Italy's restaurants shine brighter than Michelin stars
But wait a minute. Italy and its 360-ish Michelin stars trail the guide's two giants, France and Japan, whose restaurants have both notched over 700. By that yardstick, Italy doesn't exactly scream "world's greatest food mecca," huh? No, that's true. But does that yardstick matter for this discussion? Eh. The reality is that Michelin’s faults have been widely discussed, and Italy falls foul to several of them. In other words, Michelin stars alone do not a mecca make. Here's why:
First of all, there’s a small-but-growing cohort of international chefs who have spoken out against perceived nationalist bias in the vaunted Red Guide, and Marchesi & Ezio Santin, a fellow Italian legend who also spurned his stars, are two of the movement's strongest voices. Marchesi “complained that the guide favored French restaurants over Italian ones and publicly withdrew from participation,” reported Reuters in 2009. (A complaint to which the guide responded by revoking all his stars, releasing a statement that his food wasn’t good anymore, and urging him to retire. Which, like... petty much, bruh?)
Western European in-fighting aside, others around the industry have raised a brow at Italy’s relative underrepresentation in the Red Guide’s pages. “Italy has absurdly few three-star restaurants, apparently because the criteria of complexity and presentation aren’t up to Michelin -- French -- standards,” wrote A.E. Hotchner in an unflattering 2012 overview of Michelin for Vanity Fair.
But what about Japan? It’s got the most three-star spots in the world, so surely the guide can’t be accused of rote French favoritism, right? Ahem, Hotchner writes, “The city with the most stars is Tokyo, but then... most [of its restaurants] benefit from the Gallic reverence for O.C.D. saucing and solitary boy’s knife skills.” It gets uglier, and not just at the defense of Italy's restaurants, but of its foreign food ambassadors, too. “[W]hy oh why, do you so obviously hate Mario Batali,” demanded Robert Sietsema, the prolific, former critic for the Village Voice, in a 2009 upbraid to Michelin for its arbitrary and (in his opinion) less-than-useful reviews of NYC’s restaurants. “Is it because he doesn't give a [expletive] about French food?” Yikes.
I’ve got a lot of respect for the Michelin system, but in the case of Italy at least, I tend to agree with Marchesi, Hotchner, Sietsema, and other detractors. The strength of the Italian plate is equally dependent on sourcing, preparation, and presentation. Contrast that with Hotchner’s observation that “Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.” Whether the guide is generally valid is not for me to say here, but, in Italy’s case, it’s clear that its rigid criteria fails to properly reward the country's real-world culinary innovation.