UK's Restaurant magazine announced the winners of the 2005 Best Restaurant in the World awards three days ago. Discussions on the subject are becoming an annual tradition, a clear sign of the success, like it or not, of the awards. No big surprises in the first three places: Thomas Keller's The French Laundry looses first place, finishing third (but gets the Best in Americas award and 7th place with Per se), after home boy Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and Adrià's El Bulli. The final results can be seen on many websites. Let me pick a fellow blogger: if you want the complete list go over to Alder's post on Vinography.
Reporting on these awards has been minimal to say the least in Italy in the past. Not so this year: papers (like Corriere della Sera and Repubblica), blogs (like Papero Giallo and kitchenstories) and food forums and discussion groups all reacted to the news. The principal reasons are simple.
The UK beating Italy 14 to 3 is quite humiliating, but then the choice of Cecchino dal 1887, a good trattoria dedicated to offal but not more than that, as best Italian on the list turns on the verge of ridicule. I've read baffled and angry comments and attacks directed to those who made the list ranging from head shaking to plain insult. Nobody, on the other hand, really seemed to make an effort to find out how this list was really put together.
The real problem with Restaurant's magazine award is its name. The list is put together by asking 500 food personalities for a list of five favorite restaurants around the world. FAVORITE, not best. The whole award is therefore a mainly hedonistic exercise. Also among the 500 "international" personalities interviewed there is a definite British majority.
Everyone can find points to attack it : it lacks regional representativeness, some choices are silly, others obvious and wimpy and so on. But in the end this is just a (mainly) BRITISH FAVORITE Restaurant in the World award and as such it should be taken. The real mystery is how such a thing has managed to become of worldwide importance.
What is interesting is to read between the lines of both the list and the comments it gave birth to. According to Italian paper Corriere della Sera the event...
signals a revaluation of British cuisine at the international level, considered for years far from excellent.
Hmm... I don't know who wrote the article but whoever you are... for the sake of Pete, where have you lived in the past 10-15 years? The award signals a revaluation of British Gastronomy? And what about MPW, Ramsey, the Roux Brothers and Tom Aikens, without forgetting Fergus Henderson? Some Italian journalist seems to have as much knowledge of world gastronomy as I do of Asian stock markets: none, that is. On the other hand foreign journalists seem to have the same knowledge of the Italian restaurant scene as our own have of what goes on across the Alps. It balances off, if only in a overly depressing way.
So while our journalists still think tea at the Ritz is the hight of British gastronomy, their colleagues think Cecchino is much more enjoyable than Gambero Rosso or Enoteca Pinchiorri, getting a loud guffaw in reply. Still, it is a sign that Italian restaurateurs and gastronomers should take note of, because it is the evidence of a very common way our restaurant are seen abroad.
According to many, we are the land of trattorie, everything else is "French". We have to thank the superficial and misconceived ideas spread out by people like Herald Tribune's Patricia Wells. She's a fantastic source for France, but should at least study the history of Italian Gastronomy before reviewing Italian establishments based on her prejudices. Luckily there are people like Faith Willinger who really know what they're talking about when it comes to Italy.
You cannot help getting the impression that some international critics take their assignments in Italy as a chance to let their hair down and take a break from the continuous array of classy foie gras serving establishments, and finally enjoy some food that's simple, pleasant and a break from... French cuisine. Certainly a compliment to out traditional gastronomy, but not very professional. If you need a holiday, take one. If you travel to Italy to do some reporting... well, do your damned job!