Before entering a debate on this question, I want to know who is asking. An Italian grandma from Florence, a yuppie from New York or an entrepreneur trying to open a restaurant. Each will have a different perspective and standard for evaluating the dining experience.
The native will recognize Italian food is based on regions and availability of fresh ingredients. While our perception is northern or southern cooking styles, in reality Italian food is broken down into at least a dozen different styles. Regions depend on distance from the sea, upland, lowland, mountains, weather, ability to import from other regions and access to spices and ingredients not native to the country.
Americans have adopted a view of Italian food that generally revolves around pasta, which was never a universal ingredient in Italy and not even utilized as a regular ingredient until the 18th or 19th century. The “Americanization” of Italian cooking follows most other ethnic trends based upon common availability of ingredients in this country. The average diner looks for a perceived combination of sauces, starches, proteins and spices to call a dish Italian. So when evaluating a great Italian restaurant, the native American may have a totally different answer to the basic question.
The entrepreneur who is starting to put together a menu for his “authentic” Italian restaurant will have a wide range of options to consider. First, what will his demographics look like? If he is in the middle of Little Italy in New York or Chicago, his cuisine will be much different than in Ft. Myers, Florida. The second consideration will be the availability of ingredients and the impact of those imported necessities that will impact his price points.
As you can see, the question depends on the ethnicity and motivation of the person asking. For those of us who have adopted the Olive Garden, Romano’s and Pizza Hut as “Italian” restaurants, may not be the ones who should be answering. Our taste buds and may not have the same palate sensitivities that the back streets of Rome command.
Now, hand me another slice of that pepperoni and cheese pizza!