Lost in Translation
Why is it that while most cuisines taste best in the place that they originate, Italian cooking transcends climate and geography so effortlessly?
On a recent trip to Vancouver, I dropped in on Pino Posteraro at Cioppino’s, to spend some time in his kitchen and catch up. Back in 1999, Cioppino’s was the first fine dining establishment to colonise Yaletown, where it has thrived ever since, a perennial favourite amidst the city’s fine dining rankings. Before that, Posteraro cooked in Toronto, as well as Singapore and his native Italy. And, given all that, our conversation eventually turned to me asking him about his theory as to how it was that basic Italian cooking has such universal appeal.
“There are two elements that are very tied together,” Posteraro replied. “One is respect for the ingredients. And the other is seasonality. The reason why you have that good experience is because the person who is cooking it does not try to serve you an osso bucco in the month of August. You know what I’m trying to say?” I did. Bear with me here, and I’ll explain. For the question of how it seems that Italian cuisine transcends climate and geography more casually and effortlessly than any other has been on my mind for some time.
It began, I think, one winter day in London, when I stopped in for lunch for the first time at a very well-reviewed Mexican restaurant in Soho. The food was very good— commendably authentic and prepared with evident finesse. But, all the same, the dining experience somehow fell flat. And when it was done, as I unfurled my umbrella and headed off into the rain and penetrating dampness of that English January day, I turned my mind to resolving why. As I traipsed along the narrow streets making for my next appointment, I thought about some great dishes I had eaten over previous winter visit to Tulum and vicinity in Quintana Roo (way back, before all the restaurants there became Italian). And it was all suddenly clear. It was not the details of what was on those genuine Mexican plates that made my lunch seem inadequate; it was the backdrop. The cheering blue sky, scorching sun, and shimmering heat. That was the weather the cuisine was designed for. Take it away and it no longer tasted right.
And then, about five seconds after that satisfying epiphany, I remembered that the most popular chef in rainy old England is Jamie Oliver, whose oeuvre is almost entirely Italian. And, if you leaf through any of his million-copy selling cookbooks, you’ll quickly see that his preference is not for the heavier, Englishweather-appropriate food of Rome, or the north—but instead for food of the sun. So why does it connect so well with English people, who so seldom see any? Or for that matter with Yaletowners, and just about everyone, everywhere?
Part of the answer is like Posteraro posited—the food has a seasonal range that purely hot climate cuisines cannot match. Of course, the French have that too, in spades. But it is not wedded there to that same four-or-five ingredient simplicity that makes Italian cuisine so easy to understand and relate to. And until a better answer comes along, that’s my working theory of the unique portability of Italian cookery.