America's Pasta Pusher

Mario Batali is the latest celebrity chef to capture Americans' hearts and stomachs. The Seattle native owns and operates three successful Italian restaurants in New York, hosts two television cooking shows and is the author of three cookbooks about Italian culture and cuisine. Recently, he graced the cover of Gourmet magazine--having launched a new line of pasta sauces--and is planning a new Manhattan pizzeria that is scheduled to open in December. NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo spoke to Batali about why Americans have become so infatuated with Italian culture and cuisine. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why are Americans so interested in Italian culture? Why not Belgian or Czech?

Batali: Not to insult those countries, but aside from a couple of things from Belgium or Czechoslovakia, their culture is not exported here. We don't even know what they do. Italians have made it their business to export Italian culture, from spaghetti, to design, to poster art, to wine and soft drinks. If you open a bar in the U.S., an Italian coffee company will give you the coffee machine. They'll give you the coffee cups with the logo, they'll give you the tray to carry the coffee on. They're just really good at marketing themselves and creating brand recognition.

Do you think Americans' eating habits are changing?

Absolutely, Americans have become the most sophisticated eating crowd in the world. We know about cooking, we know about ingredients and we have more access to ingredients than anybody else, from all over the world. How many French dot-coms do you know of that want to import 10 different kinds of honey from America? I know a hundred American dot-coms that want to import 10 different kinds of honey and salt from France.

Are American restaurants on par now with the best restaurants of Europe?

Oh, absolutely. American cooking has discovered that it doesn't have to apologize for being American. And as opposed to trying to import ingredients to make a dish like the one you had in the south of France or in western Italy, people are realizing they can use ingredients that we have locally. So we're not buying Dover sole anymore, we're using fluke from [New York's] Long Island Sound, which is fresher and cheaper. Then when you treat it in the Italian style, you get things which actually feel and taste more Italian, even though you're not using any ingredients from Italy. Because the reason it tastes so good in Italy is because it was picked out of the ground locally and put on a plate.

What do you think is happening in the European-restaurant food scene right now? Is it living up to what it's supposed to be?

I think the super, super high-end fancy joints aren't seeing the kind of success that they were used to. Because people are not that interested in having such a huge thing made about dinner. We want to go out, we want to eat, we want to have a really good time, but do you really want to sit down for five hours at some temple of gastronomy and submit? People are more interested in the conviviality, the sharing of the experience and [they want something] maybe a little less formal, maybe a little less expensive, maybe a little less stiff.

But do you think the Jose Boves of the world are justified in being upset that American food culture is being exported around the world?

To a certain extent, yeah, they are justified. It's a little sad to see a McDonald's at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome. But it was an Italian businessman [who opened it]. Still, I'm not a real big fan of the internationalization of cuisine by any means. I hope they don't start using lemongrass and ginger in my favorite recipes in Italy.

You don't think it threatens the culture?

I don't think a strong culture is threatened by the invasion of anybody, and certainly not fast-food restaurants. It would change the beautiful hillside in Umbria to have the golden arches over it, that's for sure. [But] most of the McDonald's and the Burger Kings are in the cities. And I certainly don't apologize for it. It's what they want. It's obviously a valid business for those people there. I don't think Americans feel invaded by Italian restaurants.

Another study came out this week about Americans' being overweight. Do you feel responsible as a pasta pusher?

No, I don't think that carbohydrates is the reason people get fat. I think it's because they eat more than they exercise. And whether they were eating carbs or protein or Chinese food or Italian food or Burger King it would all be the same. That's America. Americans are comfortable. We're the richest country in the world. That's why we're fat. If we had to run to get a rabbit, we'd be thinner.

Is there anything you won't eat?

Durian--it's like the limburger cheese of fruit. It's nasty. It's like eating a diaper. I had one once and I probably won't again.