Whenever I travel abroad, I never go for Italian restaurants. Not any more. First of all because I enjoy tasting the typical flavours of the countries I visit, those surprising combinations of food I would never think of at home, secondly because I have never been able to find a decent one, only bad copies and so I gave up. What lacks in the majority of Italian restaurants abroad is the real Italian thing. Even something elementary like an espresso is never like what it tastes at home – not even the five-pound Lavazza cup of coffee at Harrods was close to the original one – it is not a matter of water or the quality of coffee, but rather it is a matter culture. Yes, culture, because food is an expression of cultures. Every dish is the final product of cooking rituals transmitted from generations to generations, gestures that date back in time. That is why it is difficult to reproduce a recipe of another country faithfully, even a good cup of tea, unless you understand it fully and you become sensitive enough to perceive its many nuances.That is culture. I still remember the dexterity my mother prepared home-made tagliatelle, those precious movements that she had learnt from her mother and grandmother. I have seen her so many times, that if I would venture to make them myself, I would know what to do: the doses, the correct thickness of pasta layer ect., as it is part of my culture.
I remember once I gave an intensive class to some English friends of mine who were very fond of Italian cooking, on how to prepare a true Italian lasagna properly : ragout, cheese, the right numbers of pasta layers, cream sauce…. I told them everything so that they eventually had all the necessary information and secrets to prepare a marvellous one. So after practicing a while, one day they decided they had become good enough to invite me for dinner and try their lasagna. Indeed I was surprised. About 300 meters before reaching the gate of their house, I started to smell something pungent in the air, something like….onion! Onion? I had never mentioned the word onion, but they thought that in my recipe there was something lacking and that something for them was onion, actually, tons of onion! I might have turned my back, but I did not. I politely ate it all, with some effort, could I have acted otherwise? The enormous quantity of onion used to prepare the ragout had made it indigestible, at least for me. When I eventually finished my portion they asked: ” Did you enjoy it?” What could I say?” Of course” was my answer . “It seems truly Italian, doesn’t it” “Truly” I couldn’t but reply. ” Some more?” “ NO!“
The point is that the majority of those restaurants, which pretend to be Italian, keep in their menus recipes which are not Italian at all or have contaminated the original ones with the more familiar flavours of the countries they have their business, just to please and attract new customers. For example, only abroad I have learnt about the existence of an Italian recipe called “Tagliatelle Bolognese”, that is tagliatelle with a thick ragout, but actually no Italian would associate the word “Bolognese” to that dish. And what about the famous “Fettuccine(i) Alfredo?” Fist of all, who is Alfredo? This “Italian” recipe is well-known mostly in the States, but completely unknown here. It actually reminds those typical dishes in fashion in the late eighties: pasta, 3/4 types of cheese and cream – in the eighties cream was very fashionable – . As far as I can imagine, as I have never dared experience such a delicacy, if you don’t eat it quickly, it might turn into concrete in a few seconds. So if you come here having in mind to order a good portion of “Fettuccine Alfredo”, this is the wrong country, you have to go back from where you started very likely.
Another point to be discussed is pasta cooking time. Here in Italy we enjoy it “al dente” that is a minute less that the indicated cooking time, even two if you come from the South, but whenever I used to order it abroad, it was always overcooked if not creamy. Just disgusting. Yet, cooking pasta Italian style shouldn’t be that difficult: when the water boils, add some salt, put the pasta in the pot, wait for the indicated time, better a little less and that’s it. And would you like to know what is tastiest truly Italian pasta recipe ? The simplest one. Just few steps. Blanch some fresh plum tomatoes to remove their skins and then cut them in half lengthwise to scoop out the seeds. Afterwards chop them and set them aside in a bowl. Heat some good olive oil in a skillet pan, add a couple of cloves of garlic and let them brown slowly. Then add the tomatoes you had prepared beforehand, a pinch of salt and take the garlic out. While the sauce simmers, heat the water for the pasta. Cook the spaghetti and drain them, when it is time. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente. You may add the pasta cooking liquid if necessary. As last step, remove the pan from the heat; add some extra-virgin olive oil, few leaves of basil, parmisan or pecorino cheese. Just delicious and Italian. And remember, less is more !!