I’ll admit that the French wrote the book on food preparation methods. My bookshelves contain several of the classic French cooking tomes, but for every one of them, I have three or four Italian cookbooks. For me, they are the ones that come down off the shelf most often. Cooking Italian food typically doesn’t require a great deal of effort and skill in order to yield great results on the plate. I think of the difference between a simple dish like Chicken Cacciatore, and the classic French poultry preparation Coc au Vin. The skill level and preparation times needed are doubled or tripled for the French dish, but I would be willing to bet that the taste test winner would be the Italian dish more often than not, at least here in the States. American palettes love the flavor profile of Italian food.
One of the strange things about Italian food is how many tourists return from Italy complaining that there is no good Italian food in Italian restaurants. The food served in Italian restaurants in Italy is not what we in the U.S. have come to know as Italian food. The stuff we love wasn’t created by Italian chefs. It actually started in immigrant grandmother’s kitchens and was transplanted into restaurants when the second and third generations of Italian-Americans took those recipes and brought them to the public.
That’s when Italian food did what other ethnic cuisines have not been able to do. It spread across every level of dining—from the haughtiest white table cloth to the cheapest quick delivery pizza joint. Mario Battali’s Babbo in New York City and Domino’s are closer culinary cousins that either would admit. And Italian food is well represented in Birmingham, with multiple options at every price point.
I grew up in an Italian family right here in Birmingham, so of course I have my own favorites that I could laud in this column. But I really want to discover new places and hear what Birmingham Weekly readers prefer and recommend. Which chain joint does the best job, Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill? Or perhaps the slightly more upscale Brio chain is your pick. Of the dozens of family-owned joints, which family do you want to be adopted by? Newcomers like Joe’s and Nino’s, or older standbys like Leonardo’s or Lovoy’s? Who is putting out the best pizza, delivery or eat in? What hole-in-the-wall joints are making your neighborhood smell like garlic every afternoon? Is anyone challenging Formaggio’s for late-night eats for the bar hopper or insomniac who wants a quick pasta fix? Is there a better pizza by the slice than Trattoria Centrale on 20th Street?
If you have answers for any of those questions drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and give me all your thoughts on the best Italian food available in Birmingham. I aim to cover a given price-point level of Italian food in each of my columns for the next few months. That will give me time to sample some of your reader suggestions. I thought maybe we could start by knocking the tails off the bell curve by debating next time who rules at the very highest levels where the entrees are over $20 each.
I’m also intrigued by which delivery pizza places might be out there trying to compete with the big names. Let’s not waste time in a battle over how many of us prefer Papa John’s over Pizza Hut. If there are any small-time players trying to muscle their way in among the national franchisees, I’d love to give them some free press if their pies are tastier than the big boys.
In thinking about the absolute lowest price end of the Italian food market, the only nondelivery restaurant that comes to my mind is Cici’s Pizza. Cici’s is very popular. But it’s not for the quality of their food. At Cici’s it’s all about quantity. They serve an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet style for lunch and dinner. I’ve had Cici’s a few times and it has always been unimpressive. The place is usually packed with kids under ten. And the food seems to be tailored to their immature palettes. I find it under-seasoned and over-cooked.
All that being said, I do love the concept at Cici’s, and can’t figure out why they seem to be just about the only Italian buffet in town. Do you know of one that has escaped my attention?
And I’m not talking about the half-effort many Pizza Huts offer at lunch. Give me someone who is doing it up in a way that would make their grandmother proud. I’ll give it a try, and let you know what I thought. I have often wondered why someone could not open a place similar to the many Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets in town, except with an Italian menu. Seems like a sure-fire money-maker to me. I’d also be interested in discovering any fast food joints that are doing Italian the way that Taco Bell or Taco Casa does Mexican, cheaper and quicker. So until next time, when we hit all the highs and all the lows, Buon Apetito!
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.