What makes good Italian food and a great Italian restaurant? This is what I think.
Italy has a wonderful tradition of fine food. Italian food’s importance to Italian culture cannot be overstated. It is one of the central elements, and why shouldn’t it be? Think about Italy’s geography for a second:
- It runs a long way from north to south. Therefore, it has a wide array of growing seasons and soil types. This means a rich diversity of ingredients for food.
- It is a peninsula, meaning it is nearly surrounded by the sea but also connected to the great Eurasian land mass. There is an abundance of fresh seafood and foreign ingredients from neighboring lands.
- It sits between Europe and Africa in the Mediterranean. All Mediterranean cultures have excellent food traditions from North Africa to Lebanon and Israel, France, Greece, Spain and, of course, Italy.
When you think of noodles and pasta, you probably think of Italy, but those wonderful inventions came to Italy from China thanks to Marco Polo. It tells you a lot about Italian food culture that something so basic became associated with Italy even though it did not originate there.
Anyway, food is a key element of Italian culture. Therefore, the food is the most important part of the restaurant. Of course, a great Italian restaurant will have a great wine list, a clean and elegant decor, and wonderful service, but a good Italian restaurant can get by on great food alone, even if they have a crummy wine list, poor service, and a dingy decoration scheme.
By the way, if you leave an “Italian” restaurant hungry, it’s definitely not authentic. A white tablecloth and high bill do not a great bistro make. Frankly, I can’t stand those fancy Italian restaurants in Manhattan that charge you $400 for a morsel that makes you want to stop for a slice of pizza on the way home. A great Italian ristorante will leave you full, not stuffed, but full.
The second aspect of a great Italian restaurant is the service. The service will be warm and professional, but not overly friendly. After the orders are taken and the meal gets rolling, the service should be nearly invisible. Run — don’t walk — from any Italian restaurant where the waitperson address the table like this:
“How you guys doin’ tonight?” when ladies are seated at the table. This is most un-Italian of them. An Italian would never call a woman “guy.” Even in spaghetti-and-meatballs-type places, the waiter might say, “How is everyone this evening?” The won’t tarry with small talk in the white-tablecloth places, not the good ones, anyway. It is all about the meal and your comfort.
The third aspect of a great Italian restaurant is the ambiance. I don’t know what it is, but Italians seem to be able to create a wonderful atmosphere anywhere. I have eaten at places in strip malls in the suburbs of Denver — as un-romantic a setting as there is — that come close to great. A truly outstanding Italian restaurant will just have a certain feeling from the minute you walk in the door, a warmth and a glow that can’t really be described.