Italian. Lately I’ve been getting into it more. Not red sauce and gravy, chicken parm hoagies or pepperoni ‘zuh or calzones. Not Italian-American, but not because this stuff is any less legitimate than Tuscan pappa al pomodoro or the agnolotti of Piedmont. European Italian, but just because my body can handle the lightness of it better. The dishes invented by immigrants and their descendants form their own cuisine, one which may have roots in the patria, but which nevertheless has morphed into something distinct and unique. The dialect has become a different language; the subspecies its own species. And just like in linguistics and genetics, the new hybrid no longer recognizes the source from which it sprouted.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing inherently wrong about Italian-American food. In fact, the history of some of these dishes are packed with twists and turns that make them even more interesting to me than the stuff Italian grandmothers have stubbornly been repeating for centuries. It fascinates me to see 2nd generation Italian-Americans sipping espressos in Brighton Beach, ordering biscotti with thick Bronx accents. It’s exciting to hear a Jersey grandma teaching her guidette granddaughter how to assemble a lasagna. I like hearing the story of how soppressata became pepperoni, how Salsa al Pomodoro morphed into Marinara, how dishes that were originally prepared in Italy adapted to a new clientele, to a new palate in a new land.
What I don’t like is when a restaurant that has clearly embraced the Italian-American concept pretends to be European Italian to trick patrons into thinking that the latter is somehow more authentic. The practice is far too common and it results in a haze of misinformation about what exactly “Italian food” is. Landini Brothers in Old Town Alexandria, for example, claims to be a Tuscan restaurant founded by two bright-eyed 2nd generation Italian brothers eager to keep the recipes of their Tuscan nonna alive… Bullshit. The first dish in their pasta selection is a Florentine agnolotti with ricotta. The second? A penne…alla Romana. At the same time, the thick pasta called pici, most well known of the Tuscan region, doesn’t appear at all. Now how would your grandma feel about that, boys? There’s also chicken alla Bolognese, alla Griglia, alla Siciliana (that last one isn’t even grammatically correct). Yet the word “Toscana” appears not once on the menu and neither does the deep, earthy, red-wine braised stuff most closely associated with the region’s cuisine. This type of restaurant creates a false image of “Italian cuisine” in a country that is already geographically isolated and often ignorant of distant cultures. It pretends to be something it’s not. It is not Italian. It clearly knows nothing about what it means to be Italian. It’s Italian-American. And there’s nothing wrong with being honest about that.
The term “Italian food” is best left between quotation marks, as what it signifies doesn’t really exist. There is no unified “Italian cuisine.” It’s regional, with each geographical chunk having developed, over centuries, its own unique culinary tradition. Different pastas, different sauces, different availability of game, seafood, produce, etc. Any true European Italian restaurant ought to either pick a region that most influenced its concept or admit to being fusion. Chef Donna is doing it right with his piemontese Alba Osteria. Chef Michael White is fighting the good fight, serving tweaked classics from Emilia-Romagna at Osteria Morini. Isabella does something different, which I kind of really like. His Graffiato proclaims to be an Italian-inspired eatery with a menu that echoes the meals cooked by the chef’s Italian-American grandmother during his childhood in New Jersey. It’s influenced also by Isabella’s training in Mediterranean cuisine. However, it proudly insists on being “anything but a traditional Italian eatery.” In other words, it’s honest. G by Mike Isabella offers up meatball subs and chicken parm for lunch. On Fridays and Saturdays they roll out a tasting menu in the European Italian tradition, a meal complete with antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci. But, during the aptly named “Sunday Gravy,” the menu shifts right back to the family-style specialties of Isabella’s Italian-American childhood. To me, Isabella’s restaurants work because they stay honest and upfront about their identity. They don’t try to trick diners into coming in for authentic, old-school Italian classics, despite this gimmick seeming to pay off for the countless Chianti-jug-checkered-cloth disasters around the city. They tell you to what extent the dishes are traditional, fusion or just not Italian (but Italian-American) altogether.
I visited Graffiato the other night and had a great time, rejoicing in the honesty. After tasting quite a few wines next door, I felt compelled to introduce my roommate to the wonders of the Negroni, a favorite nightcap of mine. They had a great version of the classic for her and a barrel-aged version with Damrak gin and Carpano Antica vermouth for me. I have tried the wonderful pizzas Graffiato is so well known for during industry nights in May and June and have especially enjoyed the leafy green Luigi with ramps and Pecorino. But on this night I was craving something specific and nothing else would do.
Burrata has been one of my favorite treats for quite some time now, but finding one with the right texture is often a challenge. A proper burrata has a slightly gummy, stretchy exterior of mozzarella and a filling of fresh cream and strands of leftover mozz, thick enough to ebb out gracefully when the bundle is sliced into. It is especially important for the filling not to appear as a separate entity, but to be more a continuation of the mozzarella casing, a smooth transition from the plump, semi-firm solid to the liquid yolk inside. I’ve had many a reprehensible counterfeit. I can only hope that the “Italian platter” at Juvia one day ceases to haunt me in nightmares. A near-perfect version of the thing at DiVino Patio in Hong Kong once compelled me to wax poetic, and to refer to the thing as the “soft, fresh, life-giving teat of the goddess of runny cheeses.” I have no thoughts as of yet to what kind of man I will one day marry or when or where the wedding will be. I do know that a custom-made 1 kg bundle of burrata, drizzled with mature olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and lain on a bed of halved ripe grape tomatoes will replace a cake as the centerpiece. Cutting into it will be the highlight of the night; the first bite undoubtedly sweeter than the kiss after “I do”.
Anyway. Graffiato’s Burrata is one I’ve had multiple times over the past few months. It is consistently good and always creatively presented. This time it was served in a pool of ripe olive oil, sprinkled with chives, and topped with Meyer lemon zest, some funky flakes of bottarga and a few pearls of salmon roe. The texture was great, although the exterior was looser than ideal. Cream flowed out when the stringy cheese was sliced into. Burrata on its own doesn’t offer too much in terms of flavor, besides just being fresh and buttery; lemon zest pulled it in a clean, round, floral direction while the cured, salty, nutty flavors of the bottarga (that wonderful Sardinian bonito) tugged in the direction of savory marine brine. Little bursts of murky sea water burst forth from salmon roe here and there, like paint balls shot against the creamy white canvas of the cheese. The brine worked nicely with the flavors of the olive oil.
And then, Isabella’s Hand-Cut Spaghetti – simple, and wonderful in being so simple. A thick twist of pasta with a firm bite. It was chewy and slippery and warm, delicate but filling, with a color that looked almost toasted to a golden brown. The texture was wonderful, with each bite reassuring me that I should indeed be here slurping pasta rather than Japanese ramen at Daikaya next door. The spaghetti was lightly folded in and topped with a bright red, olive oil poached tomato sauce. The latter was flavored with fresh Thai basil and plenty of garlic, toasted to make the sauce nutty and sweet rather than bitter or zingy. Soft, peeled cherry tomatoes offered bursts of hydration and a delicate body, having bled most of their flavor into the sauce around them. Paper thin flakes of parmesan snow over the top, melting toasty flavor against the heat of the sauce. While the burrata showcased complexity with its incorporation of marine elements against a dairy-oil base, the spaghetti took on a more modest identity. It clearly stood out as a signature, one which appears on the Sunday Gravy menu over at G as well. It’s a cross between Italian and Red Sauce Italian-American, or maybe it’s just a damn good dish by Isabella to slurp up on a cold night after a few too many glasses of wine.