Many bad ways with pasta

February 14th, 2009
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Italian food is, along with Chinese, French and Hungarian (OK, only in the minds of Hungarians), one of the world’s great cuisines. That’s why, whether you’re in Seattle, Prague or Singapore, you’re liable to see Italian restaurants vying for space downtown, packed with happy locals and homesick tourists.

In some capitals, like Prague, it’s actually hard to get a recommendation for good local food because all the (supposed) top restaurants feature “international cuisine”, “Eurasian fusion”, etc. I think I’ve complained in these pages before about guidebooks like Lonely Planet that review vegetarian Buddhist restaurants in Prague, rather than rank the thousand goulash and dumpling joints you might want to try. Their philosophy seems to be “when in Rome eat as the vegan Californians do”.

Some places seem to be fighting the trend of international homogenization. The Italian city of Lucca in Tuscany recently banned any non-Italian restaurants from its historic, walled centre. Media suggested this was directed at McDonald’s, but it similarly restricts the Vietnamese noodle house or Arab kebab stand.

Meanwhile back in North America, Italian food continues to be flogged relentlessly, often to the lowest common denominator. On one level there seems to be nothing easier than cooking noodles to the right consistency and serving them with a sauce made of simple, fresh ingredients. Sauces can usually be prepared well ahead of time and often freeze well too.

Many restaurants however, like losing hockey teams, are always finding new ways to be bad. At the risk of sounding like a real geezer, I’ll simply mention that I’ve only ever encountered one restaurant that tried to serve quality pasta like fast food. That was 25 years ago, on St Catherine Street in Montreal near the old Montreal Forum. There was also a short-lived franchise called Reto and the Machine which prepared freshly cooked pasta with good sauce in about three minutes. Its demise might have been due to popular disbelief that good pasta could be made that quickly; certainly not because Karl-Heinz Schreiber was one of its backers.

If recent marketing trends are any indication, there seems to be no lack of appetite for limp, over-cooked pasta and industrial sauces. Two chains of note, one regional, the other international, have launched major forays into the field of soggy noodles. One assumes their market research, focus and tasting groups predicted awesome success.

The regional chain is Mike’s, formerly a reasonable purveyor of subs in Montreal and area. They have partly  re-branded themselves “Trattoria di Mike’s”, with all the style of the old Olive Garden. (Only in Quebec would a logo read “Restaurant Mike’s Restaurant”. Wonder how they snuck that apostrophe in there?) This again speaks to the wide appeal of Italian food but doesn’t explain why so little effort is made to make it good. One regional restaurant that pulled itself up from the mushy noodle pit is Earl’s, who re-vamped their menu about 15 years ago. They have found a formula of simple, tasty dishes that can be prepared well by teenagers under minimal supervision. It can be done.

Finally, the most implausible new pasta offering is from Pizza Hut. Their daring new commercial suggests that customers in a swank New York restaurant could be served Pizza Hut entrees and think they were just whipped up by the presiding celebrity chef. And if you believe that, all of your Florida real estate held its value.

I guess one might look at the bright side here and applaud that different types of food are being offered to more people. It’s just that, when it’s so easy to be good rather than mediocre and worse, why can’t they try “good” a little more often.

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By John Weissenberger