We didn’t intend it that way, but there is a distinctive Italian theme to our best of dining selections this year. Our designated Chef of the Year, Rebecca Wilcomb, heads the kitchen at a new Italian restaurant, Gianna, and our Restaurant of the Year, Sofia, is as Italian as Sophia Loren, after whom it is named. Also, among our specialty restaurants we chose Bonci Pizzaria.
Of the three nations that are known globally for their food; France, Italy and China, Italy would probably get the gold if the question was put to a vote. So, what is about Italian food that makes it so desirable?
My theory begins with unlikely factors: volcanoes. The southern part of Italy, including Sicily, has two of them; Vesuvius near Naples, and Etna, located on the island. Now volcanoes are best known for their destructive power, but they are worshipped for their soil, which, because of the volcanic ash, is considered to be among the most fertile in the world. The ash is loaded with nutrients that are a powerhouse for making fields fruitful. So it is that tomatoes, lemons, olives, figs and grapes sprout from a region of volcanoes whose rich land also nourishes the water buffalo, the namesake for buffalo mozzarella.
Other places also produce some of that same bounty, but they are not as blessed by the Mediterranean sun, the riches of the sea and the North African influence. Significantly, most of the great Italian dishes, including desserts (pass the spumoni), come from either the southern part including Sicily, and, except for Pasta Bolognese, not so much from the northern areas. Though the latter are more industrious, its people are less likely to take a break for limoncello.
Vesuvius of course, is best known for Pompeii, a moment when history stood still, but from that disaster came a fertile land that would contribute to producing great restaurants and chefs of the future.