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Is there a new dining culture afoot?

(post, Judith Klinger)

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Is it the ‘crisi’, as it’s referred to in Italy? Has the economic crisis actually caused people to lose their taste for over the top opulence, or is it just me? 

The past few years in New York, we started going out to dinner less and less. I thought it was just the high prices; it certainly puts a damper on things when you have to pay $14 for a glass of mediocre at best wine, or when going out for pizza and a bottle of wine isn’t a cheap evening. 

“I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all.
So tell me why should it be true?”

Cole Porter’s lyrics suddenly start playing in my head. 

I don’t want to be in Las Vegas dining at some deluxe food palace where it’s all about show-me-the-money. That doesn’t mean that these temples don’t serve fine, fine food, but the setting seems wrong, it seems crass and from another era.  Has the pendulum swung away from ostentation towards a more personal, intimate dining experience? Will there be pent up demand for ostentation or is there a new dining culture emerging? 

I’m betting on a new dining culture, where passion for the food trumps passion for a spectacular chandelier. Methinks there is a subtle trend afoot where people are pulling in their purse strings but still wanting, expecting and receiving excellent food and wine at fair prices. Look at the ‘gourmet’ street carts that are popping up in US cities like Portland, or the BYO culture in Philadelphia that allows a restaurateur to get their place established without mortgaging their first born for a liquor license. There is a resurgence of interest in old school charcuterie, cheese making, bread baking, brewing beer at home.  In the US this could be the emergence of an actual food culture akin to the European culture where local and seasonal always held sway and teaching your children the fine points of pinot noir is considered an obligation. 

Italy is not exempt from this cultural shift although it faces different challenges. One of the biggest hurdles is the resistance of Italians to try something new, even if it is a salumi from the next region over. I fell in love with a Tuscan salumi called finnochione on a recent trip to Florence and stupidly didn’t bring any back with me to Umbria. It will require crossing the border before I can taste that salumi again. Wine lists are numbingly the same from place to place and menus tend to be variations on the same old, same old. 

I’ve been thinking about this since Sunday when we treated ourselves to lunch at Spritio Divino in Montefalco. I believe they could be the embodiment of the future of Italian dining. There is passion for the food and a sincere joy in sharing the flavors. We were treated to a mind blowing taste of prosciutto that is produced by somebody’s nearby grandfather. It was rather thick cut, the fat melting onto the plate, salty, unctuous, sexy. It would have been a sin to eat it with a piece of melon. This proscuitto flavor had a beginning, a middle and an end and another flavor would only have been a distraction. We chatted with Nila, our sommelier waitperson and all three of us enjoyed having a complete wine geek conversation about grape varietals, the weather in 2005, Prohibition in the Ukraine. It was a perfect lunch, served in a simple setting but with such attention to detail, such passion, such flavor that I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world for all the money in the world. 

And that my friends, is where I think the future of dining is heading and I’m excited.