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Focus September 2017

Where is our chicken pepper stew?

Restaurants’ enormous repertoire frequently neglects traditional dishes.

The Italian ‘food mill’ grinds incessantly and becomes ever more bloated - by about 40% in the past five years in several cities invaded by tourism. To cite a few examples: in Florence there are over 1,600 restaurants and in Naples more than 2,400! In Milan one can scarcely walk along the Navigli canals due to the mind-boggling density of restaurants. The downside is that three quarters of these enterprises close within their first five years because of excessive supply, improvised organisation and insufficient professionalism. The restaurant business has changed radically over the last decade. Alongside the now-beleaguered classic restaurants, there are pizza parlours (of which 90% are abysmal), sandwich bars, bistros, wine bars, taverns and a more recent invasion of ‘street food’, ‘home restaurants’ and food delivery - almost all calibrated for younger customers, the demographic most likely to eat and drink out, thereby keeping such enterprises alive. Adults, especially the elderly, eat out rarely, and then mostly limit themselves to the group meals of associations to which they belong. A restaurateur will often host an Academy dinner, even with stunning success, without subsequently seeing any Academy members back in the restaurant. Once things were different: people with a reasonable income could afford to eat out; young people squeaked by with sparse dinner parties at home and modest meals in pizza parlours. Times have changed, most advantageously for the 343 so-called ‘starred’ restaurants, where a new type of clientele, chiefly from companies and luxury tourism, allows an average revenue above 700,000 Euros (and around 1.5 million Euros for three-star restaurants). Then there are such outsiders as the Cerea family of “Da Vittorio”, a restaurant in Brusaporto, pulling in approximately 15 million Euros (much of it from catering); the brothers Raffaele and Massimiliano Alajmo topping 11 million; Carlo Cracco with 7.5 million; Antonino Cannavacciuolo with 5.3 million; and Massimo Bottura with 4.9 million Euros. But in this burgeoning variety demonstrating the vitality of our food offerings, many of our most authentic traditional dishes are disconcertingly absent: formerly common dishes including pollo alla cacciatora (‘hunter’s chicken’ with wine and vegetables), chicken stew with peppers, risi e bisi (rice and peas), Venetian liver, vitello tonnato (veal with tuna-caper sauce - the authentic, not the processed version), saltimbocca alla romana (veal, ham and sage rolls cooked in wine), piccione alla ghiotta (wine-roasted pigeon - well done, not rare), parmigiana di melanzane (aubergine parmesan casserole), mixed vegetable stew (green beans, courgettes, potatoes and beets), Russian salad, beef braised in Chianti or Barolo wine, and much more. A world allowed to vanish because it is dismissed as too old, too grandmotherly; a world which doesn’t allow chefs to shine and be featured in food guides, which doesn’t satisfy newly recruited cooks fresh from internships with A-list chefs but able only to replicate the specific protocols that they’ve learnt by rote through enervating repetition. Unfamiliar with the basics of genuine cuisine, they consider a splendid plate of tagliatelle with meat sauce to be beneath a modern young chef wishing to charge over 100 Euros per head. Such haughtiness and arrogance are costing us dearly. We have reached the saturation point.

Paolo Petroni