I travel frequently. This year alone I've been to 37 states, many of them more than five times. But I've never been out of the continental US. Until this weekend, when I went to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh itself is part of America, but located within the surrounding environs are Bahama Breeze and the Olive Garden. I was magically transported to both the Caribbean and Italy on consecutive days.
When we set out on Friday, we didn't know we'd end up in the Bahamas. We were originally thinking Mexico, but the only authentic south of the border eatery was "Mad Mex," and we weren't in the mood for anger. I don't know why they were so mad NAFTA was a pretty sweet deal for them, and their soccer team is generally better than ours.
Justine, my trusty flight companion, spotted the Bahamas first. Located just a half mile from Mexico, I figured we may as well stop in. If we were going to go island hopping, we should probably eat.
The deck was the first thing I noticed about Bahama Breeze. It was covered in varnish, just like the decks in the islands. After leaving our names with the hostess and being given an authentic Caribbean pager, we walked across said deck. During our initial approach, the restaurant obscured the fantastic view of the Pittsburgh Ocean. But when we reached the end of the factory installed boards, we could see for miles. To our left, waves lapping against the sandy shore. To our right, Dick's Sporting Goods and Home Depot, (where they probably got the varnish). Before we could skip stones across the parking lot, our pager rang.
"Justin?" the hostess asked.
She must mean "Justine." Oh, that quaint island accent.
Once inside, we realized that the steel drums being piped through the standard Bahaman speaker system were actually live. The drums were so loud that it was hard to concentrate on the fresh fish being served straight from the Pittsburgh Ocean. The drummer played music from authentic Caribbean artists like Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Presley. "Ah hah hah hah hah, welcome to de islands."
Saturday, we wanted to try something new. Mex was still pissed so that wasn't an option, and though we thought of foraging for our own meal in Dick's Sporting Goods & Ocean, we didn't want to have to buy the rods (aisle seven). Instead, we settled on the Olive Garden, a real taste of Italy, conveniently located in the same shopping center as Bahama Breeze.
The sign on the door said, "Benvenuto," which means "welcome" in Italian. Beneath that it read, "Sun-Thurs, 10AM-10PM, Fri-Sat, 11AM-11PM." My Italian is a bit rusty, but I think that means "$14 for the same pasta you can buy for $1 at Walmart." Which is conveniently located in between Dick's Sporting Goods and Home Depot.
We turned in our Italian pager, which was circular unlike the square pagers often found in the Bahamas. The breadsticks were fantastic. The Manicotti was also tasty, and Justin(e) thoroughly enjoyed her salad, which came with authentic Italian dressing. And after dinner, we were treated to a complimentary mint an Andes Candy. And even though the Andes are located in Peru, you know where they usually have Andes Candies after dinner? Italy!
If your sarcasmo meter has not exploded by now, you need some serious help. I enjoyed eating both dinners the food was quite good. But the guise of "authenticity" didn't do it for me. And I'm not sure why it does it for other people.
I don't need to feel like I'm in the Bahamas to enjoy Caribbean cuisine (and tropical blue and pink plates don't instantly transport me). I don't ever want to eat a dish called "Tour of Italy" (and I don't imagine that fettuccini alfredo, lasagna, and chicken parm make up the complete tour). And why does Mex have to be so mad to get people to eat there?
My favorite foods are Americanized versions of ethnic cuisine: Chinese food with vegetables not actually grown in China, Italian food that may or may not have pictures of Paul Newman on the package, and Mexican food that comes from a restaurant with "Taco" in the name (Johns, Bell, Box, and Del are all fine with me).
There's no reason to belittle someone's real culture by creating an artificial, watered down version of it. I want to see a commercial for Bahama Breeze that says, "Okay, we're not in the Bahamas. We're in Pittsburgh. But man, is this fish good." If they advertised like that, I'd eat there every day. Assuming they toned down the steel drums. I like my fish sans steel drums. And my welcome sign can just say "welcome" that way I can understand it.
If you need a new welcome sign, I hear there's a sale at Home Depot.
Steve Hofstetter is the author of Student Body Shots, which is available at www.SteveHofstetter.com. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.