Culinary couple intent upon dishing up authentic Italian cuisine in America

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Watertown, Mass. -- Ask Margaret and Franco Romagnoli about America's love affair with Italian food and they'll say it's good -- and bad.

Good, because their favorite cuisine is now one of America's favorites. Bad, because America's idea of Italian food is a little, well, overdone.

Mr. Romagnoli refers to it as his "car-fin theory." Like the cars that sported tail fins in the 1950s, "Italian cooking now has become so faddish," he says, with people adding extras.

"We've been terribly conscious of authenticity," says Ms. Romagnoli, while being interviewed with her husband at their home.

The Romagnolis have a unique perspective on Italian-American cuisine: Ms. Romagnoli grew up in Michigan and Connecticut, and Mr. Romagnoli in Italy. They met in Rome, when Ms. Romagnoli was an information officer for the Marshall Plan and Mr. Romagnoli was a filmmaker, and married in 1952.

In 1955, they moved to America and through the years nurtured a joint culinary career, which stemmed naturally from their broad exposure to Italian cooking. They have hosted their own cooking series on PBS-TV ("The Romagnolis' Table"), opened several restaurants and written numerous cookbooks. Parents of four children, they have no formal schooling in cookery, but share a love of the food and culture of Italy, which they consider their second home.

"I approach Italy with love. He approaches it as home," explains Ms. Romagnoli.

Italian cuisine as a trend erupted in America after French nouvelle, she says, during the late 1970s. "Italian food just sort of swept everything away after they got rid of the souffle and omelet." Now you see Italian food on menus, made up at supermarkets, offered as fast food, and manufactured by food companies. High-quality ingredients from Italy are in markets and specialty shops as well.

But even though Americans are becoming more knowledgeable about Italian cuisine, people are still twirling their forks in misinterpretations.

As true traditionalists, the Romagnolis worry about bad translations. Misconceptions about Italian cuisine include spiciness, emphasis on sauces and toppings, and an overall "more is better" mentality.

Ms. Romagnoli says she laughs at advertisements that promote the image of the Italian mamma ordering her family to "Eat . . . EAT!"

Mr. Romagnoli chimes in, "You would never get away from the table feeling too full in Italy."

Says Ms. Romagnoli, "In Italy -- where I've spent about half of my adult life -- rarely do you have a dessert during the week. It's fruit and cheese. . . . You don't see a lot of fat people in Italy. That fat mamma in the kitchen -- she doesn't exist."

The Italian diet is largely based on bread and vegetables. That surprises many here who think of thick sauces over heaping plates of pasta.

As with many ethnic cuisines, "America puts a heavy hand" on Italian cuisine, says Ms. Romagnoli. Spaghetti and meatballs isn't even a dish in Italy.

Italians place more importance on the pasta than on what goes on top of it. Americans are the opposite, stressing the sauce, says Ms. Romagnoli.

Same with bread, adds Mr. Romagnoli. "I cannot have a meal without bread," he insists.

And those spaghetti-sauce commercials showing a pot of sauce that simmers on the stove for hours? Culinary quackery. "That's as un-Italian as you can get," says Mr. Romagnoli. "Ninety percent of pasta sauces are made by the time you bring that pasta to a boil."

One possible explanation for all the exaggerations is affluence, Ms. Romagnoli says. And creative chefs find it difficult to stay within the traditional bounds of an ethnic cuisine.

Mr. Romagnoli calls such departures "flights of fancy. Some work, but many do not. . . . Rose petals in balsamic vinegar," he says derisively. Or tortellini and pesto, he adds.

"Oh! Sacrilege!" cries Ms. Romagnoli, sweeping her hands up to her face.

It's the car-fin theory again: More is better. Some chefs take the "ballistic" approach, firing mushrooms and peppers and sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and virgin olive oil. Then they make it "Italian" by putting a vowel on the end of the name.

Wrongo.

"Less is better," says Mr. Romagnoli, fist in the air.

Spiciness is another misconception. "You don't use a lot of garlic," says Mr. Romagnoli. Some people are making "cilantro pesto" or "red pepper pesto" or "walnut pesto." True pesto is made with basil as the main ingredient.

"It's cashing in on a fad," Mr. Romagnoli says. Simplicity and natural taste mean that one flavor dominates and gives the stamp to a dish. If you add more, it detracts.

"The American palate began to expect certain things," explains Mr. Romagnoli. Take pizza, for example. Traditional Italian pizza appears in about four basic variations using fresh tomatoes, cheese, oregano, mozzarella and anchovies. "There was no pepperoni, garlic . . . no tennis shoes."

He tells of a billboard he and Ms. Romagnoli chuckled over in Sicily. It read: "Real American Pizza."

Interestingly, Mr. Romagnoli is completing an American cookbook for Italians (written in Italian) called "Cucina Americana" ("American Cooking"). Ms. Romagnoli has two Italian cookbooks in the works (for Americans): an Italian one on fish, and one on home-style cooking.

Despite Americans' overkill in Italian cuisine, the Romagnolis say great progress has been made in authenticity -- especially in the past few years. Restaurants are "a little smarter about olive oil," says Ms. Romagnoli.

Before, poor-quality olive oil was in the stores. Restaurants drenched things with it. Today, exporters in Italy tend to ship a better product, says Ms. Romagnoli. "Now, it's hard to make a mistake." Also, the breads have improved immensely, she adds. And in the markets, radicchio is now available.

The quality of most pasta -- though not up to Italian standards -- is pretty good, Ms. Romagnoli notes. "But I have not found acceptable egg pasta yet," she adds, so she makes her own.

The best meals they've ever eaten, says the culinary couple, have been in small trattorie in Italy. "Frequently we travel off the beaten path," says Ms. Romagnoli. "You end up eating whatever they have on hand, but it comes out tasting heavenly."

That's not to say avoid being adventurous. "I'm not so frozen in my taste that I don't appreciate something that is better," says Mr. Romagnoli. The best eating is when you're "being led by the palate."

Here's a recipe from "The New Romagnolis' Table" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $15.95, paper).

Pomordori al riso

Serves six.

(Tomatoes stuffed with rice.)

6 medium-size tomatoes

4 tablespoons chopped parsley

6 fresh basil leaves

1/2 clove garlic

1/2 cup medium-grain rice, preferably arborio

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Wash the tomatoes and cut off the tops about a quarter of the way down, so that you can get at the insides. Save the tops. Scoop out the seeds and the inner pulp with its juices, and strain through a sieve or vegetable mill into a small bowl. Salt the tomatoes and turn upside down to drain for 15 minutes. Chop the parsley, basil and garlic very fine, and add to the tomato juice with the rice.

Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Mix well.

Put this mixture into the tomato shells, filling them no more than half full. Place them in a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold them. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of the olive oil, and cover each tomato with its own top.

Bake at 375 degrees for half an hour. Then reduce the heat to 350 degrees, and baste the tomatoes with the juice from the baking dish, using a bulb baster to get the liquid into the rice without disturbing the tops too much. Bake another half an hour or so, until the rice is really tender.

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