There’s a vicious rumour going around (or maybe I simply dreamt it) that one of the mainstays of globalised, Muppet-centric, gastronomic mimicry is changing its name. A chain world-famous for selling so-called pizza is to temporarily rebrand to make a big deal out of its so-called pasta. I know, it sounds like the punchline of a tasteless joke but, for the life of me, I can’t think what the nudge-nudge, knock-knock or I say, I say, I say question could possibly be, except maybe, “what, exactly, has Italy has done to America to deserve such contempt for its food?”
There’s a wonderful scene in an early episode of The Sopranos, where Paulie Gualtieri and Big Pussy Bonpensiero end up in one of those faux-Italian coffee chains, where Paulie begins to rant about what Pussy mockingly calls “the rape of the culture”. “All our food,” snipes Paulie. “Pizza, calzone, buffalo moozarell’, olive oil. These fucks had nothin’. They ate pootsie before we gave them the gift of our cuisine.” Well, Italians might have gifted Americans within the confines of Noo Joyzee or New York, perhaps, but, as I suggested before, describing those Chicago deep-pan monstrosities as ‘pizza’ sticks in my throat and that of everyone with even the smallest drop of Italian blood – or semblance of a taste bud.
This pizza/pasta chain are of that American ilk. Their ‘version’ of pizza is an act of gastronomic vandalism, which leaves no slice of pineapple or green pepper unturned in its quest to disimprove upon perfection. It takes a great deal of ethnic contempt to set up a multinational company to convince the masses that this is the genuine article. There would have been no shame whatsoever in marketing it as “pizza-style” toast, or whatever, but when millions of people call the wrong thing “pizza”, it has unforeseen consequences that cut out the heart of gastronomic culture. For example, the excellent Dublin restaurant Fire at the Mansion House has on its menu “wood-fired Naples-style pizza flatbreads” – and quite wonderful they are too; the only logical explanation for this over-elaborate title is that the public are so used to the word ‘pizza’ signifying perfect rounds of toasted chewing-gum-cheese and tomato puree on bread (etc) that they simply wouldn’t order one in a good-quality restaurant.
So, having done their bit to ruin pizza’s reputation, we now have to contend with their re-ruination of pasta. I don’t know about you but I find eating pasta anywhere but in a genuine Italian restaurant (and usually one in Italy) to be a massively, murderously disappointing experience. Cooking pasta is one of the simplest pieces of kitchen craft imaginable, yet restaurants simply can’t do it. If they could, we would never face the horrific sight of chefs frying cold pasta back into heat. It’s beyond sacrilege – and we won’t even talk about revolting, non-Italian creamy sauces they serve over pasta, the sort of artery-clogging gunge that only French people would hide their food under. I stand to be corrected by the likes of Antonio Carluccio, Gennaro Contaldo or Giorgio Locatelli, but the pasta on offer in the rebranded chain will doubtless be of the usual non-Italian standard – badly-cooked, over-cooked, over-salted, appallingly seasoned, soggily-sauced slop – with a big shaker of dried oregano and another shaker of grated armpit-masquerading-as-Parmigiano-Reggiano on the side. I can hear my grandfather spinning in his grave from here. Tut-tut, indeed.