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Letter from Athens: Why Greek Food is Better Than Italian – It’s Simple

November 22, 2021

First, my late father made the world’s best spanakopita, an issue which sets off raging debate between challengers who think theirs is better than anyone else’s, so maybe we need a Cook-Off to settle it in the Diaspora.

At a political event many years ago while working for The Boston Globe, I met the mayor of a small Massachusetts city who grew up in Greece, and once our common heritage was established the question of spanakopita came up.

He insisted that he made the best. I said my dad did. When he asked where our family was from, I said Kalambaka. He said, “I concede, they have better cheese.”

There is no real counterpart in Italian food and there’s only so much pizza and pasta you can eat without it being repetitive so Scottish renowned celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay got it right when he declared Greek food is better than Italian.

That came as he was on a luxury yacht in Greece for the TV show Gordon, Gino and Fred Go Greek, with fellow chef Gino D’Acampo from Italy and French maître d’ Fred Siriex.

They were sipping champagne when Ramsay, who can be bristling indeed, but has gristle to back it up, said that, “Greece never gets the look-in that France has, or the Italians” before making D’Acampo almost choke on his drink. “Honestly I think Greek cuisine is better than Italian cuisine,” said Ramsay. D’Acampo was stunned speechless, looking like someone who had just tried one of those torrone desserts in Italy that make styrofoam seem appealing and aren’t in the same universe as baklava or galaktoboureko.

“You are not serious…you cannot…you can’t…” he stuttered before looking to Sirex for an ally and urging him to “say something!”

No luck. Siriex noted that Greece is “one place in the world where people live up to 90, 100 years, and that’s because of the food and the climate…” He added that, “The thing is, in Crete for example, this is one place in the world where people live up to 90, 100 years old. And that’s because of the food and the climate.”

A furious D’Acampo meekly came back with, “the Italian diet is one of the most famous diets in the world…(with) people living many, many years.”

Ramsay interrupts and says “they live longer here, in Greece,” with the island of Ikaria being one of only five Blue Zones in the world for the ratio of people who live to be more than 100 – and it would take longer than that to find an Italian dish that could compare to the simplicity and genius of Greek food, especially olives.

D’Acampo insisted that Greek food “cannot be compared” to Italy’s cuisine, which is true because there’s just no comparison after you’ve had a Greek tomato which is so good the Italians buy them, along with Greek olive oil they then package under Italian names because they can’t make it as good.

If you check out Italian dishes on Google you’ll get Sophia Loren, not spaghetti carbonara or arrabiata, although she could still qualify for that one because she’s so hot she could boil water standing in it. Mama mia, that’s some spicy meatball!

Battle of the Banquets!

In the Italian corner you have pizza, spaghetti, lasagna, caco e pepe (cheese and pepper), soggy panzanella, eggplant parm, and risotto.

In the Greek corner you have the lasagna alternative – pastitsio – along with moussaka; the world’s-best-salad-and-it’s-not-close, horiatiki; the Greek meatball dish soutzoukakia; gemista (stuffed peppers and tomatoes); the stuffed grape leaves called dolmades; fasolakia green beans; revithia chickpea soup; fakes, lentils pronounced as FA-KES; the incomparable chicken, egg, and lemon soup avgolemeno; feta cheese, the yogurt and cucumber dip tzatziki; grilled fish, yogurt, the beef stew called stifado and…Well let’s stop there because it’s getting embarrassing for the other side and we have a chef mercy rule in play.

The difference with Greek food, besides the healthy, fresh ingredients, comes down to its simplicity – but also the basics of the Mediterranean Diet that offer plenty of pulses like beans, lentils and peas, and legumes like chickpeas with nutritional and health benefits.

With Greek wine, which is criminally underrated, there’s no healthier lunch so don’t throw up, so to speak, the argument about pizza unless you have a defibrillator at the table. What’s good about Italian food came from Greece.

The site Healthline ranked Greek food the world’s healthiest, followed by Japanese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Spanish, and then Italian, so this contest ended before it started.

Ramsay learned about Greek food when he made a salad in a Greek village and offered it up for a skeptical grandmother. “These capers are the best in the world,” referring to those from Santorini.

“I underestimated the saltiness of the capers,” he laughed when she complained his salad had “polee alati,” – too much salt. “We don’t get capers like that in Scotland,” he said.

And you won’t get food anywhere in the world like in Greece.

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