You’d be hard-pressed to find an American with an eating life as steeped in Italian food as mine. My mother started me on spaghetti with marinara sauce perhaps six hours after I conquered strained bananas, and when my father took us out to eat, which he did often and exuberantly, it was Italian followed by more Italian. Later on I lived in Rome, where a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana is never more than a half-block away. I wallowed in Italian. I marinated in it.
But I only recently realized I’d never eaten exclusively Italian, for days on end. I’d never confined myself to those ingredients and dishes that can be credibly found within the contours of a boot-shaped country. I had this epiphany when I challenged myself to go on a five-day enforced food march, to test the appeal, not to mention the elasticity, of Italian cuisine.
The challenge hit hardest at the start of one of those days when I stood on a corner near my Manhattan apartment, hungry and inconsolable. My multiday experiment demanded that I dip into the restaurant on my left, where an Italian-style breakfast cheesecake—in Italy, breakfast is treated pretty much like dessert—awaited me. But straight ahead was my favorite bagel place, and right then, I would’ve killed for a bagel. I wasn’t sure I could ignore the allure of a sesame one with lox spread.
Even when I was a resident of Rome, I’d let American impulses creep into my diet. It was the force of habit, the lure of greater variety. While there were plenty of pizza places near my office and cheese stores with the fluffiest, most ethereal sheep-milk ricotta I’d ever tasted, I’d still opt for peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
When I left Rome in 2004, Italy followed me back to New York, where I spent the next five years as the restaurant critic for the New York Times and often found myself eating that food for dinner after dinner. Italian was just then claiming dominance in restaurants across America, and every other ambitious new place peddled house-made salumi or gnudi, or both. But for breakfast, I’d eat decidedly un-Italian cereal or—you guessed it—a bagel. I craved a change of pace. More specifically: I simply assumed I needed it. But did I? Does anyone?
My all-Italian experiment was an attempt to answer that question. Luckily for me, it was staged at a moment when Italian cooking had pretty much conquered the globe. No matter where I travel, in or out of the United States, I notice an enoteca on this corner, a pizzeria on that one, a trattoria down the way. Just when you think the ardor for the cuisine has reached some apotheosis, restaurateurs find a new noodle. They mine Italian cuisine for traditions somehow not yet fully mined. With food—as with art and architecture—Italy, it turns out, is inexhaustible.
This became apparent on two separate occasions, when I panicked that my experiment would either fail or leave me miserably frustrated.
The first concerned a quick, impromptu out-of-town work trip to Atlanta. I write a twice-weekly Op-Ed column for the Times, and for a special one on my relationship with my father, I had to take a quick trip to Atlanta, where he lives during the winter, to interview him over lunch. Atlanta does not have Italian roots as deep, or an Italian-American population as robust, as New York has. And I didn’t just have to find an Italian restaurant in which to interview Dad, I had to find one within a mile or so of the Buckhead rail station, where he was picking me up. I was determined not to go to the Olive Garden.
I soon found what I was looking for: a place called Pricci, where I was served a lovely arugula salad and Dad got his beloved penne. There were some calamari and a shared pizza in the mix, as well. I’m convinced that no other ethnic cuisine within that one-mile range, not Spanish or Mexican or even Chinese, could have left us as satisfied. I hadn’t fully appreciated that before.
My second revelation concerned a dinner back home in Manhattan one night, by which point I was getting a little antsy—not so much because the experiment had begun to bore me, but because I was getting worried that it would. Between the lunches and dinners so far, I’d consumed a great deal of prosciutto and no small measure of Parmesan, and both olive oil and tomatoes had played recurring roles in my regimen.
As I headed from my uptown home to a new downtown restaurant named L’Apicio, I wondered if I’d find anything on the menu to perk me up. L’Apicio extends the mini empire of several New York restaurateurs who have already ridden Italian to considerable success with the West Village restaurants dell’Anima and L’Artusi—they like apostrophes, these restaurateurs—and the natural-wine-focused Anfora. But L’Apicio doesn’t merely mimic its predecessors; it finds a relatively unexplored area of Italian cooking to focus on. It exalts and elevates polenta—supposedly lowly, porridge-like polenta—like never before.
At L’Apicio, I discovered polenta with a mix of sautéed wild mushrooms and polenta as the base for braised short-rib ragù. The polenta the restaurant prepares isn’t a wan, watery, sorry stepsister to pasta; it’s silky, rich and nutty, and it made me think that I know what the next big Italian food trend will be.
As I ate the polenta, I was struck by just how nimble and malleable Italian cooking has proven to be, and how much terrain it permits chefs to explore. And by how aggressively chefs outside of Italy, especially in America, explore it.
In any given locale in Italy, you tend to encounter the cooking of that region, over and over again. In and around Rome, you’ll be inundated with pasta all gricia, which is like carbonara minus the egg yolks, and in and around Bologna, you’ll keep tripping across ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, or tortellini in brodo. Restaurants stick to the local playbook.
But in New York, different chefs explore different regions of Italy, and their cooking is less monochrome than rainbow. I got lunch one day just around the corner from my apartment on the Upper West Side, at Salumeria Rosi, where the chef, Cesare Casella, focuses on Tuscany. Within a few miles, I could have had lunch at restaurants where the chefs focus on Piedmont or Puglia or Emilia-Romagna.
I was reminded, too, of the many ways Italian food excels. For breakfast, within steps of my home, I could’ve had a slice of frittata, which is Italy’s answer to the omelet. For dessert, also within steps of my home, I have phenomenally good gelato. Italy does ice cream better than perhaps any other country, and sandwiches, too. On two separate lunches over the five days, I had panini, and both instances confirmed Italy’s superior grasp of sandwiches made with salty meat and saltier cheese.
About that bagel, the one shouting my name. I obsessed over it, and I set about trying to rationalize it, but in the end, I turned away—not because Italy had its exact analogue, but because Italy had so much else to entice me. It can’t answer all my hankerings, but it can sate my hunger and sustain me in grand and varied fashion nonetheless.
New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni, the paper’s former Rome bureau chief, is the author of Born Round.