New York restaurant operators are stewing over a proposal by the Italian government to officially certify restaurants in the United States and other countries as authentically Italian. The plan, developed by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, would set standards for menus and training and would require the use of authentic Italian foodstuffs in order for restaurants to display a seal of authenticity.
The Italian government has been nurturing the idea -- part of a program to promote Italian food and wine and increase exports -- since the late 1990s, but details were not revealed in New York until a series of meetings this fall.
Officials in Rome argue that the United States alone has 11,000 Italian restaurants, but only 2,700 can be considered authentically Italian. The others, the officials say, falsify Italian culinary traditions and damage the reputation of the country's cuisine.
Details were first discussed at a small gathering at the 21 Club in October, but a full presentation of the plan followed in November at Le Cirque. At the lunch meeting, one New York restaurant owner staged a stormy demonstration before a crowd of 160 importers, journalists and other restaurateurs.
"How can they come here and tell us how to run our restaurants?" demanded Paolo Secondo, proprietor of Barolo in Soho, as he conducted an angry five-minute rant in Italian. Secondo carried his anger into a hallway meeting with representatives of the Italian government and later fired off an e-mail broadside to Robert Luongo, Italian trade commissioner for the United States, with copies sent to journalists.
Gianni Garavelli, proprietor of New York's Bravo Gianni, asked, "Who are they to tell me what to do? I was born in Italy. I learned my craft from Italian chefs and have been in business for 54 years. I don't want to know anything about this ridiculous idea."
He was joined in denouncing the plan by Frank Giambelli, owner of Giambelli's in midtown Manhattan, who also boycotted the presentation.
Under the proposal, certification standards would be set by the Agriculture Ministry and other governmental and nongovernmental bodies, including the Ministry of Industry and Foreign Trade, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Italian Trade Commission, the Association of Foreign Chambers of Commerce and the International Association of Italian Restaurants.
Implementation of the program in the United States would begin in October 2003, starting with checks of restaurants and a public-relations campaign to win acceptance for the seal of authenticity. Official awards of certification would follow at a later date.
Tony May, owner of San Domenico and president of Gruppo Ristoranti Italiana, an association that has been promoting Italian cuisine since 1979, defended the idea of standards for Italian restaurants. However, he said that an independent board, with no governmental intervention, should direct the certification program.
The plan is still in its early stages, and Luongo said he and the Italian agricultural officials are open to suggestions from all corners.