Mamma Mia, It's Certified Italian

Decisions are strange things. One minute you can decide to quit your job, sell everything you own, and move to a small town in Iowa you selected by throwing the cat at a spinning globe and seeing where the claw marks ended up, all on a whim. The next minute you're wracking your brain trying to decide between the light blue shirt and the barely-perceptibly-lighter blue shirt. The big decisions are usually the easier ones, it's the small ones that create the problem. I'm sure if we'd been flies on the White House wall in 1945 we would have heard Harry Truman say, "Sure, drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Hmmm....I really don't know if I'm more in the mood for mashed or baked potatoes tonight." Then, of course, we'd have been smooshed against the wall by a sledge hammer because subtlety wasn't the order of that day.

Which restaurant to dine at can be one of those difficult little decisions. While sometimes you're very much in the mood for a certain type of food, or a particular restaurant, more often than not the dynamic of the decision-making comes down to, "I don't know, where do you want to go?" We weigh factors including ethnicity, reputation, reviews, recommendations, price and what kind of free dessert we think we can get by telling them it's a birthday dinner. Balanced out, of course, by how embarrassing it will be when the wait staff gathers around the table and sings some silly made-up birthday song in four discordant keys at once, with all the rhythm of a three-legged horse at full gallop.

Luckily we'll soon have a new criterion to factor in, at least if it's an Italian restaurant. Starting sometime next year we'll be able to ask if it's an Officially Certified Italian Restaurant. That's right. The Italian government, frustrated with not being able to stop the Mafia, find a fourth tenor, or get the trains to run on time since Mussolini died 57 years ago, decided to take on something which has been troubling people for years: How, other than looking for red and white checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles with half-melted candles stuck in them, can you know if an Italian restaurant is worth its weight in mozzarella?

The Italian Ministry of Agriculture plans to send inspectors to Belgium, Japan, and the United States to make sure people aren't eating Franco-American Spaghettios while watching the Sopranos. Just kidding. After all, no one would do that. At least not until they come out with a version in a bag so you can squeeze them into your mouth while stretched out in your Barcalounger. What they're actually going to do is thoroughly check out any Italian restaurant that wants to display la guarnizione di approvazione in the window. They'll take a close look at the quality of the ingredients, how the dishes are prepared, the service, the authenticity of the menu, the ambience of the dining room, the wine list and whether the wait staff puts an 'a' on the end-a of-a every-a word-a, in spite of the fact that they're all Asian.

The Italians are certainly not the first ones to want to safeguard their cuisine's good name. The French make sure only sparkling wines from Champagne can flaunt that appellation. Georgia law requires that Vidalia onions come from the Vidalia area. And the Mexican government actually owns the brand name "tequila" so they can ensure that it's being distilled in a certain region of Mexico, fine people who think they're cute and clever by being the 107,976,187th person to call it "to kill ya," and collect royalties each time an oldies station plays that instrumental song by the Champs.

Ethnic food cleansing is a good thing. For one, it will help stop the insidious spread of fusion food, which is a euphemism for "we have an indecisive chef with A.D.D. and no self-control." The trend began with pan-Asian food, which is based on culinary racial profiling -- the theory that all Asian food looks alike so mixing and matching is okay. Aside from the fact that it should more properly be called wok-Asian food, it's contributing to the concept that anything with noodles or rice is Asian. Tell that to the Italian restaurant inspectors when they check out the quality of the pasta and risotto.

Then it spread to Mexican food, where the good old American invention, the burrito, metamorphosed into a wrap. That's what it's called when they stuff anything they find laying around the kitchen inside a tortilla. Face it, if we were supposed to fill a tortilla with Caesar salad, corned beef and cabbage, or chicken soup with matzo balls, the Mayans would have been Irish yuppies wearing yarmulkes.

Another reason certification of food authenticity is a good thing is that chefs are increasingly up in arms over the Americanization of ethnic food. They're upset because French dressing shouldn't be creamy and made with tomatoes. They claim pepperoni pizza is a shuck since there isn't any such thing as pepperoni in Italy. And they bemoan the fortune cookies we get at the end of Chinese meals because they're an American invention. In bed.

Hopefully other countries will follow Italy's lead and start certifying restaurants. This way we'll know if the fries at McDonald's are truly French, the cheese on your ham sandwich is yodelingly Swiss and the toasted muffins being served at the diner are English enough for the Queen. It's the future of dining -- accept no substitutes.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com.

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