Every so often, I get asked about my love of Italy. Why I went there for three years, what were my favorite parts, would I ever go back, etc. It’s always a difficult question to answer as I know what made my experience so wonderful is directly influenced by the fact that I was there as an expat, temporarily, from a different cultural context. I could afford to be amused, to enjoy, to appreciate the way of life and its accompanying ridiculousness. I was a permanent observer, able to see, learn, experience, and always critique from afar. So yes, there are the easy answers – the food, the wine, the culture, the landscape, the art, the particular perfection of Bernini’s Triton as it glows in Piazza Barberini’s autumnal sunset – but those answers are always filtered through my particular lens. But my lens always seems to focus these various rays onto one point – the logic behind the actions.
In Italy it’s always difficult to differentiate between the “well that’s just how it’s done” and the “you seem very strict with this arbitrary seeming behavior, but in fact it actually makes quite a bit of sense.” The first, of course, is characterized by the habits and superstitions every expat who has spent time in Italy loves to observe, mock, and usually, eventually, adopt. This is the sudden emergence of a rainbow of shiny, puffy jackets on the day the calendar declares it to be Fall, regardless of the actual weather. The chastising received for leaving the house with wet hair or sans scarf. The ordering of a cappuccino after 11, fearing the colpa d’aria, drinking beer with anything other than pizza e fritti.
And then, there’s chicken. Here in America we love our pesto chicken pasta salad, and barbecue chicken pizza, and garlic chicken pizza, chicken fettuccine alfredo, and, yeah, we like chicken. We particularly love boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which somehow manage to be both the most expensive and least flavorful part of the chicken. And for some reason, we love taking chicken breast, slicing it up, and tossing it with pasta. Yes, it’s an easy, filling way to round out a meal and up the protein a bit, but mention that preparation to an Italian? Shudders.
The explanation, as I understand it, is simple. It’s not the best match. The pasta could do better and the chicken could do better. To chew a piece of chicken breast at the same time as a piece of pasta is to chew two things of non-complementary consistencies. A more tender poultry – duck or goose – could be braised down into a sauce that would have the texture and flavor that could adequately match, but chicken, chicken almost always requires a knife, and certainly requires extended mastication. You will inevitably end up chewing your piece of chicken long after the piece of pasta you forked alongside it has pleasantly dissolved into your taste buds. You are then no longer eating pasta with chicken, you and are eating pasta, and then…and still…chicken. A perfect bite should have every element in harmony, should all be chewed together, every flavor and texture playing off each other until you’re ready for the next bite.
I love this answer. It makes perfect sense, provides a very balanced logic, and is incredibly indicative of the Italian character and approach toward food. Food is to be savored and appreciated, and it should not be a burden on the consumer. Every aspect of the meal should be balanced within itself. Elements of a dish respect one another and highlight one another, they do not compete for attention or make any other part of it more difficult to enjoy.
I think there’s a fairly obvious life lesson in here, which makes it certainly worth mentioning that Italian cuisine does not shun chicken altogether. There are plenty of highly traditional and highly delicious dishes – pollo alla romana to name just one – that utilize this fair fowl in its best possible way. Dishes that recognize the flexibility and absorbability of chicken – that its bland yet juicy flesh can serve as a great platform for flavorful sauces, that the bones contribute warmth, flavor and nutrients to a versatile stock. No one is saying that chicken cannot be delicious, simply that it is not its most delicious when served on pasta.
I’m still not totally sure how or why I fell in love with Italy, and to be fair, isn’t it the nature of love to never fully understand it? But I do know that I always come back to the chicken rant and this question of balance and complementary elements. It is just such an excellent reflection of the casual pursuit of perfection that manifests across the entire cuisine, and, by extension, culture.