In Defense of Italian Food: Regional, Diverse, and Refined

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.

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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