Going to School in Italy
Can Hurt So Good
I had the pleasure a short time back to travel with a bunch of Italian-American restaurateurs to Italy. I’ve been to this glorious country a few times before, but this time I saw it through the eyes of people who are passionately in love with all that is Italia.
They are part of an organization that’s called Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, and they make a pilgrimage to Italy every spring. If you’ve ever been to the country you know you need no excuse to visit. But this group has been traveling to their homeland for 14 years with the expressed goal of educating themselves.
All school work should be this pleasurable. It is work, however, and at times it hurts so good. This you'll discover when you’re awakened at 4 a.m. to take a long bus ride to a local fish market that is auctioning fish right off the boats. Or you find yourself traveling through thick fog on horrifyingly narrow mountain roads to reach a quaint little restaurant that has prepared a polenta made with a 3,000-year-old grain you won’t find in this country.
Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani came to life in 1979 and its president is Tony May, one of its founders. May’s New York restaurant, San Domenico, is considered one of this country’s finest Italian restaurants. He had two other casual Italian restaurants in the World Trade Center, but they are now only memories. May is an outspoken opponent of what he calls "the misrepresentation of Italian food" by so-called Italian restaurants in this country. Whether the food in these restaurants is good or bad is not the sole issue, says May. The food is simply not authentic Italian and should not be presented as such.
So, Gruppo Ristoratori heads to Italy every spring to rediscover what is real Italian cooking. Along the way, they often discover something new. That’s no small feat with this group which, on this trip, consisted of top-notch Italian restaurateurs including Roberto Donna, who operates several restaurants in Washington, D.C. and is chairman of Gruppo; Joe and Dominick Avelluto, who have restaurants in Kansas City and New York; Jasper Mirabile, who owns an eponymous restaurant also in Kansas City; and Tony Pecora, another New Yorker with several great restaurants.
This time out, Gruppo Ristoratori targeted the region known as Le Marche, located between a range of mountains and the Adriatic Sea on Italy’s east coast. Tourism has not overrun this region, so much of what you find remains untouched by modern civilization. Some of the roads you walk down have not changed since the Romans invaded centuries earlier.
The reception Gruppo gets from city officials in Porto San Giorgio, Fermo, Ascoli Piceno and elsewhere is mind-boggling. Grand receptions are held, banquets are thrown, toasts are made and speeches are delivered honoring the guests from America. The exchanges are heart-warming.
What many learned on this educational trip is that every town you visit claims to have the authentic recipe for a dish, and none are the same. Still, nobody is wrong. The other revelation is that the cooking in many of America’s best Italian restaurants is as good as you’ll find anywhere–including Italy.