Italian food, when served anywhere outside of Italy (and sometimes even in Italy) generally sucks. And here’s why.
As a native of New York City, I’m particular about my Italian food – not that I could tell the difference between “Northern” and “Southern” Italian cuisine as a kid – but because the Italian food I grew up with was delicious and filling, and can’t really be matched outside of New York.
Oh, and New York pizza dough is the best in the world. Period. (Hint: It’s the water.)
Despite the title of this post, Italian food in America also admittedly sucks the moment you’re away from an Italian neighborhood. Nobody really knows what Italian food is, so most people are happy being served dough soaked with Ragu or ketchup (so as long as there’s garlic sticks!). My first time eating pizza in the American South was a shock: square slices of dough with ketchup and Polly-O string cheese on it.
So why does Italian food in Europe (outside of Italy) generally suck? It’s Europe, right?
European Italian food is just bad. In fact, European pizza anywhere outside of Italy is only marginally better than the squares of dough mentioned above. It’s generally sucks for the same reason they serve square dough in Missouri and call it “pizza”. I guess there’s an added disappointment since we tend to put European cuisine because it’s Europe.
The Average Joe across the European continent gets his pizza from a family-owned take-out place. (And not from an Italian family either.) Usually the “Italian” menu will be alongside the ethnic food of the respective take-out owners (Chinese, Indonesian, Turkish, or whatever). In general, their “Italian food” is only good if you’re drunk, hung over, or starving. The Italian menu at any of these places normally goes as follows:
Pizza Margherita – a plain, 10-14″ diameter, thin crust pie
Pizza Salami – with salty, thin slices of salami
Pizza Quattro Formaggi – with four styles of really salty cheese
Pizza Funghi (or al Funghi) – with bits of mushrooms
Pizza Hawaii – bits of really salty ham and chunks of canned pineapple
Pizza Diavolo (or possibly Pizza Peperoni) – with bits of pepper that are supposed to be spicy (but never are)
Pizza Vegetarisch/Végétarienne/etc. – self-explanatory (name changes depending on which country the take-out place is located)
Generally, the further West you go (into France) the more oily these pizzas get, and the further East you go (Czech, Slovakia, etc.), the more likely you’ll encounter peas, corn, and carrot cubes on the soggy slice of Scheisse the indifferent staff tosses at you.
To give you an idea about how bad the crust can be, when I lived in Munich, Germany, all these take-out joints had giant sacks of “just add water” pizza dough mix, all delivered by the same delivery truck. With the exception of two (possibly three) restaurants, every single place in Munich used this same instant foot powder.
So having dared eat Italian food four times in Europe in the past 14 months, I can say two of them were consistent with my above description: a late night drunken pizza run in Clapham Junction just south of London and an ill-advised stop for Pizza “mit allem” near Düsseldorf, Germany. But, the other two were really very good – and both of them were in The Netherlands.
Now, most Italian food in the Netherlands normally fits right in with the above menu selection. (What’s worse, the “Chinese” food in the Netherlands is more awful – usually bland bami noodles with Ketchup or possibly rice with sweet soy sauce – if you’re lucky).
Dokkum, Friesland – Paisan on Board
I was up in Friesland for a weekend last Summer with my girlfriend and some friends taking part in some ridiculous Frisian past-time called waddenlopen. Now, Friesland is a very independent place, and the Frisians are the butt of a lot of jokes in the Netherlands (almost as much as the Belgians) – perhaps rightfully so. The first time I saw a bunch of Frisian farmers in the wild, I thought they were the cast of a gay porn movie: they all wore skin-tight jeans, blow dried mullets, and the worst porno balconies you’ve ever seen.
But that’s “masculine” in Friesland, apparently.
A further indication of Frisian wackiness is waddenlopen, a sport which involves hiking knee-deep through the muck of North Sea tidal flats. This is supposed to be fun. While it was interesting at times, cutting your feet up on broken mussel shells does not fit my traditional definition of “fun”. (We were promised that we would see seals, and I might have seen one, although it simply might have been a huge whale turd.)
The villages in Friesland are very charming, and Dokkum was among the most charming. When looking for a place to eat, we found a small Italian place in the village center. I didn’t want to go in at first, but it was the only place with unreserved seats on a Saturday night.
The menu was actually pretty promising, and more telling, they didn’t bat an eye when we ordered pizzas and pasta as appetizers, and meat and fish as main courses. A buddy in our group was half-Italian, and we nodded to each other in agreement as we tried the pizzas (not too salty, and decent crust), the pasta (nice red sauce, clearly home-made, and the veal (simply delicious). He declared outright “this is the best Italian meal I’ve had in the Netherlands, no in Europe outside of Italy”.
“Not that it’s up against any stiff competition,” I quipped.
“Seriously,” he replied. “I bet there’s a paisan working back there. I’d guarantee it.”
Sure enough, we looked past the bar to the kitchen just as the doors swung open. For a fraction of a second, we saw the portly, dusky fellow with a bushy black mustache so huge you could hide in it. When the 5’11” blonde waitress came back, we asked her if the chef was Italian. She nodded happily, yes, her dad was Italian.
Yes, she nodded again happily. Her Mom, the hostess came out. She was easily 6’2″, with that even, brown sunbed tan and subsequent dried-out skin typical of many middle-aged Dutch women. Her hostess attire was capped off with pink lip gloss and the perennial bottle-blond locks piled up on top of her giant noggin.
After we finished dinner, her hubby the chef came out to receive our kudos – he was a full foot-and-a-half shorter than his ball-and-chain. The story was one I’d heard a gazillion times before:
Northern European girl goes to Mediterranean with family on vacation, and has Summer romance with smooth talking, sawed-off local boy. The story usually ends when the girl suffers heart break after her Summer crush chooses for his local sweetheart with the ample hips and a mustache of her own. This guy chose otherwise, and hit the lottery by banishing himself to the backwater of Friesland to run a real Italian restaurant.
And they lived happily every after.
Amsterdam – Get Your Black On
Now, I did not have high expectations of this place. It was definitely “trendy”: any man over 35 was shaved bald and wore funky eyeglasses, or had long hair (thick with gel) and had girlfriend half his age.
And there were loads of people dressed in black. Loads of them.
We took my girlfriend’s parents there. Her folks were all set to order a pizza, so imagine their surprise when there was not one pizza on the menu. They were so disoriented, I almost felt bad for them. Forced to expand their horizons, they took the chef’s special, which included decent cuts of beef cooked rare and juicy, served with grilled white asparagus and roasted potatoes garnished with fried garlic and other herbs. My girlfriend had outstanding veggie lasagna, and I had pasta shells stuffed with scampi and garlic.
In a word: awesome. I’ll never be able to beat that in Amsterdam unless I order a pizza al funghi speziali at a coffee shop.