I have a confession to make: French food is not my favorite European cuisine. Even
after living in France for four years and sampling thousands of entrées, plats,
and desserts made by highly regarded chefs and highly accomplished home cooks,
my foodie heart still belongs to Italy.
During three separate trips to Tuscany I was not disappointed once by la cucina toscana, even when I ate in a student café in Florence where the lasagna was reheated in a microwave; it was still superior to any lasagna I have had in the U.S. or France. And during a week-long holiday in Venice, a city with a very bad reputation for tourist-trap restaurants, I discovered plenty of delectable things to eat and drink. I still
crave the polpetti (little meatballs) I gobbled there, and I have since adopted
the hometown cocktail, the deliciously bitter and sparkly Spritz, as my own. My husband and I make it whenever we are feeling celebratory and the weather is fine — provided we can track down its key ingredient, Aperol, which is not an easy thing to find in Paris.
I am such a fan of Italian food and drink that the French make my blood boil every time they concede that Italian cuisine is tasty but then add with a sniff, “mais c’est pas raffiné” (but it’s not refined). Bullshit, I say. What is so refined about taking some
vegetables, throwing them in a blender, tossing in a wedge of pungent cheese, pouring the concoction into a shot glass, and calling it “raffiné”? If you ask me, it’s just an easy way to mask inferior ingredients. Purée a bunch of stuff together and no one will know that les carottes were limp or that the cheese was about to bolt from le frigo.
Italy is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, which, to me, says a lot. The
emphasis on fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables, handcrafted cheeses and excellent quality meats can be tasted everywhere, and the dishes highlight, rather than mask, each ingredient. Italian food may be rustic, but it is not unsophisticated. I love that, during my recent weekend in Rome, I ate no meat for three days before realizing it. There were just so many mouthwatering vegetarian dishes on each menu — ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta, fried artichokes and the Roman classic cacio e pepe— that I forgot about meat altogether. In Paris, by contrast, I dine at traditional French restaurants only when I am in the mood for a bloody steak because the menus in such places never feature vegetarian options. I know that my choices will be
meat, meat and more meat. In fact, steak will inevitably be the least carnivorous plat on the menu — and it will be listed last, after the tripe, the blood sausage, the bone marrow, and the kidneys.
So sorry, France. I love your food but I love Italy’s cuisine even more.
ITALIAN FINDS in PARIS
For those who find themselves craving Italian food in Paris, I recommend dinner at Pulcinella in Montmartre, or a trip to La Coopérative Latte Cisternino (46 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière in the tenth arrondissement — blink and you’ll miss it), where you can pick up everything you need for an Italian picnic, including terrific buffalo mozzarella.
STANDOUTS in ITALY
In Italy, here are a few of the places that really stood out for me: In Florence, Gilli (for coffee and a pastry at the bar); Vestri (for orgasmic gelato); and Il Santo Bevitore (for porcini mushroom soup and rabbit pappardelle in a rustic-chic space). In Pisa, Alle Bandierine (perfect pastas, friendly service, and — if you are a good tourist — a complimentary glass of prosecco). In Venice, Alla Vedova/Ca D'Oro (local specialties and terrific cicchetti — bar snacks). In Rome, Recafé (for a simple lunch of Neapolitan pizza among Romans); Trattoria Lilli (for down-home yet lusty Roman dishes); and Vinoteca (my favorite wine bar in the world at the moment).