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By now, everyone in the world is aware of the Italian joke about Americans putting pineapple on their pizzas. Despite this culinary howler, we have lots of company among travelers who misconstrue a regional cuisine or demand our home-style food (or even our version of their food) in another country. Wherever a large population of Germans lands annually for a Mediterranean vacation, there arise half-hearted offerings of schnitzel and wurstel. We recently overheard a Sicilian official complain about her meals in Spain. They served way too much paella, she said, and when she and her daughter finally found a restaurant that served pasta, it was so disgusting, she couldn’t even bring herself to describe it to all of us while we were waiting for our paperwork to be finalized.
Italians, in turn, are appalled at the Brits insisting on a dish of Spag Bo. This request is frequently delivered with a chortle and a wink. Such as the British couple explaining to a waiter in an excellent Bolognese restaurant that they hoped its version of Spag Bo was as good as the one they had at home. The very polite waiter patiently explained to them that what they wanted was called Tagliatelle al ragù but to no avail. Rumor has it that there is actually a recipe for spaghetti Bolognese that is indeed the round spaghetto and not the flat tagliatella and is accompanied by a canned tuna, tomato and onion sauce. It apparently is a favorite with students at the University of Bologna, whose population can reach 100,000 – which is a pretty big percentage in a city of 400,000.
How They See US
I was curious to see if there were any Italian takes on American Cuisine (we do have such a thing, you know, and we did bring to the world chocolate chip cookies, brownies and popovers). I wasn’t searching for the Corporate-America-invades—Europe culinary creeping, such as McDonalds, Subway or Starbucks. Starbucks, by the way, has offered a weird sort of Italian Coffee word salad in over 30 outposts here. The signature one in Milan boasts heated marble countertops so your elbows won’t get cold while you down your venti. No, I was casually in search of how an Italian company would take an American food and serve it up profitably to its own population. So far, no one has taken up a proper fried chicken with biscuits, leaving the gross KFC versions to further ruin the reputation of what is really a fine American dish. Baskin Robbins has not entered into the Italian Gelato competition, although I am sure there is room for Shrek Swirl.
To date, I have found two Italian interpretations of American food in Bologna. The first is an Italian corporation that has taken a sort of Merry Go Round approach to its menu – Hamerica’s includes Chicken Nuggets, Tacos, Hamburgers, Caesar Salad, Key Lime Pie and a Peanut Butter tiramisu. The company’s home office is in Milan and has several franchises there, plus two in Bologna, with several others in northern and central Italy. My son-in-law, who was introduced to the joy of a good taco by his American wife, gleefully invited us all to try it out.
I must say, decor wise, Hamerica is really clever, much more atmospheric than most barren fast food places, where greater pride is taken in the cleanliness of bathrooms than in their ambiance. The one we lunched at had artfully arranged walls of luggage, type boxes and scales, plus copies of Old World paintings with a subtle American 20th century joke in each. That day, the service was more Slow Food than fast, but there may have been a hiccup in the kitchen. An order of chicken nuggets came out as pieces of chicken meat breaded and a bit over fried. Very different from the McDonald’s version, which, according to Sentient Media is a goo of ground chicken meat “forced under high pressure through screens that reduce meat, bones and other parts into a paste. This paste is mixed with chicken skin and additives, including starch and sodium phosphate and shaped into a nugget.”
I love a good guacamole (it’s hard to improve on any variation of Diana Kennedy’s recipe) and here it is basically pureed avocado with a few sliced pomodorini mixed in. At Hamerica’s it comes in a teeny sauceboat that will serve a small fistful of chips. The tacos were well intentioned, but lack the zip of the ones from my favorite taqueria in Alexandria. The rolls for the hamburgers are nicer (they don’t taste like a cross between cardboard and cotton) and I am guessing the meat is probably butchered to a higher standard than in the US, with all the toppings a charming reimagination of American regions. Should we return, I may attempt with my grandson their version of key lime pie and huge (cake slices in US restaurants are always oversized and this tendency is recreated here) slab of American Devil’s Food Cake. I would say that it is a good reenactment of not great food. In order to reorient ourselves, we went across the street and stood at a bar and downed a great shot of espresso. Our elbow temperature was just fine.
My heart is really with another find on one of my favorite streets in Bologna – Via Galliera. It boasts some of my beloved haunts – Ristorante Arcimboldo and its pasta Laboratorio, the Malaguti Hat Shop, Scampo Fish Market and the most unusual Farm produce shop – Agricola Palladino. We watched the buildout of Low And Slow while we were in our Covid Lockdown last year and could hardly wait to try their offerings. They have serious barbecue equipment installed. I had to look up what they meant by Salsa Baltimora, which is Baltimore Tiger Sauce, usually served with their Pit Beef and a nice salad. They certainly aced Baby Back Ribs. They also make a really good coleslaw with a yoghurt based dressing — restrained, not oozing onto your plate. Their rolls are so much better than what I have had in BBQ joints in the US. Their meats and how they grill them is a close match to this much vaunted American tradition. Low And Slow could definitely give a webinar to our BBQ joints on how to do potatoes. We will definitely be returning to this Italian outpost of a proud American standard.
Their barbecue sauce though, really needs some help. It is missing that je ne sais quoi tang and spice combination that seems to be a closely guarded secret among our BBQ wizards. To help them out, I may have to introduce them to some Bone Dr BBQ sauce – which is somewhere in the 109 boxes that are eventually coming to Bologna.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.