Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cracking the Inner Sanctum

I ate dinner recently at a local Italian restaurant that claimed to have authentic Italian food. And, sure enough, as I was eating two very Italian-looking men in aprons came out of the kitchen periodically and chatted up the tables with very authentic sounding Italian accents. But, the menu was pretty much the same old Italian-American classics we've been seeing since the days of the red-checked tablecloths and candles in wicker-clad Chianti bottles: veal marsala, chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna.

I was immediately suspicious. I have become convinced in recent years that there's a whole secret world of dining out there that's denied to the ordinary restaurant patron. This seems particularly likely at restaurants operated by immigrants to the United States but serve up food that has clearly been adapted for American tastes--Mexican restaurants serving taco salads in big crispy tortilla bowls, Chinese restaurants with General Tso's this and that, etc.

I don't have a problem with practical commercial sense, particularly if it lets an aspiring restauranteur actually make a decent living. And--provided it's prepared well--I like a lot of Americanized ethnic food, like lasagna with a ton of cheese and red sauce and enchilada platters strewn with lettuce and sour cream.

But, I still have this sneaking suspicion that I'm missing out on the real stuff--the secret gems of the owner's native cuisine that he or she will cook up just for a select few, the inner circle who knows the secret handshake.

I visited China many years ago, and was struck by how totally novel and wonderful the food was in in Beijing and Hong Kong--and how different it was from any Chinese food I've had in American restaurants, even supposedly "authentic" ones. Several forays into highly-recommended restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown led to some tasty dinners, but all very different from what I'd had overseas. On my last visit to San Francisco I gave up on the guidebooks and took a tip from a Chinese cabbie who swore this place was "where the local Chinese people eat." It was good, and the tables were definitely filled with plenty of Chinese-Americans, but the food was pretty much the same selection you can get in any number of Golden China Huts in Pensacola, Florida or Lincoln Nebraska.

I recently discovered James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters, which promises to forever free the ambitious eater from the tyranny of the constricted English menu. The next time I'm in San Francisco, I'm going to give it a shot.

Here at home, when I find real Italians dishing up a veal saltimbocca recipe straight out of Newark, I know there's gotta be something I'm missing out on. I'm contemplating an aggressive response, like a crash conversational Italian course, something just intensive enough to learn to say, "Hey, enough of the tourist dishes, already. Give me some of the good stuff." Maybe that Rosetta Stone software that you see advertised in every inflight magazine these days would do the trick.

Hardworking farmboys dream of Italian supermodels. Middle aged food nuts dream of secret preparations of savory meats and exotic herbs. Any day now I'm going to crack the code.

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