What is in a Name

Presentation isn't everything, but sometimes it tells too much. When a dessert is presented as an upscale soft-serv twirl of whipped cream with a peacock's tail of green apple slices, you have good cause to worry. Of course, you could have just as easily been tipped off by another presentation that is best left free of fluff--the name: Italian apple cream tart. One thing jumps out: Italian? If there's anything Italian about it, we might be trusted to recognize it. And if not, so what?

One ought to be leery of any restaurant that has a vested interest in the nominal ethnicity of its food. "Italian restaurant and grill" will do; specifying that each dish is indeed Italian is not only redundant, but troubling. What makes a tart Italian? Not to worry, this mystery was revealed to me with the first bite. Sogginess.

One of the pleasures of pastry is the contrast between the filling--wet, smooth, sweet--and the crust--dry, flaky, a bit salty. Replacing the crust with stale cake shows a lack of understanding, not to mention appreciation, of the nature of a tart. So maybe, despite its name, it isn't a tart, but just a very confused, cylindrical trifle comprised of whipped cream, apple mush, and dense, buttery cake. Wait, a trifle wouldn't have such a rich cake. Eschewing categories is fine, but experiments put on a menu I think should at least taste good enough to justify themselves.

I'm becoming more of a staunch traditionalist with every sentence, and accordingly I ordered the least adventurous thing on the menu--bolognese. We know what that is, right? Encouragingly, the menu did not call it "Italian bologense", and even describes it: "slow-cooked meat sauce." In other words, it's a ragù, with additions of cream and wine. Simple enough.

Calling something Italian is misguided, but at least I understand why it's done. The pasta dish that arrived plunged me into a crisis in the philosophy of language that until that moment I never took seriously: How do words connect with things? The ground beef mixed with vodka sauce before me suggested an answer, too: They don't.

If you have been to Cicily's (the name says everything, doesn't it?), you might rightfully wonder why I expected anything but exactly what I got from a restaurant in a shopping center. Such places are not concerned with food, but with purveying class markers. They're where the middle class comes to feel high class. But I am an unrealistic utopian. Mood lighting, glitzy bars, and muzak can coexist with decent food. Who's with me?

1 December 2012