Joe Biden, former US vice-president and running in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, has very precise dietary requirements when he travels to speaking engagements.
The Washington Post reported recently: "For his speeches – whether in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Buffalo or Salt Lake City – Biden's hosts were obligated to serve him the same Italian meal, according to several contracts obtained through public records requests: angel hair pomodoro, a caprese salad, topped off with raspberry sorbet with biscotti."
From this we may conclude two things: 1) that Biden is possibly more anal in his thinking than the "friendly uncle Joe" image he would like to project; 2) he is definitely an Italophile, with tastes far more sophisticated than the "four Ps and a T" formula that currently prevails across the planet (pizza, pasta, prosciutto, parmesan and tiramisu).
Biden's Italophilia, however compulsively he may indulge it, gives him common cause with the vast mass of humanity, because, at this point in the 21st century, Italian is the default cuisine of the Western world.
My impression (based on anecdotal evidence) is that about half of the new restaurants that open in Australian are attempting some version of Italian food, and that Italian restaurants are unlikely to be among those that close down within six months of opening. And if an Italian-style restaurant does fail, it was probably not run by an Italian.
Our task today is to figure out why this cucina rules the world. Here is my five-part theory, in ascending order of importance …
It's tasty. Tomato and parmesan are high in umami, which boosts the flavour of every other ingredient.
It's healthy. Trial and error over 3000 years produced the Mediterranean diet, which helps the heart and the gut without feeling like medicine.
It's easy. Italian needs none of the technical complexities of French cuisine or the spicing subtleties of Chinese. Even overcooked pasta or risotto is still comfort food.
It's diverse. Because Italy is 20 small countries rather than one nation, there's always a new region to be discovered, and therefore an endless source of surprising recipe ideas. It used to be all about Tuscany. This year it's all about Puglia. Next year, it will be Basilicata. But mainly …
It comes with a story. Or more precisely, an attitude. Italians enjoy life and get pleasure from helping others to enjoy life. So they've developed dishes that make the diner smile – maybe at the flavour or maybe at the name. Linguine means little tongues, puttanesca means loose woman, capelli d'angelo means angel hair, tiramisu means pick me up, carbonara means coal burning (because bacon and egg sauce was supposedly invented by 19th century revolutionaries who met in coal cellars).
A good story makes every dish taste better and Italy has the best stories – as long as there's a generous host to tell them. And that is why an eatery run with Italian attitude is likely to succeed and endure longer than any other style of eatery.
A restaurant is, of course, a business. But it is also a machine for generating human happiness. Italians are the world's best operators of that machine.
Footnote: A friend messaged me recently to say she'd just eaten the best tiramisu of her life. It was in a restaurant called Risotto … in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. I rest my case.
David Dale is the author (with Lucio Galletto) of The Art of Pasta and Coastline – the Shared Cooking of Mediterranean France, Italy and Spain.