Penne for your thoughts: Why Italian food’s endless ramble of cheese, meat and tomato sauce is overrated


The menu at your standard Italian-American restaurant is a crash course in excess.

Plates of spaghetti Bolognese are finished with greedy fistfuls of Parmesan and served alongside creamy bowls of fettuccine alfredo, the very essence of which depends on the emulsification of butter and cheese. Most restaurants also offer lasagna — a casserole-like concoction involving yet another heavy-handed application of shredded dairy and ground meat. There are also bulbous meatballs and piping hot pizzas.

Despite the endless ramble of cheese, meat and tomato sauce, Italian-American food is best described lacking. Sure, quality tomato sauce can bring a whisper of acidity; and you are also occasionally graced with a splash of balsamic vinegar or a pinch of red pepper flakes. However, the meagre garnishes pale in comparison to more flavourful dishes found scattered across the rest of the world.

There is no Italian-American equivalent to Korean banchan, the small plates of mouth-watering fermented vegetables served at nearly every meal. Nor is there a counterpoint to Thai green papaya salad, where a blank canvas of tart fruit is enlivened by the sweetness of palm sugar and the astringency of fresh lime. Even in Poland, with the comparable blandness of meals based entirely off sausage meat and boiled potatoes, they have figured out that sauerkraut keeps things interesting by contributing a burst of much needed acidity.

Of course, there is more to Italian food than pizza and pasta: it’s hard to deny the potent anchovy and garlic-drenched Bagna Cauda of Piedmont or the copious fresh seafood of Campania. However, the wheat and meat-heavy offerings at Italian-American restaurants are undeniably bland by any comparable measure. And yet, no cuisine is more beloved by our North-American palates.

When Italian food was brought to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, meat was still a luxury in …read more

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