Food & Restaurants


Food & Restaurants

INTRODUCTION

See FOLKLIFE, Foodways

As regards Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, the Los Angeles restaurant scene has undergone, in the last two decades, nothing short of a revolution. The number of Italian restaurants has mushroomed, especially in the past five years, and the influence of Italian cuisine on California cuisine, in general, has been so profound that some foods have lost their Italian uniqueness to enter mainstream food habits. We are undergoing presently an extreme case of multiplication, resulting in complex restaurant geneaologies: as Italian waiters are playing musical chairs, chefs leave restaurants to open their own (e.g., Gino Angelini, chef who launched Vincenti, and is now owner of Angelini Osteria; the chef behind Angelini Osteria, opens his own La Terza, etc.), and restaurateur dynasties appear. A successful restaurant spawns a more casual locale, wine bars, or caf╦s, thereby providing a full line of eating establishments under one banner (e.g., Celestino Drago and the Drago restaurant dynasty in the area, See: NOTABLE CHEFS; Locanda Veneta opens Caf╚ Veneto, and so forth). Italian food is strong and shows no sign of waning (search the Los Angeles Times database with keyword "Italian" and "California" and more than 3/4 of the 1,200 entries will likely relate to food, and the majority of these to restaurant reviews!). California agriculture and farmers' markets, cheese manufacturers, specialty food and appliance importers, are reflecting these changes. As a result, ingredients that were once rare are now widely available: mozzarella di bufala, espresso coffee, radicchio, finocchio, arugola, fresh pasta, polenta, prosciutto, blood oranges, etc.

In the 1980Ýs, a typical restaurant pattern was for a group of investors to hire over an Italian chef for the start up phase of an upscale (often Westside) restaurant operation, often touted as "Northern Italian." An infusion of Italian master chefs came to Los Angeles in this way. They both contributed to a new Italian cuisine for Americans, and helped change established Italian American restaurants to reflect newer Italian foods and trends. Bakeries such as Il Fornaio were, at the same time, redefining the meaning of Italian bread (and pastries) for Angelenos.

Some old guard Italian Americans restaurants (e.g., red and white checkered tablecloths, wicker wine-flasks, etc.) began showing signs of change and renewal as a result of the new Italian food trend. Red sauces typically based on canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and garlic, lightened up, as fresher ingredients and a lighter touch marked Italian food more generally. Often the only remaining cues are aural: the voice of Frank Sinatra, Caruso, Opera (rather than strains of Italian pop music or Andrea Boccelli) as dinner music. We witnessed such a reaction against Italian American restaurants (identified predominantly with southern-Italian-based cuisines) that even mozzarella-in-carrozza might be labeled as 'fine "Northern" cuisine.' Such nonsense was likely designed to lure poorly informed American public to the spare, chic, and more costly establishments. The rapid realignment of affiliations going on fed into the anti-South and anti-immigrant sentiments widespread in Italian culture and shared by non-Italians. Today, the public seems more savvy. Some Post-moderns search out New York-Chicago-, or other old Italian American restaurants consciously, while at the same time beginning to understand the differences between Italian regional cuisines. Today, Italian restaurants are further enriching the range of foods understood as Italian and to prominently name regional food traditions that are Sicilian, Venetian, Roman, Piedmontese, Neapolitan, and so forth. Regionalism is definitely on the rise. Yet at times, this "new" Italian cuisine sometimes overlays a stratum of older Italian American cuisine.

A survey of Italians in all phases of the food industry: from wineries and food producers, food distributors and importers, to markets, delis, cooks, and restaurateurs would reveal the long presence of Italians in this sector, yet awaits the historians' attention.