Even as Italian cooking grows in popularity it still can't gain the respect that French food once had or that Nouvelle Spanish food has garnered
When I first started cooking professionally in America, restaurants had only recently discovered "Northern Italian" food as opposed to Italo American food, the standard since Italian immigration began but which people were beginning to dismiss as inauthentic and bastardized. In fact, the one thing I had going for me when I started out cooking professionally was a deep understanding of what Italians really ate in Italy based on years of living and eating there. Everyone else I worked with had been trained in French food, either in school or in a French restaurant. It didn't seem like anything else was really considered valid. Even though more attention was being paid to Northern Italian food at higher and more refined levels of restaurants, classic French food was still considered the apex of culinary civilization.
Over the twenty years that I have been cooking and studying Italian, I have watched French food stagnate and wither.
Shortly after I started cooking professionally in Boston, Julia Child was quoted in the local paper saying, "anyone can make a bowl of pasta but it takes a skilled chef to put out a fine French meal." That pretty much summed up the prevailing attitude with regards to Italian food.
As fascinated as I am by other cuisines of the Mediterranean, I keep coming back to Italian as the cuisine I most want to cook, the one I most want to eat, and the one I understand the most. Twenty years ago, when I first started out with a dim understanding of demi glace but a great understanding of pasta, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, I would not have been able to imagine Italian food conquering the American palate so thoroughly from the high end (Del Posto earning four stars from the New York Times) to the low (propagation of chain restaurants like the Olive Garden). Even though its popularity has gone farther than I would have ever thought and perhaps because of it, it still seems a cuisine people all too easily dismiss as easy and simple, lacking the sophistication of French, Japanese, or modern Spanish cuisine -- maybe because Italian food gets generalized as one style of food when it is not.
Italian food is intensely regional. It's hard to study it for very long before realizing that it varies as much as the traditional dialects of Italy. Before the use of Italian became common (dating to post World War II when children learned it in compulsory state school for the first time), a Sicilian and a Neapolitan could not understand each other. As a result, Sicilian food and Neapolitan food are two completely different cuisines with distinctive flavors that happen to share some ingredients and reference points. As a child, I loved the pasta carbonara I had in Rome and the potato gnocchi in meat ragu at my Tuscan neighbor's house, not understanding that they were reflective of two very different regions with wildly different cuisines even if they both ate pasta and olive oil. Lardo, for example, is cured in marble vats along the Tuscan coast in the Carrera marble-producing Apuan Alps: Delicate and pure white, it is traditionally shaved over freshly grilled bread, the heat wilting the pork fat and releasing its herbed scents. In my far inland eastern nook of Tuscany it was not an ingredient ever used or heard of. Yet when I started exploring over the border in Umbria I discovered another form of lardo, cured and aged like prosciutto and pancetta and used as a cooking fat, something that gives Umbrian food a completely different flavor from Tuscan food, even if they are both eating farro and cavolo nero.