What makes good Italian food and a great Italian restaurant? This is what I think.
Italy has a wonderful tradition of fine food. Italian food's importance to Italian culture can not be overstated. It is one of the central elements, and why should not it be? Think about Italy's geography for a second:
- It runs a long way from north to south. Therefore, it has a wide array of growing seasons and soil types. This means a rich diversity of ingredients for food.
- It is a peninsula, meaning it is almost surrounded by the sea but also connected to the great Eurasian land mass. There is an abundance of fresh seafood and foreign ingredients from neighboring lands.
- It sits between Europe and Africa in the Mediterranean. All Mediterranean cultures have excellent food traditions from North Africa to Lebanon and Israel, France, Greece, Spain and, of course, Italy.
When you think of noodles and pasta, you probably think of Italy, but those wonderful inventions came to Italy from China thanks to Marco Polo. It tells you a lot about Italian food culture that something so basic became associated with Italy even though it did not originate there.
Anyways, food is a key element of Italian culture. Therefore, the food is the most important part of the restaurant. Of course, a great Italian restaurant will have a great wine list, a clean and elegant decor, and wonderful service, but a good Italian restaurant can get by on great food alone, even if they have a crummy wine list, poor service, and a dingy decoration scheme.
By the way, if you leave an "Italian" restaurant hungry, it's definitely not authentic. A white tablecloth and high bill do not a great bistro make. Frankly, I can not stand those fancy Italian restaurants in Manhattan that charge you $ 400 for a morsel that makes you want to stop for a slice of pizza on the way home. A great Italian ristorante will leave you full, not stuffed, but full.
The second aspect of a great Italian restaurant is the service. The service will be warm and professional, but not overly friendly. After the orders are taken and the meal gets rolling, the service should be almost invisible. Run – do not walk – from any Italian restaurant where the waitperson address the table like this:
"How do guys doin 'tonight?" when ladies are located at the table. This is most un-Italian of them. An Italian would never call a woman "guy." Even in spaghetti-and-meatballs-type places, the waiter may say, "How is everyone this evening?" The will not tarry with small talk in the white-tablecloth places, not the good ones, anyway. It is all about the meal and your comfort.
The third aspect of a great Italian restaurant is the ambiance. I do not know what it is, but Italians seem to be able to create a wonderful atmosphere anywhere. I have eaten at places in strip halls in the suburbs of Denver – as un-romantic a setting as there is – that come close to great. A truly outstanding Italian restaurant will just have a certain feeling from the minute you walk in the door, a warmth and a glow that can not really be described.
So the priorities are food first, service second, and a ambiance third. If all three are met, you have found a great Italian restaurant.