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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Italian restaurants in Spain: my first impressions

It always feels uncomfortable to me speaking about this kind of stuff. I think it's too general a subject that retrieving significant statistical data is an impossible task for an individual. Unless, maybe, you're conducting a specific study. But I will try once again, altogether.

Being a stranger sometimes means being exposed to discussions about stereotypes related to your homeland: it's a good starting point for a discussion especially when speaking with somebody you've been recently introduced to. I think, at least I hope, the same thing happens to all the members of the strangers category residing in every country in the world.

Well, if you're guessing about which is the first topic in this particular hit parade: ladies and gentlemen, it's food, one of the subjects where objectivity is out of question. First of all, I would like to say that I'm not the typical traveler which fills his luggage with food lest I die of hunger... Wherever I went, I'd always been glad of trying the local dishes I surely would never try in my homeland. I still remember when I arrived to Poland wondering what local cuisine could be like. No idea. And I was delighted to try the typical Polish pierogis or the fantastic Polish soups that warmed my frozen body during the long winter nights spent in Warsaw. I still dream about the delicious Arabic desserts I had while having a cup of green tea.

More or less the same thing happened when I arrived in Spain. No knowledge about local gastronomic traditions. I only knew about the existence of something called tortilla and I wasn't even sure that it had something to do with eggs... And I can gladly declare that Spanish cuisine has been a pleasant surprise, too.

What's the matter then?

Well... I don't know why but I suppose it has something to do with the excellent marketing strategies of my fellow-countrymen. Wherever may I be, whatever may I be eating, a comparison with Italian dishes is almost assured. The problem with such thing, let aside how boring the subject is, is that true Italian dishes aren't easily found in Spain. The same thing happens in Italy when looking for a true paella valenciana or even something as simple as a sangría. No way. Contamination is everywhere. It's surely due to the lack of the necessary basic ingredients or to the differences they have in the different countries you buy them. Subtler things to grasp are contaminations due to the necessary adjustments a dish undergoes to accommodate with the local tastes. In Spain, a shining proof is paprika (pimentón in Spanish). We don't use it, so, don't put it. We don't have chorizo, so, don't put it in a dish of pasta. Garlic in a pizza with ham and mushrooms? Never heard of that.

When making such considerations it's really hard not to appear conceited and hurting somebody else's proud is very easy, particularly when nationality is part of the equation. The point isn't that. I'm not trying to make a blind criticism of the tastes in the country I'm a guest of. I'm just questioning the adjective. I began to like paprika here in Spain, and so did I with chorizo and many more things. This doesn't mean, however, that I'm expecting to see extraneous ingredients in dishes which supposedly are Italian.

This phenomenon not only happens when some particularly gentle guest invites me at his home and tries to delight me with an Italian dish. I appreciate it, it's very gentle of them and I think I'd do the same (mistake) if I were the host. The problem is that this happens in the majority of the Italian restaurants I've been eating in here in Madrid. "Italian restaurant" surely is a good tag to attract customers. I think the more xenophilous the people, the better such kind of tags is. Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian, Vietnamese. Who cares? Sometimes it's just the fact of eating in an exotic place which, at the end, often it's only exotic because of the name.

The magic in traditional dishes is often their semplicity. Centuries of hunger with few ingredients at hand and the wisdom to mix them magically. In Madrid, I'd come a cocido rather than a pizza. In Warsaw I'd come pierogis rather than spaghetti. That's the fact. Were I Spanish, I would go to an asador as often as I could. And when I really feel like eating an Italian dish, I'd go to a selected restaurant and as I already stated, there are very few which are worth the bill. In Madrid I just ate in two restaurants where I could close my eyes and pretend I was in Italy. Just two, and I'd been kind of obliged to try so many.

A suggestion for my fellow-Spaniards and all of the fellow-strangers in the world. It's easy to pronounce this magical statement

In (insert-your-favorite-country-here) you eat as nowhere else.

De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum. But if you really love your traditional food, then eat it when you can. Promote it whenever you can. Eat it in the restaurants of your country and not only on Christmas day. So, tourists will see you and the efforts will be worth the price. It's quite unuseful speaking about dishes you wouldn't come in a restaurant yourself!

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