April 12, 2007
How Italian Cookery Differs

In a talk at UC Davis this afternoon, Paolo Villoresi obliquely reminded his audience that if conversation at a dinner party lags, just start musing about which of the world's cuisines is the best.

Villoresi didn't slip into this trap himself, but in a discourse on the evolution of eating generally and Italian gastronomy in particular he did toss onto the table something sure to get the conversation moving in that direction. He ventured that French and Chinese chefs approach cooking from a decidedly different perspective than Italians. Italian, Chinese and French cooking generally are considered the epitome of the culinary arts, and debates over how they differ and which is superior can rage far into the night.

Villoresi confined himself to chatting briefly about how they differ. To his perspective, it all comes down to complication. The French and Chinese like to take many ingredients and combine them into dishes that create a flavor of their own, and in which individual ingredients don't stand out. Italians, on the other hand, prefer a simpler style of cookery, one that celebrates dishes of just a very few ingredients, but they must be very good ingredients, with flavors to be appreciated on their own and in simple combinations. Olive oil sprinkled on bread can be a very good thing, and it's very Italian, said Villoresi. "It doesn't require a craft, but the ingredients have to be good," he said of Italian cooking generally.

"The French have an exceptional cuisine, but it is very different than ours," added Villoresi, a Florentine native who also pointed out that he isn't at all chauvinistic, that he's half French and that he has lived in China.

But it's Italian food with which he is most closely identified. He's president and CEO of the Italian Culinary Institute in New York, and publisher and editor of two periodicals, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana and Italian Cooking & Living, as well as the online subscription magazine Cibo, which he started recently in hopes of attracting a younger clientele that doesn't read print food magazines.

As the session ended, he clarified for me a matter concerning pizza. I've been encouraged lately not only by a surge of new pizza places in the Sacramento area but by their rediscovery of pizzas with thin and crackly crusts, which to me seem more Italian than the thick and doughy crusts of so much American pizza. Villoresi, however, says the crust of original Neapolitan pizza was quite thick and soft. "It was fluffy so it could be folded into four and eaten while walking," said Villoresi. Pizzas with thin and crisp crusts originated later north of Rome. What's more, pizza in Italy early on and for some time was topped only with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. "Today, all sorts of things are on top, even in Italy," said Villoresi.

If you have a question about Italian cooking and happen to be in the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba this evening, he will be the big and amiable guy in the blue shirt with white collar and bright pink tie, unless he's changed attire. "She's an honest chef," said Villoresi of Biba owner Biba Caggiano.

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