Why the Food Is Better in Italy

If Italian food in America leaves you cold, that might be the problem

Lots of folks come back from their Italian vacation and rave about the food. You can include me in this group. Yet why can’t we seem to be able to cook up a reasonable facsimile of those foods in the US?

For example, we have “Italian” restaurants in San Francisco. Some of them are quite good. But I often find that they fall just short of being remarkable.

I’ve just had brunch at SPQR, a hot new spot in the Filmore district. SPQR features food inspired by Roman cuisine. Overall it was quite good. But, like the others, it fell just short of the mark.

The Roman model uses lots of organ meats and cuts from “low off the hog” like the belly. SPQR does wonderful things with the hindmost. Then there’s lots of crispy, fried coatings that add a delightful crunch to familiar items. Kudos to SPQR, they fry right. Most dishes have a sparkle that comes from salt, just like Roman food in the summer—but are a bit too salty for some Americans convinced that a spare pinch of sodium chloride will leave them dead with a heart attack in the middle of a crosswalk as they exit the restaurant.

But the problem was with the first dish we sampled, a salad of thinly sliced celery, potatoes, lemon juice, olive oil, and dusted with a dried fish row the Italians label as botarga.

The lemon overpowered everything. This is not because there was too much lemon, as some reviewers have mentioned. This was because the dish was served way too cold.

Now we arrive at the moment I reveal why you can’t really get proper Italian food in the US: There are stringently enforced laws against it.

Yes, most health departments require that food coming from the kitchen be either hot or near freezing. And they check on this, poking their little instant-read thermometers into everything, including the salads.

Italians understand the complex relationship between temperature and taste better than government health zealots wielding thermometers. Recipes are often quite specific about the temperature at which the dish needs to be served. Some soups, for example, are to be served “tepido” or tepid. Most of what we would call “cold” appetizers are actually served at room temperature, or “temperatura ambiente.” Seldom is a savory dish served cold in Italy.

You see, cold food knocks your taste buds for a loop, freezing them to all but primary tastes like salt and sour—which is why the food tastes overly salty and lemony.

(To be fair, a restaurant owner in the neighborhood—who shall remain nameless to protect the food savvy with good taste—told me that it is possible to have health inspectors overlook room temperature appetizers if you run a spotlessly clean kitchen.)

So there you have it. Temperature matters, unless you enjoy a tasteless world.


Ironically enough, given our references to government intervention in food, SPQR refers to the government of the ancient Roman Republic, and is the signature found on its coins and official communications.

Link to SPQR restaurant. Despite the criticism, 4.5 stars out of 5, definitely worth a trip.

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Why the Food Is Better in Italy originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com , updated: Dec 27, 2020 © .

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