Lush Life | Not all Italian restaurants are created equal

Spaghetti and Veal Meatballs. Tribune News Service photo.
Spaghetti and Veal Meatballs. Tribune News Service photo. TNS

Have you ever wondered why anyone who returns from vacation in Italy always mentions how good the food was? They mention the sights and the culture, but, without fail, they always mention the food.

There is one reason for food being a top three mention from Italy: The food is fresh.

Garlic bread, fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken on any pasta, and fra’ diavolo were not created in Italy. These are American dishes that we put on Italian menus. No wonder that we can not hold a candle to the food in Italy.

That said, here are three ways to find good Italian food without getting on an airplane.

First, fresh vegetables, meats, cheeses and herbs are essential. Italy has around 0.7 percent of pesticides in their produce. America will never be at this level of fresh and pure when it comes to our produce. (Thank you, Mansanto.) Buying organic, local and with the seasons is the only way to ensure that you are getting fresh food. Yes, it costs more.

Next, the pasta must be made in-house. The flavor difference is unmatched when it comes to dried versus fresh pasta. It holds sauce better, it tastes better and it is healthier.

Finally, sauce is used as an ingredient in a dish. A properly sauced pasta is the calling card of a real Italian kitchen. The American version of a bowl of spaghetti swimming in red sauce so that you can take your garlic bread and sop up the tomato goodness is a good way to cover up poorly made pasta.

The best Italian kitchens aim for an even coating of sauce with perhaps a little extra. Certainly not enough left in the bowl to make more than a couple of swipes with some bruschetta.

Italian on the Grand Strand is relatively common. In fact, nearly every restaurant has a pasta dish. However, having pasta does not make for good Italian in all cases. You have to focus on the places that specialize and pride themselves on Italian cuisine. Intermingled with the national chain pasta stores, there are some local gems that are not to be missed.

Chianti South (2109 U.S. 17 N., Little River) is quite possibly the most noted authentic Italian restaurant in the area. Famed for fresh pasta and a renowned wine list, Chianti South has become an icon of Italian cuisine in our area since its inception in 1997.

They do feature some of the American versions of Italian dishes, but they take claim to making their own pasta, sauces and using local ingredients as much as possible. Service is always top notch and well worth the drive north.

You cannot very well talk about Italian food without bringing up pizza. A brick oven is the Italian equivalent of a Southern cast iron skillet. Benito’s Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta (1598 U.S. 17 S., North Myrtle Beach) is the place to be for brick-oven pizza pie and fresh pasta. This is a no-frills, traditional Italian kitchen that does not skimp on flavor.

Their menu is heavy-handed in traditional Italian fare, but they also appease the American palate with some of the dishes. The real draw is the pizza. While a cliche Italian dish, their brick-oven is well seasoned and creates some tasty pies.

This may be difficult to hear, but Italy has nothing to do with cheesecake. Not to fret if you like the sweet stuff. Toffino’s Bakery, Deli and Pizza (550 Farrow Parkway, Myrtle Beach) is the best place for fresh made sweets, sliced meats, cheeses and sandwiches. Confidently, it’s the best Italian deli on the Grand Strand. Toffino’s is the place you would shop for the big Sunday Italian meal. It is also the place you eat if you crave a fresh sandwich.

From the cannoli to the roast pork to the fresh pasta, there is no way to go wrong at this Market Common mainstay. In fact, they were in The Market Common before, well, The Market Common was.

I make no illusion that this is a comprehensive list of quality Italian in our area. There are some other fine Italian restaurants out there. However, when you want traditional, true Italian, these are some great choices. Anyplace can make pizza or pasta, but to do these dishes with the ideals of Italy is a dying trend.

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