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Chef Rob Gentile of Bar Buca, an Italian restaurant at the base of a condominium on Portland Street in Toronto, helps in the kitchen during dinner service, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)
Chef Rob Gentile of Bar Buca, an Italian restaurant at the base of a condominium on Portland Street in Toronto, helps in the kitchen during dinner service, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)

The pungent debate of using garlic in cooking Add to ...

When Gabriele Paganelli, a chef who grew up just outside the Italian city of Bologna, opened his restaurant Romagna Mia in Toronto in 1997, his kitchen was guided by a single, unbending rule: No garlic. For the first 12 months, not a single clove was peeled, minced, smashed, sautéed or in any way prepared. After a year, Paganelli loosened up. Staff were permitted to infuse garlic into olive oil – but that was it. Finally, after another 12 months, once his chefs “learned to use garlic in the right way,” the restriction was lifted.

If this Italian chef’s attitude toward garlic sounds strangely severe, consider the words of the late, great, Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. In Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking, published in 1992, Hazan wrote, “There are some Italians who shun garlic, and many dishes at home and in restaurants are prepared without it.” By 2004, Hazan had amped-up her anti-garlic rhetoric.

“The unbalanced use of garlic,” she wrote in Marcella Says…, “is the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking.”

The unbalanced use of garlic is what Buca’s Rob Gentile – Toronto’s pre-eminent Italian chef – discovered when he began cooking professionally. “My family is from Italy,” Gentile says, “so I never really grew up with a lot of garlic. But when I started cooking in professional kitchens, it was everywhere.” Pasta sauces, he says, were always started with garlic and olive oil.

If you think Italians admonishing the overuse of their beloved garlic is an act of sacrilege, you probably don’t live in Italy. If there’s one ingredient that divides “Italian” cuisine from the real thing, it’s that potent member of the onion family sometimes called the stinking rose. To the North American eater, Italian food is nothing if not a Vesuvius-like expression of bold flavour: hot peppers, capers, olives. And no ingredient seems more quintessentially Italian than garlic. (There’s even a restaurant in San Francisco’s Little Italy called The Stinking Rose: A Garlic Restaurant.)

Over on that boot-shaped peninsula of land jutting into the Mediterranean called Italy, however, the attitude toward garlic is strikingly different. There, the philosophy is one of disciplined use.

Case in point: In The Secret to Pasta Bolognese, an episode of the U.S. television show Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, host Anne Burrell’s recipe for one of Italy’s most iconic pasta sauces calls for not two, not three – but four cloves of garlic. The recipe for Bolognese sauce, guarded by Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce, by comparison, calls for zero. In the section on tomato sauces in her book Everyday Italian, Giada De Laurentiis makes a point of calling out the “garlic-laden stuff from the pizza parlour.” And yet, her Salsa All’Amatriciana recipe has two cloves of garlic. Hazan’s has zero.

What’s going on? Why is garlic deemed so “Italian” outside of Italy, but less so in Italy?

One theory holds that Italian immigrants to North America were so poor that garlic was all they had to scent their meagre bowls of polenta or cover over the poor flavour of low-quality meat. Perhaps. But if garlic was a last-ditch ingredient, why did Italian immigrants keep using it in the land of riches while their cousins in Italy toned it down?

Another theory holds that garlic is more popular in the south of Italy, and since the bulk of Italian emigration came from the south, the Italian diaspora created a sort of “Italian” garlic distortion field.

This, too, sounds plausible. Until you visit southern Italy, that is. Tilde Vecchio, who operates an agriturismo in Campagnia called Iscairia – and who all but adopted me when I visited her for the first time in 2007 – collects and preserves traditional local recipes. Vecchio’s attitude toward garlic is identical to Paganelli and Hazan. When I run recipes past her by e-mail, her advice, as often as not, is “not so much garlic.”

On a recent trip to Italy, I developed my own theory. During a five-day tour of Veneto, the land whose gifts to the world include Prosecco and Amarone, I ate lunch at a castle overlooking a valley crosshatched with vineyards. As the waiter approached with a plate of grilled zucchini and eggplant, I winced. Could there be a bigger culinary cliché than Italian grilled vegetables? Then I started eating said vegetables and found it impossible to stop. (I went on a similar Cookie Monster-style binge the previous night with spinach, a vegetable I’ve never been fond of.) I asked the waiter for the recipe. His response: olive oil and salt. Strange, I thought. For years I’d been bombarding my grilled vegetables with garlic and herbs. Eager to replicate the dish at home, I bought a bottle of olive oil in the nearby town of Treviso and, when I got home, followed the waiter’s instructions.

And the ensuing dish tasted nothing like what I’d eaten.

It could be, of course, that I was “overcome” by my surroundings in Italy – the castle and the view of the valley all conspired to make the lunch taste better than it actually was. Maybe my sea salt isn’t up to the standard of salt they use in Italy. Perhaps the waiter was lying?

But I think the difference between my grilled vegetables and the ones in Italy comes down to something else.

In Marcella Says, Hazan cautioned that flavour cannot be “replaced” with spices or garlic. “That is borrowed rather than true flavour,” she said. Vecchio told me almost exactly the same thing by e-mail. In the kitchen, meat and vegetables are the “predominant” flavours, she said. “The rest is enrichment.”

But perhaps the best clue in the Italian garlic mystery comes from Gabriele Paganelli, the Italian who moved to Canada. Paganelli is well-known for his superb charcuterie – pancetta, soppressata and coppa. If you ask him why his salumi tastes so good, he won’t tell you it’s the recipe. He’ll tell you it’s because of the 12- to 14-month-old pigs he orders specially from a Mennonite farmer. Commodity pork, which comes from five-month-old, soybean- and corn-munching machines, “has no flavour,” Paganelli says.

All these chefs are united in their emphasis on the flavour of what they’re cooking, not what they’re adding. And that, it seems, is what separates “Italian” cuisine from the real thing. The ingredients taste different there. Paganelli only uses Japanese eggplant at his Bolton, Ont., restaurant, Paganelli’s, because he says standard Canadian eggplant – whether it’s due to the variety or the way it’s grown – is too bland.

“One of my biggest problems as a chef,” Gentile says, “is finding vegetables that taste good.” He is “blown away” by the quality of vegetables he finds in Italy. But anything less is unacceptable. “If you see Italians shopping at a vegetable market,” he says, “they will rip someone apart if their stuff doesn’t taste good.”

In other words, the reason Italian chefs’ recipes don’t lean on garlic as a crutch is because their ingredients taste better to begin with. They possess what Hazan calls “true” flavour.

All of which hit me during my failed grilled zucchini and eggplant episode. “It’s not terrible,” I muttered, swallowing my third bite. “But it could really use some garlic.”

Mark Schatzker’s next book, The Dorito Effect, investigates the connection between flavour and nutrition. It will be published in May.

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