Five Minutes With: Food Journalist John Mariani
Journalist John Mariani tackles the broad-reaching topic of Italian food and its influence over the modern dining world in his recently released book, How Italian Food Conquered The World. The Esquire restaurant feature writer and blogger visits Boston on Monday June 13th for a book signing – we caught up with him in advance to get a few thoughts on the book, Boston’s Italian food scene, and where he’ll eat when he’s here.
Chowder: What prompted this particular book? Why now?
John Mariani: The title itself tells the tale that I could not have written this book ten years ago and made any such statement and five years ago I might have said “Italian food conquered America.” But now I can, on the basis of research of the book, say that whether we’re in Mumbai or … Shanghai or anyplace: Italian restaurants have become the most popular and stylish restaurants.
Chowder: What’s happened in the last five or ten years that makes this the case?
JM: There were four factors that changed the image of Italian restaurants from being lovable comforting food with heavy, oily pizzas and spaghetti and meatball dishes (and all its other associations like mobsters and big fat roly poly chefs) to what we see today. In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s we started to get authentically, first-rate Italian ingredients imported (thank god for Fedex and DHL)…extra virgin olive oil, real parmigiano, real proscuitto di parma to wild mushrooms to white truffles to bottarga. None of this was available in the past so you could not have a really good Italian cuisine in this country, or any other country, because the stuff just wasn’t there. Then in the mid ’80s, there was a distinct change in fashion and style from the French being a temple in fashion to Armani, Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana–all of which came out of Milan fashion shows and were inextricably linked to the trattorias in Milan. The whole fashion industry shifted into an Italian mode, or moda, which included eating at these casual wonderful la dolce vita trattorias which were immediately transferred lock stock and barrel, first to New York and then elsewhere in the United States. This proliferated so that you didn’t have the old fashioned image that you once had of Italian restaurants with the red-checkered table cloths and the big, fat cook in the back. And right on the hemlines [chuckle] of that came the Mediterranean diet of the 1990s in which the heavy, greasy, gloppy, oily, too-much-carbohydrate on the plate changed to show that, well look, Italians are not fat, they’re great-looking, slender people because they eat right. So that pretty much clinched the deal. In addition to that there was the hipster foodies of the first decade of this century who started to focus in on pizza and spaghetti and meatballs; as little as three years ago, the late Gourmet magazine and Bon Appetit were putting, quite literally, spaghetti and meatballs on their cover where they never would have done that years ago. And I spoke to Barbara Fairchild of Bon Appetit and said, “Why did you do that? It’s an ‘American classics’ issue.” And she said, “Every time we put pasta on the cover, we sell a zillion more copies on the newsstand.”
Chowder: Going back to that image of Italian with red checkered cloths – we still have some of that in Boston’s North End. How do you see neighborhoods like ours changing and adapting to this new movement? Is it for their benefit?
JM: It’s very, very much to their benefit if they’re willing to change. From what I’ve seen in Boston, there’s some new, fresh blood coming in to the neighborhood and opening new, fresh restaurants. Little Italy in NY is sort of a sad situation. It’s so touristy and you’ve got a huckster out front saying, “plate of spaghetti and glass of Chianti, ten bucks!” They haven’t really changed. What has changed, even in those enclaves, is that they too have been using better ingredients. I doubt very much that if you went to a restaurant in the North End that they wouldn’t be using extra virgin olive oil and real parmigiano.
Chowder: Aside from the North End, Boston has a long history of well-known chefs channeling their Italian influence: Jody Adams, Michael Schlow, Barbara Lynch. What do you think they’re doing to improve Italian cuisine in this city?
JM: I have been coming [to Boston] professionally for about 35 years or so. So starting with Todd English’s Olives: It was a breath of fresh air over in Charlestown. That was a small, true trattoria serving some terrifically gutsy, lusty food and that got so much attention that it encouraged a lot of the others whom you’ve mentioned. Michael [Schlow] and Jody [Adams] and Micheala [Larson], and of course [Barbara Lynch]: her restaurant Sportello is a terrific Italian restaurant. I think Boston picked up the meatball and ran with it.
Chowder: You recently ranked Boston 9th on your list of “America’s Best Restaurant Cities” – behind Houston and DC. What in your opinion would elevate our town? Where do you see room for improvement here?
JM: First of all, it’s a small city. Boston’s very small, not as big as Houston. It doesn’t have certain cultural elements in terms of Latinos and Houston has an enormous southeast Asian population which has really invested the city with a broad gastronomy. DC and Boston, I’d say they’re about neck and neck. But I have found, generally speaking in Boston, there are a lot of copy cat restaurants. One person will do something and others will simply copy it and do their own little spin on it. I am surprised that a city so close to the North Atlantic, you can get great seafood all over town but I really would love to see more seafood restaurants specifically. Not that you don’t have excellent ones. I’m surprised that you don’t have more first-rate seafood restaurants in that city.
Chowder: Where will you eat while you’re here?
JM: I’ll get to about eight restaurants or so: Bondir, Area Four, Towne (Lydia Shire’s new place), Tico, and a couple other places. The party and dinner at Bina Osteria is Monday night so I’ll get to try that, too.