Tradizione! Tradition! The cornerstone upon which Italian cooking is based – no matter the region, city or village throughout the country of Italy, tradition is what drives the dishes you eat, the ingredients that are used and the techniques implemented. This is what has given Italian food it’s beloved position in the world as the globe’s favorite cuisine. The ultimate comfort food that for decades has been acquiring more and more popularity outside of Italy and has launched the careers of many a chef and established the success of so many restaurants around the world.
However, this has been both a blessing and a curse – tradition can provoke so many family memories, bring people together, as food tends to do, sharing traditional dishes and meals. But as I see it, tradition also brings with it monotony, the unavoidable realization that one is getting the exact same dish, maybe altered to the minimum, every single time one passes the doors of an Italian restaurant. In Rome, there are hundreds if not thousands of restaurants that serve exactly the same dishes. In Naples, the pizza, the seafood or the pastries are all made the same way, using the same traditional recipes. Though some may be deemed better than others, more “genuine” or more refined. If you ask one hundred Romans where one can get the best Cacio e Pepe or the best Carbonara, you will get one hundred different answers.
Tradition is not to be toyed with as far as Italian diners are concerned. How long did it take Massimo Bottura to get any acclaim for his Osteria Francescana? Years? More than a decade? It only did when by chance a prominent food critic passed through the doors of his restaurant and pronounced him a genius and the place took off into culinary superstardom. When tradition is broken, Italians are hard pressed to endorse your vision. I recently had a good friend, Chef Marco Maestoso, who had a small, boutique restaurant in Rome in a popular part of the city. His menu dared to take traditional recipes and turn them a bit on their head. Long story short the place closed its doors. The question his clients would ask most was, “do you have Carbonara on the menu?”, “Where’s the Cacio e Pepe?”. The craving for traditional dishes could not be satisfied, the patrons just did not come back. So what did Marco Maestoso do? He moved the to the West Coast and opened Maestoso in San Diego to rave reviews.
For this reason, and at the risk of upsetting most of my Italian friends (of which I have accumulated quite a few after living in Rome for 25 years and visiting for the last 30), I can say with a great deal of certainty, that the most creative and delicious Italian food can now be found in the good old USA, and specifically, since it is my home town right now, in Los Angeles. This city now has a plethora of establishments that have taken Italian food to new heights. Tradition continues to be the base, but chefs such as Ori Menashe at Bestia, Angelo Auriana at Factory Kitchen, Bruce Kalman at Union in Pasadena or Zach Pollack at Alimento in Silver Lake have created menus that many Italians would consider blasphemous but which are instead new and delicious interpretations of old classics.
This does not mean that the traditional recipes that have, for so long, made Italian food the world’s favorite are not worth traveling for and experiencing first-hand. These dishes are almost impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world. The proof lies in the fact that straight traditional Italian cuisine is nowhere to be found outside of Italy. As hard as many new restaurants claim or try to replicate. Here in Los Angeles alone none exist and those who claim to serve it, do it badly.
But when it comes to taking these traditions and creating something new in Italy, that is another question all together. Osteria Francescana is a perfect example of this type of cuisine in Italy. However, it is a 3 Michelin Star restaurant impossible to get access to. The same can be said of any Italian restaurants who flaunt innovation – La Pergola in Rome, Piazza Duomo in Alba or Le Calandre in Rubano (outside Padua) all produce exceptional cuisine, but unfortunately not for the everyday diner. They are limited to the more traditional options throughout the country.
So, it is here in the USA and specifically in Los Angeles, where the best and most creative Italian cooking is now available to all, without the need to book a table 6 months in advance and paying three month’s salary to enjoy. None of my Italian friends will admit it – I have enough trouble even convincing them to try Italian food here on the West Coast. But if they would only let down their prejudice and fear of getting a “Spaghetti and Meatball” experience, they would discover that “tradizione” can be both preserved and converted into innovative and delicious cuisine… by Americani!!