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Next Italian food lesson is its regions

If you're lucky, you've never known a world without olive oil or a time when Parmesan cheese only came in green cans.

But there was such a world. Once stigmatized as the cuisine of "garlic eaters," Italian food and its ingredients were almost impossible to find in America 40 years ago.

"Certain foods were so associated with lower-class people that it was a way of keeping those people and their food in their place," says John Mariani, author of "How Italian Food Conquered the World."

But as increased travel and waves of new immigrants coaxed Americans to be more adventurous, Italian food found its way onto American tables — and into their hearts. During the 1960s and '70s, retailers began marketing "healthy" Italian ingredients, such as olive oil. And during the 1980s, big-name chefs like Wolfgang Puck adapted and enhanced foods like pizza, giving them culinary credibility and pushing them into the mainstream.

Today, dozens of oils, vinegars and other essentials vie for shelf space in supermarkets, and everything from pizza to pasta proliferates are on mainstream menus from Denny's to the Cheesecake Factory.

"Italian food appeals to such a broad spectrum," says Jonathan Waxman of the New York restaurant Barbuto. "It appeals to kids, snobby people, rustic diners. It appeals to big groups or an elegant dinner. It goes the full gamut."

Like other chefs who came up in the 1980s, Waxman made his name applying his classical French training to American ingredients. But he never forgot the "old-school" Italian dishes he knew as a child in San Francisco, the cioppino and veal scaloppini. At Barbuto, and in his new book "Italian, My Way," Waxman adapts the simplicity, seasonality and most of all, the spontaneity of Italian dishes to American sensibilities. Overripe tomatoes are studded with garlic and roasted for a simple sauce, and fresh asparagus is shaved and dressed with lemon and hazelnuts.

The next frontier, say Waxman and Mariani, is to have Americans distinguish between the foods of Italy's different regions. "The most important thing about Italy is that it's not one cuisine, and now we're discovering all the different regions," Waxman says. "It's like America. It's the difference between what you get in Maine versus Louisiana."

Already, Mariani says, restaurants are beginning to open in places like New York and San Francisco and even Boulder, Colo., that specialize in the cuisines of Rome or Venice or places that few people have heard of, such as Friuli, in the country's northeastern corner. Like Puck and food activist Alice Waters before them, they are educating as well as feeding.

And many Americans already love Italy's quintessential regional dish: pasta.

"There's something about this long, squiggly, chewy comfort food that we all love," says Domenica Marchetti, whose new book "The Glorious Pasta of Italy" offers recipes from Rome to Abruzzo to Sicily. "Wherever you go in Italy, the pasta is an expression of that place and the local ingredients."

In the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, for instance, Marchetti says you'll find lots of freshly made egg noodles, lasagna and tortellini. In Apulia and Calabria, on the Adriatic Sea, you'll get heartier pastas of buckwheat and whole grains. Up north, a Bolognese will have lots of ground meat, but almost no tomato. But in Abruzzo, you'll find a silky sauce bursting with tomatoes that were merely flavored by meat.

Just like Americans' appreciation of Italian food in general, the country's love of pasta has also become more adventurous, delving into dishes like pumpkin ravioli and squid-ink pasta. But while Marchetti and others applaud the development, the simple, comforting food of Italy will always be with us.

"There's also something to be said for a nice dish of spaghetti and meatballs," she says.

Next Italian food lesson is its regions