Over dinner one night on a trip, the question came up as to which culture has the best cuisine, the French or the Italians. It was a bit of a loaded question, beginning with the fact that the word cuisine itself is French in origin (meaning “kitchen”) and that my ancestry, as well as that of the city, is French.
Charles DeGaulle once lamented, “how can you govern a country that makes 246 different kinds of cheeses?” That alone speaks for the country’s greatness in the dining room. The French are masters of sauces and can do wonders with duck. Their desserts are exquisite and they make some of the world’s finest wine, including having created champagne. One dish, coq au vin, which originated as a simple French peasant food is among my favorites, partially because of its medley of flavors but also because I have a fixation for saying “coq au vin.”
Nevertheless, when it came to answering the posed question about which cuisine is best, the four of us, with full deference to the Gastronomy of Gaul, agreed: the best was Italian.
Blessed by its geography that extends the boot-shaped country into the Mediterranean, and enhanced by the island of Sicily, Italy is enriched with a bounty of fresh vegetables and fruit to prepare with the ocean’s treasure of seafood. To me there are five foods that most characterize Italian cooking; olive oil; pasta, tomato, mozzarella, and prosciutto. With different permutations of those ingredients, Italian kitchens produce a food that is powerful with flavor yet (depending I guess on the amount of pasta) can still be light and healthy.
Then there is the fig, which enriches Italian desserts; and, where it is warm, there is a desire for something cool for which the Italians gave the world gelato. (Yes, it is different from ice cream, which has a higher percentage of fat and is not as silky as gelato.)
Then there is one of the simplest of Italian dishes, the pizza pie, created in Naples, embellished in Brooklyn and spread across the world with more toppings than the Neapolitans could have ever imagined.
In this, our May issue, we have traditionally asked food writer Dale Curry to provide themed recipes that can be fixed at home. This year the topic is Italian. We invite you to experiment with what is arguably the world’s greatest food— and remember a glass of prosecco is always a great starter.