Italy and have him cook Hotdogs because Italians think American Food is hotdogs and hamburgers.

So my question is: Would Las Vegas understand a real Italian restaurant? There are quite a few in San Francisco also many that are specialized in various Italian regions (Liguria, Lazio, Piedmonte, Sardinia). Or does the market only wants what we have.

I’m not surprised that you, ELV, avoid “Italian” restaurants, but sometimes I’m surprised by your reviews, like this one or Bacio at Tropicana, that are the same average ItaloAmerican…..crap?


Totally Tired of Tepid Italian Tom

ELV responds:

Dear Teed Off,

Like you, we at ELV love Italian food, especially in Italy. In America (generally), all of the subtlety and nuance gets buried in a heap of “gravy,” cheese and other crude approximations of the real thing.

But this doesn’t mean it’s all “crap,” only that certain restaurants must be judged on their own terms. Regarding Parma, it seems to us that Chef Marc is trying to lighten things up a bit, and substitute “ingredient-forward” cooking for “sauce-forward” creations. (Perhaps we should have put this in the body of our article.) This is why we think it is worth a trip, although in no way does it compete with the finer Italian places on the Strip…and not even Marc claims it does.

Likewise, we’ve heard many an Italian  chef bemoan how the public just wears them down in its relentless quest for those “standards” that are done to death. (We call it the “Big Night Syndrome.”) Irene Virbila of the LATimes discussed this at length with Max and ELV on KNPR two years ago. Americans don’t want authentic Italian anymore than they want authentic Japanese or real, rustic French. Good Italian food only exists at all here because of our 40 million yearly visitors, and even with those numbers, there’s only a handful of restaurants serving anything close to the real thing.

The Las Vegas (read: local) market really doesn’t want anything more than the same old crappy sauces and cheese that Maggiano’s and Buca di Beppo churn out, and at least a couple of times a month we almost come to blows with good friends (some remarkably well-traveled and sophisticated) who rave to us about how much they love some crudely executed, hackneyed pasta at some lousy (but popular) local Italian joint. Piero’s is still in business fer chrissakes! And thriving! We rest our case.

Bottom line: If you want great Italian food, go to Italy; if you want good facsimiles of the real deal, go to Valentino, B & B or Circo; and if you want something better than the same old franchised, Sysco slop, give Parma/Pastavino a whirl. At least you know everything is made on the premises, and there’s a chef/owner around who takes no shortcuts.

Or get yourself a Marcella Hazan cookbook and learn about what makes this food so wonderful the old fashioned way: by cooking it yourself, the way we did 25 years ago.

Bolognese-i-ly yours,

Giovanni Curtas

6 thoughts on “Comments: Whither Italian Food ELV?

  1. Italian food in the US is tragic. Not for the lack of talent or for the mostly inferior quality ingredients but like ELV said because of the public inclination to prefer disgusting embarrassments to the Italian cuisine, over dressed, overcooked and over sized where they can show up with their sloppy pajamas and get a free deep basket of garlic bread. When then they go to Italy and get a glimpse of what the real thing really is, 9 out of 10 don’t like it and come back home disappointed because they couldn’t find spaghetti and meatballs.
    Please, do the world a favor and stick to your chicken breast and mashed potatoes for a few hundred more years… :)

  2. Marco-people generally go where they are kicked. Italy has the worst Chinese food on Earth. Don’t be a stugatz. In time, we’ll improve.

  3. I have to agree with Tom. I looooove authentic Italian but HATE Italian-American like ELV hates cupcakes. Italian-American means pasta boiled so long it’s thisclose to dissolving entirely, with buckets of red sauce and melted cheese. Authentic Italian is delicate and balanced. Italian-American is garlic powder.

    Circo, Valentino’s, and B&B are a bit pricey for me. I got a gift certificate once to Ferraro’s and liked it. The pasta was made in-house and (will miracles never cease) actually cooked al dente. I also had the rabbit, which is very common in Italy but unheard of in Italian-American joints. My only issue was that the chef got a little too happy with the pepper grinder, but other than that, pretty respectable.

  4. I, too, prefer real Italian food to the Italian-American version, but at some point the hand-wringing gets to be too much for me. Just as with Mexican, Chinese, and any other cuisine that has been transplanted anywhere, the transplant always makes concessions to the original.

    However, there is good and bad Italian-American, Mexican-American, and Chinese-American cuisine, just as there is good and bad food in the old country. There are plenty of places in Rome comparably no better than the bad American-Italian restaurants you find here, just the styles are different.

    Moreover, Italian food, like all good cuisines, is about skillfully combining locally available ingredients. Yet in order to be an “authentic” Italian restaurant here, or even a pretend authentic Italian restaurant, it seems you have to fly in Branzino from the Med. Isn’t the notion of flying in ingredients from half way across the world an anathema to everything that true Italian cooking stands for?
    Then is it the ingredients that makes food “authentic” or is it technique with what’s available?

    Good food is good food, bad food is bad food, and authentic food is not as simple as it appears. In the mean time, I’ll enjoy good food at B&B and good spaghetti and meatballs wherever I can find (or make) it, and I’ll be unapologetic about enjoying both.

  5. although in no way does it compete with the finer Italian places on the Strip…and not even Marc claims it does…………………the prices are…

  6. I agree with Tom. It is what it is. However, $18 for a small plate of pasta is absurd off the Strip, really, isn’t it? The salad was ice cold. Made up long ago, and stored in the cooler. Blaahhh!!!!

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