The Italian Thing

How much lasagna can we eat in the name of family?

OLIVE GARDEN

KIRKLAND, FEDERAL WAY, LYNNWOOD, and TACOMA BUCA DI BEPPO

701 Ninth Ave. N., LAKE UNION, 206-244-2288 (also LYNNWOOD) PALLINO PASTARIA

601 Union St., DOWNTOWN, 206-583-8755 (also FIRST HILL, MADISON PARK, UNIVERSITY DISTRICT, BELLEVUE, and ISSAQUAH) Fifty years ago, Seattle's Rainier Avenue South was fondly nicknamed "Garlic Gulch." Today the street we see in period photographs, lined with bountiful front gardens filled with gorgeous vegetables and herbs, has vanished as completely as the streetcar that ran down the valley. Only two shops from those days—Remo Borracchini's bakery/market and the Oberto Sausage hole-in-the-wall—are still in business. Descendants of the Italian Americans who lived in Garlic Gulch are still here, but they're pretty much invisible, apart from a few low-profile annual public get-togethers. It's a sad comedown for the community where America's first saint, Mother Cabrini, got her citizenship between visits to the orphans. Not so sad for the Italian Americans—some did well when they sold their truck-farming operations to developers, turning over the produce trade to Asian farmers in Kent and Renton—as for the rest of us. Because these days around Seattle (and most of the rest of the country), Italian ethnicity and food are branded, marketable concepts. When we think "Italian," we think the Old Spaghetti Factory, Quizno's, Olive Garden, and Cucina! Cucina! Italian Cafe. We think Buca di Beppo and Pallino Pastaria. And of course, in Seattle, inescapably, espresso. Above all, we think of The Sopranos. Poor beleaguered Paulie Walnuts sums it up nicely on the show, staring moodily at a glass shelf lined with coffee accoutrements: "Fucking Italian people. How did we miss out on this? Fucking espresso. We invented this shit, and all these other cocksuckers are getting rich. And it isn't just the money. It's a pride thing. All our food. Pizza. Calzone. Buffalo mozzarella. Olive oil. These fucks had nothing. They ate puzzi until we gave them the gift of our cuisine. This? This is the worst. This espresso shit." Pussy Bonpensiero groans, "Again, with the rape of the culture." Paulie lifts a small mocha pot off the shelf and hides it under his coat. One shoplifted item for man, one giant appropriated culture for mankind. Every kid in America has grown up with some supposedly Italian-accented culinary staple, some casserole involving macaroni and hamburger, or the morph of tuna, capers, and olives into the horror known as "tuna wiggle." Deep-fried mozzarella is served with canned marinara; lasagna is laced with tofu; espresso is disguised with caramel syrup and whipped cream. OLIVE GARDEN HAS built a 500-outlet empire from such gastronomic disasters. From batter-coated, deep-fried ravioli to an ice-cream concoction named "Strawberry Siciliano," the menu is appalling. Breadsticks—half-baked and delivered frozen—are its answer to the Italian crusty loaf. Its version of service is called "hospitaliano," which means "We train a staff of easily replaceable clones to persuade our customers to over-order and beef up the bill." When we visited a Seattle Olive Garden, our server greeted us with a smarmy, "I assume both you ladies are over 21?" Perhaps we are, but that doesn't mean we will be flattered into slugging back a bottle of wine with lunch. The big-chain reality collides horribly with Olive Garden's saccharinely upbeat commercials. I particularly loathe the one with the nephew bringing his aged uncle from Italy to an Olive Garden for his birthday dinner. "He is dead to me," one imagines the patriarch muttering to himself. "He and I—we are finish'." COMPARED TO the egregious Garden, locally owned Pallino Pastaria is a far superior example of skilled appropriation. The founder is proud of his bocce-playing Italian heritage and equally proud of his newfangled American know-how: His shtick is serving a truly excellent plate of pasta in 90 seconds flat. Pallino aims to be a "better, more soulful approach to casual dining," but does it Henry Ford-style, through impressive organizational skill and superior technology like the adorable "Noodle Rocket," which produces al dente pasta in barely over a minute. It shouldn't be good—we know noodles were not created to be cooked in rockets—but good it is, though for a not-cheap eight bucks a bowl. ON THE SUBJECT of not-cheap, let us briefly discuss the almighty Buca di Beppo. Surely you know the drill? Wait in the rain; over-order (since everything serves four and nobody can agree on just one salad or 2-pound order of pasta); shout over the crying baby and the Frank 'n' Deano Muzak; try not to look at the walls covered with fake family photos. Like many before me, I have not a clue what makes this chain so relentlessly popular. Printed above the menu's entr饠listings is the phrase "If you're not Italian, you'll feel like one after this." (Sort of threatening, isn't it?) If this is Italian, why does it feel like an awful Nebraska suburb? In real Italian culture, food is inseparable from family. Stereotypes and archetypes are inescapable: the carefully market-researched nephew and uncle, the bocce-loving crowd of Pallino, even Tony Soprano's charmingly evil crew. The image of famiglia is more important than little things like the freshness of the bread. THAT HAS TO BE WHY we find Italian food—even bad Italian food—so soulfully compelling. It's not the Bolognese or the biscotti; it's the powerful papa, ready to kill for your happiness, the loyal friends dishing out blood oaths and lucrative business, the multiple generations under one roof. Beppo's hometown Minneapolis Star Tribune claims that the restaurant "feeds an American hunger for community." Daily reality in many communities is either overwhelming or stultifying—it's no wonder we're attracted by eavesdropping on a charming Jersey family glamorously touched with violence. OK, but it is one thing to imagine being embraced by a family not our own, with a lively set of idiosyncrasies and annoyances to whine about and cherish. It is another thing to be violently grabbed by a pile of sentimental gibberish that shouts "family" while forcing us to shout to converse over a hubbub of canned ambience. Garlic Gulch is long gone, its gardens have been replaced by strip malls. The 'hood has changed, but we haven't. We're still the sentimentally hungry crowd, craving big, passionate family meals with big, passionate food. Preferably in 90 seconds or less. food@seattleweekly.com

 
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