Twenty years ago, Italian food was predominantly cooked by Italian immigrants in home kitchens. It was associated with Chef Boyardee's canned spaghetti, cheap ingredients and pasta with red sauce. There was no extra virgin olive oil, no celebrity chefs and no high-end pizza restaurants offering patrons their choice of eclectic toppings, followed by gelato in assorted homemade flavors.
"[Italian food] was considered fairly low-class but very lovable — with its pizzas and its red sauce and its marinara sauces," says food writer John Mariani. "But it has since become not just the most fashionable food in the world but also ... one of the healthiest."
Mariani, the food and wine correspondent for Esquire Magazine, is the author of How Italian Food Conquered the World, a social history of the world's most popular cuisine. He explains how the "poor man's gruel" transformed itself over the past two decades "to dominate global gastronomy," gaining status, class and recognition in restaurants as a healthy alternative to meat-centric diets.
That wasn't always the case. Italian restaurant food used to be associated with heavy creams, cheese-filled oily pastas and thick sauces filled with fatty cuts of meat and fish — mainly because of the abundance and low cost of ingredients, Mariani says.
"People thought, 'We could have 10 meatballs if we want. We can have pizzas that are 12 inches across instead of 6 inches across.' And this was translated into the restaurants into too much food, too much sauce and too much abundance," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was only in the 1990s that the so-called Mediterranean Diet came along, where the whole food pyramid that we all learned about in high school was upended. The proteins were now at the tip-top, and the beans and the grains and the pastas and the olive oils were now at the broad bottom, which is most of what we should eat."
Italian food also got a boost from chefs using better ingredients. In the 1970s and '80s, Mariani says, chefs had no access to the ingredients they now take for granted — items like extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinaigrettes, fungi porcini, white truffles and true prosciutto were rarely seen outside Italy.
"These were ingredients that were not available in any way, shape or form to Italian cooks, however expensive their restaurants were," Mariani says. "They had to use white mushrooms instead of fungi porcini, and they had to use poor quality olive oil and no imported pasta. They were at a disadvantage to show off how delicious the food really could be."
Today, Mariani says, he is much more likely to order a more complex and interesting meat dish than plain old pasta in an Italian restaurant. And when he goes to a restaurant, he goes as himself — not in disguise, the way critic Ruth Reichl famously did when she reviewed restaurants for The New York Times.
"Even if I wanted to be anonymous, it's a moot point," he says. "It's a moot point for The New York Times critic and The Los Angeles Times critic. [The restaurants] all have their picture in the kitchen framed. I remember once being in a restaurant where Ruth Reichl was in a platinum-blond wig with big glasses, and the restaurateur nodded to me and said, 'See who's over at table six?' And I did."
Mariani adds that he has one tip for foodies who want to be treated like a restaurant critic when dining out.
"Become a regular, and you will be a king in a restaurant," he says. "Go there twice a month only. Not every week — go to a restaurant twice a month. They will love you and welcome you back and have index cards on you. That's the way to get really well-treated."