04/03/2012 07:21 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

A Difficult Hunt For Authentic Pizza, Even In Italy

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day.

One evening in Florence, I had some bold and important investigations to undertake. Namely, I needed to have some pizza. Purely for journalistic purposes, understand. Solely to examine the authentic version in comparison to its American counterpart.

Here, after all, is arguably one of the greatest benefits of welcoming immigrants into one's country: it makes society more complex, richer and tastier. Italians, of all peoples, should understand this, given that their own traditional foods have pleased countless palates across the globe.

We don't think much about the flow of culture into the United States, the effects of Fellini films, the Three Tenors, and venti lattes -- we dwell, and not without reason, on the omnipresence of American culture and enterprise abroad. Corporations! They're taking over the world, homogenizing culture, destroying sense of place! Have you noticed?

But, really, consider the pizza. In 1944, a New York Times article about a just-opened pizzeria led with this description of the exotic foodstuff: "One of the most popular dishes in southern Italy, especially in the vicinity of Naples, is pizza -- a pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes. Cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, capers, onions and so on may be used." Gosh, sounds appetizing, doesn't it?

Twenty years after that rather detached, straightforward description appeared, pizza was so commonplace that in the menu phrasebook section of my 1963 edition of Europe on Five Dollars a Day, Frommer offers not a translation but a wiseacre wink: "You know this one."

Now, nearly another fifty years on, I settled myself into a corner table at one of Frommer's recommended restaurants -- he claimed "no surprises; no cover," but surprise, Arthur, there was a two-euro cover -- and ordered my own yeast-dough pie to see how it measured up. It was good enough, with the crust slightly charred from the wood-fired oven and the slight saltiness of the prosciutto perfectly balancing with the creamy mozzarella and the earthy
depth of the funghi.

Here's what struck me, though: it wasn't as good as the pizza I can get at either of two different restaurants in my neighborhood back home in Minneapolis. With their imported San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and sea salt-dusted crusts, these are marketed as paragons of authentic Italian cuisine. One restaurant is a member of Verace Pizza Napoletana, the official and famously strict arbiter of true Neapolitan pizza. Even the decor and menu design of those pizzerias back home are superficially more authentic, more Old World Italian than the restaurants I visited in Florence.

Today, some of Frommer's comments about Italian foods sound nearly as naive and wide-eyed as that 1944 Times article. Frommer lists fettuccine and risotto in the vegetable section, for example; most Americans today would probably not just recategorize them but smirk at the accurate but not entirely complete translations of these as "noodles" and "rice." My mother explained the concept of a trattoria to my father in one of her letters sent home during a trip to Europe in the '60s and waxed rhapsodic about a terribly exotic dish that I recognized, having seen it on restaurant menus back home, as saltimbocca.

The fact is, in any major city in the United States today, you can easily find food that is at least as authentically Italian as that found in most cafés in tourist areas of Italy. That wasn't at all true in midcentury America, where "Italian" basically meant cheap wine and gummy spaghetti -- or Chef Boyardee, whose 1950s Life magazine ads promised "ravioli as truly Italian as the Tower of Pisa." Most travelers of that era likely had not experienced even the watered down version of Italian cuisine presented today by the likes of Romano's Macaroni Grill, Buca di Beppo and the Olive Garden. (Even Fancy Feast cat food now has Florentine and Tuscany lines, "inspired by classic Italian tastes," for the citizen-of-the-world felines.)

Though Frommer and my mother undoubtedly had their own preconceptions of Europe, based on photographs, books and previous tourists' stories, the information available to them before
their trips was paltry compared to what today's information overloaded travelers have at their disposal. My mother and Frommer and their peers couldn't presume to believe they knew exactly what to expect. They knew they didn't know anything, and that was probably for the better. They didn't expect their pizza to taste a certain way; they weren't measuring the tourist café against the better Italian food back home. Put another way, back then they were ignorant; today we're delusional.

The popularity of Italian food in the United States has also, arguably, helped fuel tourism to Italy: if the food becomes less foreign, then so, too, incrementally, do the people it represents. By importing their native foods and traditions to the countries in which they settle, immigrants provide to their new neighbors an inescapable introduction to their culture, fueling curiosity and, ultimately, familiarity (if not comprehensive appreciation). They are de facto ambassadors.

It follows that tourists arrive with distinct expectations of what "Italian" means, what images and tastes and experiences the term conjures -- gelato stands, yes; kebab stands ... probably not. Visitors' expectations help affirm the nation's already deeply ingrained traditional sense of itself and reinforce the reflexive tendency to want to essentially preserve the past under glass, which fuels nationalist tendencies and the country's aversion to immigrants and the inevitable changes they bring.

Me, I actually like the notion that I can get some pretty good falafel in Florence, pad Thai in Brussels, enchiladas in Paris or cultural mash-ups like currywurst in Berlin.

Reprinted from Europe of 5 Wrong Turns a Day by Doug Mack by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Mack.

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