Is it gravy or is it sauce?
Just kidding…that's not what this blog is going to cover. What you are about to read is my take on how to decipher the differences between Italians, Italian-Americans and flat-out posers when it comes to the food of our culture. This is a complex topic with many layers, but it needs to be addressed once and for all. I’m not an expert but I do have some educated thoughts on the matter.
For nearly the past decade, my father has been a distributor of Italian and Italian-American food products. He works directly with importers who are based in the North Jersey area and are real Italians with the real authentic stuff. D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes, balsamic vinegar of Modena, espresso, extra virgin olive oil from Tuscana and Puglia, prosciutto di parma, mozzarella di bufala Campana and various cuts of pastas are just a few things he carries. Awhile back, I worked as a salesman and delivery driver and learned a lot about authentic imports from Italy, what makes an item real, how an import compares to a domestic counterpart and what to look for when it comes to quality. I also got a first-hand look into dozens and dozens of New York/New Jersey kitchens—some famous and some infamous. Boy have I witnessed some crazy things!
I've recently been visiting some of my father's accounts once again—now to offer my own product, Johnny's Meatballs of course. Unless you are a food writer or involved in the business somehow, men (and women) who dine out—whether it's at a cafe, deli, restaurant, pizzeria, bakery or whatever—don't really get the "behind-the-scenes" treatment. That's often intentional, because many of these kitchens are not that clean and need major "Ramsay" makeovers and a lot of the people working back there don't know the difference between an onion and an apple, let alone if the mozzarella is buffalo or cow's milk. But too often, these kitchens who claim to be authentic Italian or Italian-American are not even remotely so, yet they hide behind their names.
Now, I am not here to name any of those names or throw any establishments under the bus, but some of these menus are just downright laughable. A place will callously use an Italian city as an adjective for a dish to make that dish sound more enticing, when in reality most of the time that dish has no connection with that city (and a lot of the time, no connection with Italy at all!) When cooking my dishes in the Chef Central contest, I made it a point to use all my connections to locate true, real ingredients from Italy. The Sicilian sea salt was indeed from Sicily.
I must say, the places that I visited that buy my father's imported items do have real Italian owners and chefs in the kitchen. I call those "premium" accounts who I would be glad to go to as a customer. But many of his accounts are "red sauce" joints—some of which are great and some which are not. Some buy his imported items and incorporate those products with the domestics, while others only ask for second-tier products. Just as I don't claim to be a chef, I don't claim to know everything about authentic regional items and I am a big supporter (and eater) of the Americanized / Jersey-fied Italian recipes first started by all our grandparents years ago. As Tony Mangia points out, we must all be educated to know the difference between Italian regional food and Italian-American food. See, a REAL “Italian-American” eatery will usually have a few REAL Italian regional dishes on the menu—generally part of the day’s specials—reflecting the family lineage. If these dishes are done right, they should be able to live in perfect harmony with the chicken parm.
I’ll give you an example…you have Pizza Napoletano and the more common New York style pizza. Both originated in Italy and both are very different. A great way to educate folks would be to have a pizzeria which offers both, side by side. If both styles are done correctly, both are delicious. The problem is there are too many people out there who have no clue how to make either and just open up places to make money. The genuine Italians and Italian-Americans are about heart—not dollar signs—when it comes to cooking and eating…and living in general.
I think the main reason a lot of Italian-American foods have gotten a bad rap is because, unfortunately too many of the local pizza parlors and other red sauce joints have lost their own authenticity. You may be saying to yourself, how can such an eatery even have "authenticity" if their cuisine is already an Americanized amalgamation of Italian fare in the first place? Here's my answer. To me, at least 85-90% of the staff should at least be Americans of Italian heritage whether it's second, third or fourth generation. That makes it authentic Italian-American, and therefore that usually means that it is a place that shows the proper respect to a chicken parm. We need to be wary of total bastardizations. Remember, before Chef Boyardee became a canned meddigan product, it originated with Mr. Ettore Boiardi—an Italian immigrant—who ran an authentic restaurant with his family using fresh, homemade ingredients. I don’t know when and how the gap got so wide with the cuisine. It’s just like the other areas of the culture though, where you have the holier-than-thou activists battling the “Jersey Shore” kids and then here I am—caught in the middle of both groups.
We all need to band together as Italians and Italian-Americans and unite against the meddigans and foreigners who try to steal our style and try to pull the wool over our eyes. Any Italian or Italian-American with self-respect knows that Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill are garbage, fast food franchises with totally made-up dishes that don't deserve any credit whatsoever. While we should certainly learn all we can about the various specialties found in each region of Italy and perpetuate independently-owned establishments that properly prepare and serve such dishes, we should also make it a point to perpetuate TRUE independently-owned Italian-American establishments. They are dying out, and the multitude of bad/fake ones are hurting the good ones. Is there any way we can save the authentic red sauce joint or should we just let them all vanish and let Americans be duped when an "Italian-American" place is owned and operated by Albanians or Mexicans? I don't mean that comment to be prejudiced in any way, every nationality deserves to pursue the American dream and entrepreneurship…
But, to those like me with an upbringing of a grandmother cooking meatballs at 6am on a Sunday morning who want to recreate that experience in a true Italian-American setting, we want that place to really have a nonna in the kitchen...or at least a son or daughter/grandson/granddaughter of a nonna in the kitchen! Not some guy named Jose who is boiling your macaroni to the sounds of salsa music. You see, a lot of Italian-Americana is about nostalgia, conjuring up memories of one's food-related childhood traditions…but, as I will reiterate, it is also essential to properly respect those foods in the process. I'm not looking for a fancy, trendy, white-glove place, I'm in my glory with an atmosphere reminiscent of nonna's basement kitchen. Furthermore, I don't have a problem with the slangifications of our words—just like the recipes themselves got their alterations, this form of the language materialized in our Little Italy neighborhoods the same as all the different dialects of the standard Italian language formed across the boot.
I believe spoken vernacular (of any formal origin language) is interpretive based on where you are from and how you were raised, so I see nothing wrong with saying cannoli, or "ga-nole." Just as a New Yorker would have no right to tell a Bostonian they are speaking wrong English by the way they drop their 'r' sounds (car to them is "caah"), no paisan should diss another by the way they "tawk." Keep in mind, this only flies if a cugine is the one saying "pro-shoot" rather than "pro-shoot-oh," it is NOT okay for Jose to say it because he heard it on "The Sopranos"! Just as I've said time and again how the MTV guido does not reflect the real deal good guidos and goombas like yours truly, the poser I.A. cooks are giving the real deal good I.A. cooks who take pride in the comfort food classics a bad name.
The question remains, if one is not in the food business and doesn't have that peak into these kitchens, how can we really know what is going on behind-the-scenes? You could always ask Johnny Meatballs. I got about a dozen I can recommend right off the top of my head in the North Jersey area. (And also several dozen you'd want to stay clear of.) I know just how to spot the fugazies out there from the way an entree is described on the menu to the decor. I go through a checklist. With enough experience, you can easily learn how to figure out fast if a place is an original that's been there for generations churning out quality...or if it's a wolf in sheep's clothing with red and white checkered tablecloths. There are good and bad red sauce Italian-American joints, just like there are good and bad Italian-Americans and Italians—from the States to Canada to Australia to Europe and elsewhere. As Frank said, that's life and you can't deny it.
We got "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives," "Men Who Dine," and now I'd like to propose my idea..."Real Red Sauce Joints." Forget the Real Housewives, I wanna see the real red sauce!