South African novelist, journalist and social commentator Jaco Kirsten, reflects on Italian cuisine after one of his visits to the country of Ferrari, babes and garlic breath.
To understand Italian food you have to understand Italian cars. And there’s not a lot to understand, really, because they’re all shit. Total rubbish. From a Fiat Palio to a Ferrari 360 Modena ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and all the hideously unreliable Alfa Romeos in between. A while ago we were driving back from a delightful lunch at Franschhoek when two supercars, a Porsche 911 GT3 and a Ferrari F50 overtook us. “Ferrari’s are nice to see and to hear,” I said to my wife, just as the juvenile-looking driver changed down a gear and extracted a glorious wail from its engine, “but they tend to be terribly unreliable.” Less than 10 kilometres later we overtook the stranded red car, its gearbox having just joined the choir invisible.
,,,,,,,,, Mention the concept of Italian food in most conversations and the instinctive feedback, like the default setting of a Korean microwave oven, is positive. Same with Italian cars. “Ooh, they’re stylish you know.” Well, maybe if you live in Boksburg, where chunky gold jewellery is considered aspirational and Joost van der Westhuizen’s long-suffering wife Amore (with the ironically Italian surname Vittone) is considered to be a role model of some sorts. Where young Italian, Portuguese and Greek ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ who, if we’re brutally honest, aren’t Greek at all but, in fact, Cypriot ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ men all receive a chrome-plated 9mm pistol and a BMW 3-Series for their 21st birthday. But even they have wizened up to the total unreliability of Italian cars. So the only people driving Italian cars are suckers from other places.
,,,,,,,,, For us repressed, white Anglo-Saxon and Calvinist South Africans there’s a bit of exotica associated with things Italian. Just enough to make the juices flow understand, but not too much to expose one’s lack of rhythm. It’s sexy, with a hint of uninhibited rewards, without risking it all for full-blown jungle fever.
,,,,,,,,, The inside of all Italian cars are identical. The plastic has the consistency of a vinyl record and the tactile sensation of a kitchen top. Switches self destruct after 2 weeks and you are lucky if the electrics work when you buy the bloody car.
,,,,,,,,, But they do have one or two redeeming features. Generally the engines have a nice sound and the outside appearances are pleasing to the eye. So they’re nice to observe from a distance. Much like Italian food.
,,,,,,,,, Most people who swoon about Italian food have never been to Italy and are devout followers of the lithping young Englithman called Jamie Oliver. Yes, he proclaims to love Italian food, but if you come from England anything you come across is bound to impress you, even boiled roof tiles.
,,,,,,,,, I have been to Italy numerous times. I have avoided falling into the canals of Venice. I have marvelled at the incredibly tacky gold jewellery at the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Scratched my head at the incomprehensibility of public transport in Rome and almost had to defend myself with physical violence against African immigrant “street vendors” in the heart of Milan, shortly after subjecting myself to the Mussolini-like arrogance of the blokes who man the information kiosks at the metro railway stations.
,,,,,,,,, You see, just like the nicest Englishmen are expats, the nicest Italian food is to be found outside of Italy. In Italy they honestly don’t give a toss. Want to order a pizza with speck like the one on the menu? Well, screw you. We’re only giving you one with a teaspoon full of tomato paste and a few scraps of cheese. Looking for salt and pepper at your table? Who the fuck are you?!
In South Africa one has started to get used to the idea of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on tables. I used to think that this was a sophisticated “Italian thing”. I was wrong. Not once have I ever seen it on a table in Italy. I suspect it was the brainchild of a Portuguese restaurant owner from the east of Joburg who reinvented himself as “Italian” after lying low for six months and selling the concept to the themed restaurants at Monte Casino in Gauteng.
,,,,,,,,, Want to order risotto on the banks of Lake Como? Well, don’t expect anything out of the ordinary. I’ve had far superior risotto in Cape Town. Not to mention in my own kitchen ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ which is a rather serious indictment of Italian food if you take into account the fact that I’m usually fairly intoxicated when cooking.
,,,,,,,,, If you eat out in Italy you would no doubt also have had the misfortune of getting to know the exploitative practice of copperto. Basically it is a shady “cover charge” for the privilege of being able to use their table, clean table cloth and cutlery. In a smallish town, a figure of about ?+¦-+??+¬?+¦-+?+¦-Ñ4 or roughly R45 is the going rate. It could be a Mafia-type tax, I don’t know.
,,,,,,,,, What I do know is that the eating experience in Italy is totally overrated. Sure, unlike Indian cuisine it won’t hurt you or make you shit your lungs out, but you can’t exactly accuse it of being rewarding or good value for money. Will eat Italian food again? Absolutely. Just as long as it’s not made by an Italian.
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