Reviewed by Everett Potter
So you think you know everything about Italian food? Okay wise guy, did you know that pasta was traditionally eaten with fingers as street food in Naples a century ago? That Harry Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice was the only real-life person to appear in a Hemingway novel (“Across the River and Into the Trees”)? Or that New York’s Mama Leone’s was really the first theme restaurant, “an Italian-American fantasy that had absolutely no basis back in the Old County”?
You’ll learn all of that and much more in “How Italian Food Conquered the World, “ by John Mariani. The author is not only the restaurant critic for Esquire magazine but a friend and colleague. So while I can’t promise to be objective, I can promise you that you will have a great read and learn more about the food that everyone in America loves.
Mariani is nothing if not a first-rate historian, and this is a comprehensive and entertaining chronicle of Italian food, as much about colorful characters as ingredients. Like Alexander Perino, owner of Perino’s in Los Angeles, a Hollywood favorite where dinner ran $1.25, a fortune for 1932. Or Tony May, born Antonio Magliulo in Naples, a waiter on the Italia cruise ship who went on to run the legendary Rainbow Room, Palio and San Domenico restaurants, helping the Culinary Institute of America build the Catherine de’ Medeci restaurant in 1984 so young students would get a solid grounding in Italian food. The stories behind New York’s classiest Italian eateries — Il Cantinori, Le Madri, and Da Silvano — are mini-dramas of star chefs, great food and big egos.
He tackles the stereotypes, noting that in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” Much of the appalling irony and grisly humor …comes from the way the Italian-American gangsters eat enormous meals, drink unlimited amounts of liquor and wine, and commit murder, all in the same scene.”
Mariani explains how Italian wine went from fizzy Lambrusco to Super Tuscans. We even get the details (culinary) of his 14 week honeymoon in 1977, a road trip across America where he and his wife Galina found “ a depressing and dismal array of restaurants of every stripe, including, memorably, a place called “The Godfather in Wichita, Kansas, “where the kitchen served slop it called lasagna in aluminum foil unwrapped at the table so that it flowed like lava onto the plate.”
In these days of Slow Food and Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Michael Chiarello, it’s easy to forget the days when Chianti bottles came wrapped in straw and red checked tablecloths were the norm. As for Mariani’s claim that “the universal comfort level of Italian food is beyond any other cuisine,” I’ll leave the debate to you. I know what I’m having for dinner tonight.