On a recent trip to Rome and Naples, I was eager to finally try Italian Italian food. Was it better than the American Italian cuisine? After eleven pizzas and a couple of bowls of spaghetti, I can assure you that it’s worse.
I engaged in a very thorough exploration of Italian pizza, eating it eleven times in a wide variety of venues in Rome and Naples. I enjoyed almost all of it at least minimally. But simple pleasure pales when compared to the sublime satisfaction that even a run-of-the-mill American pizza can deliver.
How did Italian chefs fail? The crusts usually were all right, and the cheese was unobjectionable. Perhaps the most significant fault was the utter lack of tomato sauce. On a menu with, say, fifteen varieties, only one or two (or zero) might have tomato sauce. When they did apply it, it lacked zest and in many cases was sparse. The meat toppings usually were dull and draped across the pie in large, uncut chunks. In short, the Italian pizza is bland.
I am dead serious: Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, Papa John’s and many other corporate American pizzas (not Chuck E. Cheese) will beat Italian pizzas handily. The pizzeria in my neighborhood in Philadelphia would crush them all.
Let’s dispense now with the spaghetti. Each time I ordered it, the sauce and noodles arrived pre-mixed. The flavor, consistency, and quality of ingredient reminded me most strongly of cafeteria spaghetti. I like cafeteria pasta well enough, but it’s hardly competitive with dishes served at chains like the Olive Garden or Spaghetti Warehouse, much less those served at family-owned Italian eateries in the United States. Also, the Italian pasta was slightly more al dente than most US restaurants prepare it, but the difference is inconsequential.
This is not the only domain in which Italians innovated, only to let their advantage lapse. I refer to toiletry. Rome is practically the birthplace of indoor plumbing, yet today’s Italians appear content to rest on the laurels of their forebears. Restaurants, airports, attractions – everywhere the bathrooms were insufficient and poorly maintained. So the deficit in food quality appears to be part of a larger pattern of on-laurel-resting.