DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now on to the Seven Hills of Rome. In Italy, a debate is raging among chefs and diners about garlic. And whether is too much of it on the Italian table. Critics say the bulbous herb stinks and overwhelms more delicate flavors. Garlic aficionados insist it enhances every dish it touches.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome on a campaign to make Italian cuisine garlic-free.
(Soundbite of people conversing)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The whole garlic yes-garlic no debate starts here in the center of Rome at La Trattoria, one of the city's trendiest restaurants. This temple of Sicilian cuisine is favored by many politicians, movie stars and assorted celebrities. They come to savor the menu offerings of Chef Filippo La Mantia.
Chef FILIPPO LA MANTIA (La Trattoria): (Through Translator) I don't like garlic. I adore the many natural ingredients that grow on Sicilian soil. I've chosen the path of aroma and likeness. The basis of my cuisine is not saute the garlic. I have invented a new Sicilian cuisine.
POGGIOLI: La Mantia says garlic is a leftover from when Italians were poor and they used it to add flavor to their meager victuals. The average standard of living today is so high, he says, that people can do without it. The chef shows how in his large, open view kitchen.
Chef LA MANTIA: (Italian Spoken)
POGGIOLI: On the counter next to the stovetop are the many ingredients of which Sicily is so plentiful, starting with a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice.
And he is pouring the oranges in the pan.
Chef LA MANTIA: (Italian Spoken)
POGGIOLI: And then the olive oil, shaffers(ph), basil, mint, a pesto of citrus fruits.
Raising the heat, La Mantia rapidly stirs the ingredients and as the oil and orange juice emulsify, they turn into a dense sauce. He adds fish broth and then ricciola, a Mediterranean fish similar to amberjack.
(Soundbite of cooking)
POGGIOLI: After a few minutes, another dash of olive oil on top, a few leaves of basil and…
CHEF LA MANTIA: Salt.
POGGIOLI: La Mantia's innovations have triggered a campaign to rid Italian cuisine of the pungent bulb. One prominent TV journalist is writing a guide to garlic-free restaurants. Our campaigner is former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who's known to insist that all his staff have mint-scented breath.
But the garlic lovers respond by citing history, superstition and medicine. Known since the time of the ancient Egyptians, garlic was used by the Greeks and Romans and not just for its flavor. Aristophanes advised athletes to eat garlic to better endure in competition. Virgil said it increased sexual potency. And many central European cultures believed garlic protected from demons and vampires. The bulb has long been considered a rustic antibiotic.
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POGGIOLI: The Montevecchio restaurant is a growing favorite of Roman foodies. Owner Anna Maria Tozzi says garlic is staple of Italian cuisine and the trick is to use it sparingly to give just the right aroma to a dish. She is also a firm believer in its medicinal benefits.
Ms. ANNA MARIA TOZZI (Owner, Montevecchio restaurant): (Through Translator) My grandparents ate garlic every morning as if it were a pill. And laboratory tests have shown that it's good for you. But there are lots of prejudices that people who eat and smell of garlic are second-class or backward. It's a class thing for a lot of people.
POGGIOLI: Many non-Italians have looked down disparagingly on the abundant use of garlic in this country. In 1818, the poet Shelley wrote: There are two Italys. One is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man. The other is the most degraded, disgusting and odious. Young women of rank actually eat garlic. Our poor friend Byron(ph) is quite corrupted by living among these people.
(Soundbite of noise)
BYRON: (Italian language spoken)
POGGIOLI: The outdoor market in Campo dei Fiori is a visual delight. Fresh fruit and vegetables are laid out in colorful display. At Claudio Zampa's stand, long braids of garlic are given a place of prominence. Zampa supplies some of the most renowned restaurants in Rome and many VIPs. He considers the garlic debate absurd.
Mr. CLAUDIO ZAMPA (Vendor): (Italian language spoken)
POGGIOLI: These people are just a bunch of snobs, Claudio said. What are we suppose to eat? Shallots? Will that make us more elegant? More French? Statistics show that Italians consumed 108 million pounds of garlic in 2006, an increase of more than 4 percent over the previous year.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.