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July 21, 2011

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Americans digging into Italy's regional fare

IF you are lucky, you never have known a world without olive oil or a time when Parmesan cheese came only in green cans.

There was such a world, however, at least in the United States. Stigmatized as the cuisine of "garlic eaters," Italian food and its ingredients were almost impossible to find in much of the US at late as 40 years ago.

"Certain foods were so associated with lower-class people that it was a way of keeping those people and their food in their place," says John Mariani, author of "How Italian Food Conquered the World."

As increased travel and waves of immigrants coaxed Americans to be more adventurous, Italian food found its way onto American tables and into their hearts. During the 1960s and 1970s, retailers began marketing "healthy" Italian ingredients, such as olive oil. And during the 1980s, big-name chefs like Wolfgang Puck adapted and enhanced foods like pizza, giving them culinary credibility and pushing them into the mainstream.

Today, dozens of oils, vinegars and other essentials vie for shelf space in supermarkets, and everything from pizza to pasta proliferates are on mainstream menus.

"Italian food appeals to such a broad spectrum," says Jonathan Waxman of the New York restaurant Barbuto. "It appeals to kids, snobby people, rustic diners. It appeals to big groups, or an elegant dinner. It goes the full gamut."

Like other chefs who came up in the 1980s, Waxman made his name applying his classical French training to American ingredients. But he never forgot the "old school" Italian dishes he knew as a child in San Francisco, the cioppino and veal scaloppini. At Barbuto, and in his new book "Italian, My Way," Waxman adapts the simplicity, seasonality and most of all, the spontaneity of Italian dishes to American sensibilities. Overripe tomatoes are studded with garlic and roasted for a simple sauce, and fresh asparagus is dressed with lemon and hazelnuts.

The next frontier, say Waxman and Mariani, is for Americans to appreciate regional cooking. "The most important thing about Italy is that it's not one cuisine, but diverse regions," Waxman says. "It's like America. It's the difference between food in Maine and Louisiana."

Already, Mariani says, restaurants are opening in places like New York and San Francisco and even Boulder, Colorado, that specialize in the cuisines of Rome or Venice or places that few people have heard of, such as Friuli, in the northeast. They are educating diners, as well as feeding them.

Italian pasta

And many Americans already love Italy's quintessential regional dish: pasta.

"There's something about this long, squiggly, chewy comfort food that we all love," says Domenica Marchetti, whose new book "The Glorious Pasta of Italy" offers recipes from Rome to Abruzzo to Sicily. "Wherever you go in Italy, the pasta is an expression of that place and the local ingredients."

In the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, for instance, Marchetti says there's lots of freshly made egg noodles, lasagna and tortellini. In Apulia and Calabria, on the Adriatic Sea, you'll get heartier pastas of buckwheat and whole grains. Up north, a Bolognese will have lots of ground meat, but almost no tomato. But in Abruzzo, you'll find a silky sauce bursting with tomatoes that were merely flavored by meat.

Italy's love of pasta has also become more adventurous, delving into dishes like pumpkin ravioli and squid-ink pasta. Marchetti and others applaud innovation, but say simple, comfort food will always be with us. "There's also something to be said for a nice dish of spaghetti and meatballs," she says.


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