• The Hammonton Gazette

One columnist’s views on chain Italian restaurants



I love the food of my culture, both the true Italian food and the American version of it. I am sure most people with a strong ethnic background feel the same way. Growing up, my best friend was of Chinese descent.  Her parents, I believe, moved to the U.S. from America.  What her mother used to make for dinner was nothing like what the Chinese takeout places sold. And I enjoyed both.


For many Italian-Americans, spaghetti and meatballs, is a Sunday classic. In fact, we have resurrected it in our home in recent weeks. Sunday mornings our kitchen and parts of the rest of the house smell like garlic and tomatoes.


But it is not an Italian meal. It is an American-Italian meal.


And I enjoy every bit of it except for the sauce. I love preparing it, the smell and the taste but I don’t enjoy it on pasta. I like a little bit and not a drowning amount.  I am more of a garlic and oil kind of a person.


I love when people, who did not grow up Italian-American like me, say their favorite food is Italian. They mention food classics such as chicken marsala or veal parmigiana. They are great choices but growing up, I just called them food.  It is what my mom made for dinner. Fresh roasted artichokes, roasted garlic and homemade mozzarella are some of my other favorites.


When I was fortunate enough to visit Italy about a decade or so ago, I fell in love with their version of pizza, the fresh pasta and the prosciutto. Was it the fresh basil leaves torn on the top of pizza? The bite from the pasta? The red wine that didn’t give me a headache?  The crepe-like street food filled with Nutella? The gelato?


One of my favorite dishes to order in America is Ossobuco. It is a rich meal that should only be eaten once or twice a year. Part of the reason I love it, is the small fork you are given with it.


I am hoping to learn to make a delicious Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.  It looks pretty simple with the main ingredients being black pepper, cheese and spaghetti.


When dining out (pre-COVID-19), I try to avoid Italian chain restaurants. In general, the portion size is too large, there is too much salt and too much of everything.  It is also over-processed.


It tastes like a microwaved meal or at least it did the last time I went to one.


And why do I have to leave Hammonton to eat Italian food in a restaurant?


Our local establishments make some truly fine dinners.


When my family comes to visit from out of the area, they are always surprised about the fresh quality of food our eateries have to offer. I will say some of our Hammonton restaurants do have the same portion size issue as the chain issues.


If you want red sauce like your grandmother used to make, avoid a chain restaurant.  Try somewhere local. The chicken parm will be golden brown and hot.


The cheese will be perfectly melted and not rubbery.


And the grated cheese will be real cheese, not the thing in the green can.


I will say this.  I have not ordered Spaghetti Carbonara in America but once or twice. I am afraid it will ruin the memories that I have from Italy. Maybe I should make that after Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.


Do you have a story about growing up Italian, either in Hammonton or anywhere else? Send it to hammontongazette@yahoo.com.