Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: How Italian Food Conquered the World - John F Mariani


Title: How Italian Food Conquered the World
Author: John F Mariani
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Pages: 288


I went into this book expecting the brief history of Italian cooking in Italy and the proliferation in various forms throughout the world. Although a large part of the book dealt with the immigrant struggle and creation of "Italian-American" food, there did not appear to be a clear argument to tie the entire book together. 

I've never been a huge fan of Italian food. It was always too heavy with too many carbs, too much fat an too much of that ever present red sauce. Obviously, my first exposure to Italian food, like most Americans, was in places like The Old Spaghetti Factory and Olive Garden in my childhood. I've since eaten at wonderful restaurants like Quince and learned what Italian food can be (or rather, what it really is). 

i always knew that the heavy read sauces were never part of real Italian cooking. They came into being in the United States when the immigrant families began to slather meatballs and their Sunday "gravy" on everything because in the land of plenty, that was a possibility. I knew there was no such thing as "Italian" food until very recently because the variations between Naples, Sardinia, Rome, etc were so pronounced it was impossible to create a fully Italian identity. I knew there were supposed health benefits associated with Italian cooking that are all negated by portions of pasta and a single, beautiful slice of porchetta. 

Mariani does a good job of chronicling the history of Italian American cuisine, but the narration falters when discussing present day. He goes on tangents about the Sopranos and stereotypes associated with Italian Americans. Additionally, he discusses higher end restaurants like Marea in NYC but completely ignores places like Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill, which he gives on line to in a statement that it's not real Tuscan food (but what is?) I would have loved a whole chapter on Marea if he had been an eloquent writer of the most sensual food porn. If he had been able to make me salivate while reading, I would have been happy. However, as a nonfiction book, he left out one of the most crucial restaurants that changed the development and proliferation of Italian restaurants in present day. As much as I would love to eat at Marea, I can assure you that more people have dined at Olive Garden, and on a regular basis. It is the chain restaurants like that, and the inclusion of a pasta dish on every menu in every restaurant that really should be discussed. 

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