Even living in Italy, a country with a bonanza of splendid, healthy, artisanal foods, I occasionally crave something from my childhood in America. Recently I awoke in the middle of the night, convinced I was eating fried onion rings. In my dream state, the memory cells in my brain were teasing me with tastes and smells of this food, which incidentally seems to top every list of Unhealthy Things to Eat.
But there I was, awake and craving this treat. I knew I could do nothing about this unexpected and bizarre sensation at three in the morning. But over the next few weeks, I became obsessed with searching for a remedy to my sudden craving. I suppose when you grow up with certain gustatory experiences, your brain eventually tells you that, despite other wonderful choices, this one desire must be satisfied.
It was not a fruitful search. A few large supermarkets in our region carry foods from other countries. But this is usually not much more than a few shelves of packaged and canned goods. Such items as Heinz baked beans and corn tortillas can be found. Italians are not much disposed toward trying foods from other cultures. Hence the scarcity of restaurants offering Indian, Thai, and Mexican menus. Larger cities such as Rome and Milan do have a handful. But that involves a trip by car or train just for a meal.
I did find a Mexican place once while in Rome. It had the decorative trappings of similar places in the Western Hemisphere, but the dishes were bland. I asked for spicey salsa and a small dish was brought to the table. Alas, the heat barely registered on my tongue.
But for some reason the onion rings dream persisted.
As luck would have it, we were passing through another town in the region — a much larger community than our own village — and spotted a big restaurant with a sign in clear English. Huge letters proclaimed, “Old Wild West.” We decided to check it out. After finding parking in its big lot, we approached the entry on foot. Flanking the door were two leather saddles on wooden stands, and flanking them were two totem poles made of colored acrylic material. Off to the side was a small replica of a covered wagon.
Inside, the theme continued. Dark wood paneling, thick wood columns, a balcony out of a movie set, and big English words — “Saloon,” “Livery,” “Sheriff” — painted on panels. My wife commented that, thankfully, there was no cigar-store Indian. But there might have been one somewhere. The dim lighting was, I suppose, meant to simulate an ambiance lighted by gas lamps. The general decor might be charitably termed Mid-Century Montana Steakhouse.
And, Yahoo! The colorful menu of hamburgers, steaks, and ribs featured fried onion rings (anelli di cipolla fritti in Italian). After all, Italy has good onions and excellent oil to fry them in. Delighted, I ordered a side to accompany a bacon cheeseburger. If I am going to commit a culinary sin, I might as well go all in. The generously sized burger was a solid B+ even though it held crispy prosciutto instead of bacon. The big onion rings, which arrived at the table in the requisite plastic basket with a paper liner, more than satisfied my craving. I decided that the three additional rings slipped in between the meat patties in the burger were a bit over the top and eased them out with a fork.
My assumption was that this eatery was the work of an American entrepreneur, bent on capitalizing on many Italians’ fascination with the American frontier. I was wrong. It’s an Italian chain with over 200 outlets, mostly throughout Italy but with some elsewhere in southern Europe. The corporation’s market share doesn’t challenge McDonald’s 630-outlet hamburger supremacy in Italy. Burger King also makes its presence known with 230 stores. Nevertheless, the Old Wild West empire is pretty impressive.
Starbucks is also aggressively pursuing the Italian market — for reasons mystifying to me since wonderful, hand-crafted espresso is found in every neighborhood. American products seem to have an allure. Domino’s Pizza did not fare well in its attempt, however. After opening several dozen stores, it declared bankruptcy and fled the country. But even putting Domino’s Pizza in the same sentence as authentic Italian pizza sounds like the punchline of a joke. Really? Domino’s in Italy?
As to Italians’ fondness for the American West and its various mythologies, I suppose it should not be too surprising in the land that gave the world spaghetti westerns. I’ve lost count of how many Italian friends have said they dream of seeing the West; whether it’s the Rocky Mountains or the Great Plains is unclear. Many learned their American history by watching movies and TV shows. So the myths and legends are well-ingrained.
Frankly, I am baffled by the Italian hankering for the Old West. This past summer I attended a “Tex-Mex festival” in a nearby village where people dressed in cowboy boots and Stetsons chowed down on barbequed meats while listening to Country & Western music blaring from loudspeakers. After dark, line-dancing began, and groups of Italians stepped to the music in what were obviously well-practiced moves. Given the billing of the festival, I expected some Mexican offerings. I noticed none. I did enquire if they were actually available. The reply: “Yes, we have them — Mexican pizza and Mexican spaghetti.”
The famous Italian director Sergio Leone made an entire genre of films about the American frontier, with many of them scored by the prolific and brilliant Ennio Morricone. His evocative music for the 1968 film Once Upon a Time in the West is completely captivating. Last year I attended a symphonic concert of his movie scores. During the instantly recognizable, mournful but wordless, high-pitched song about loss of love and family, I felt goosebumps and tears on my cheeks.
Back to my craving. It seems my desire for fried onions rings was not entirely sated. In a tiny market in our village, I came across a bag of onion rings in the frozen food “section,” which is a freezer case barely bigger than a large piece of luggage. Generally, frozen foods are frowned upon in Italy, fresh being widely preferred. But there it was, a big bag of breaded onion rings, with ingredients printed on the back in 10 languages. Evidently, this food product had penetrated the continent well beyond what I had thought.
I took it home and cooked up a batch that evening in a pan. The rings were breaded rounds, as expected. What I did not expect came during the eating phase. Instead of that agreeable crunch, all I got was mushy batter and something previously unknown — to me at least. I examined the remaining half. Oozing out of each open end was something that resembled pale yellow toothpaste. It vaguely tasted like onion. My wife told me that manufactured onion rings often contain a puree of onion. Disappointing as this was, I at least learned something in the process.
In just one month, we discovered not only Italy’s answer to Olive Garden but, perhaps, the counterpart to Velveeta. Neither experience bears repeating.