One restaurant, two continents: culinary fusion or just confusion?

On a busy stretch of highway in southern Delaware, just a few miles away from the surging beaches, the motorist will encounter yet another of several grindingly predictable strip malls.IMG_1778 It’s small, as one would expect in a semi-rural area (getting more so to the west, the same direction my camera lens was pointing). The building itself offers nothing of significance. But the middle tenant featured on the sign is more of a curiosity.unusual fusion restaurant in Milford, DE

Romano’s II in Milford DE serves Mexican and Italian cuisine, reinforced by the enormous menu featured on the website—quite possibly the largest array of entrées I’ve ever seen. Obviously this is a perfectly acceptable culinary combination, but then, is there any fusion of two cultures that wouldn’t be? It raises eyebrows, however, not just because it’s a fusion rarely encountered, but because these two cultures are so far from one another—two different continents, primarily different climates and ecosystems, with no real historical connections (the Italians did not colonize Mexico) outside of a shared Romance language.

We rarely see such a hybrid because most outsiders will immediately develop a suspicion that at least one of the two cuisines in this fusion does not reflect the cultural history of the proprietors. While it’s very possible that Romano’s II involves a partnership between a person of Mexican descent and one of Italian, it remains an unusual venture. I’d even wager that, in fashionable, urban, affluent enclaves, where people are more likely to care about authentic ethnic representation, this sort of strategy would fail. But in the less selective purlieus, where land costs are lower and the market base is less competitive, culinary combos are increasingly common: most of us have seen Thai/Chinese or Thai/Vietnamese. Despite the 1947 partition, Indian/Pakistani isn’t unheard of, nor are regions that represent some broader cultural affinity: Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Central American. But these of course represent geographic proximity. According to the website, Romano’s II offers “classic New York and Mexican Taste”, which implies that the proprietor draws inspiration for the Italian half from its American transfiguration—suggesting to me that the restaurant’s greater affinity is toward Mexican food (a suspicion that the menu only substantiates).

My guess is that the proprietor is of Mexican ancestry; the homepage of the site boasts “Tortas, Tacos, Enchiladas, Burritos and Much More”, with nary a reference to the premier Italian items. And odds are good that this proprietor, though Mexican food is more in his or her métier, recognized the transcendent popularity of key Italian items and found a way to make them popular to a broad demographic. It’s a safe estimate: most Americans surveyed (77%) enjoy an ethnic restaurant at least once a month when dining out, and two of the top three cuisines are Mexican and Italian, ranking #2 and #3 respectively. The reigning champion is Chinese, but it’s a close competition; all three cuisines get favorability ratings of over 70% and it drops sharply after that, with Japanese coming in at a mere 32%.

 

IMG_1779My suspicion is that hybrids like Romano’s II work well because of the availability and familiarity of these three cuisines, which vastly exceed that of Japanese, Greek, French, or Thai (the next four on the list). Any trip through rural and small-town America corroborates this. Even passing through a place much smaller than Milford (whose population has likely surged, like much of southern Delaware, past 10,000 in recent years), it is likely that it will at least feature a quick-serve Chinese counter (possibly only take-out), a locally operated Mexican sit-down, and a pizzeria. Most towns over 2,000 people, even those in far-flung locations, have all three of these options. I recall an article in recent years that suggested that Mexican and Chinese immigrants—far more likely to be first-generation than the Italians—have often sought the next largest town without a restaurant featuring their home cuisine, and then staked out a new business there because they will have cornered the market. Repeat this practice a hundred thousand times, and we get the culinary landscape of small-town America. Ethnic eateries are ubiquitous…i they’re Chinese, Mexican, or Italian.

Milford is the right size for Romano’s to thrive because it serves a community where the dining options are sufficiently slim that the two-cuisines-are-better-than-one approach becomes a selling point, rather than a self-defeating liability. And maybe it genuinely succeeds at most of the items on its expansive menu. The well-educated, cosmopolitan residents of certain urban neighborhoods may question the authenticity of such a venture—though this approach bespeaks both their discernment and snobbery, since a high-end Asian fusion restaurant is typically perfectly acceptable in these recherché quarters. But the gentry of Georgetown would likely smirk or even sneer at the prospect of a Mexican-Italian restaurant opening on Wisconsin Avenue, questioning its viability using the same criteria I’ve applied here. But if they’re coming back from a trip to the beach, shaking the sand out from their monster towels, who’s really going to question the social acceptability of tacos and tortellini?

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12 thoughts on “One restaurant, two continents: culinary fusion or just confusion?

  1. Alex Pline

    I don’t find this confusing on any level really. One question I have is did you go inside and get a sense of the clientele? Since we’re speculating, my guess is people who patronize the place are neither Italian nor Mexican looking for authentic food, just trying to capture a broader spectrum of random people’s taste buds in a place that, as you pointed out, has not a lot of options.

    On a personal level, when I make chili sometimes it comes out with a “Mexican” twist (tastes like taco meat) and sometimes it comes out with an “Italian” twist (tastes like spaghetti sauce) – clearly the culinary arts are not my forte – so I kinda get the fusion aspect 😉

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Hi Alex, I peered in the window at the entrance while I was there. If the third photo doesn’t already give it away, the place had little in the way of clientele, which may not speak highly of the place, given that it was around 8:45p on a Saturday in the summer. Unless I caught it on a rare off moment (or it gets 95% of its business from carry-out), it could be that Romano’s II really can’t handle its insanely large menu. Besides that, I’ll confess that I’m very hesitant to judge sociological characteristics merely by looking at people themselves; when I was younger and bolder (and more naïve), it got me into trouble.

      Chili always seems to me to have a bit of both a Mexican and Italian twist, at least from my own upbringing in the Lower Midwest. The cumin is something I associate (perhaps incorrectly) with Mexican food, and while the sauce rarely comes out like marinara, for me chili is supposed to have spaghetti in it. I remember the first time I had it without spaghetti it felt pretty much the same as a Greek salad without feta. Having originated in Cincinnati, most other nearby cities have their own variants. In Indy the chili isn’t sweet like it is at Skyline Chili (Cincy’s signature chili restaurant–a chain slowly creeping its way across the country), but it has the cumin and the spaghetti. And if you ever go to Indianapolis-based Steak ‘n Shake (before it files Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection) you could always try the chili 5-way, in which the spaghetti-to-chili ratio is the stuff of nightmares.

      Reply
      1. Brian M

        You do realize that in most of this proud nation Chili with spaghetti is an ABOMINATION. An ABOMINTATION, I tell thee! And I am a native of northeastern Indiana, not some coastal snob (although I have lived in Cali for going on 29 years, so…)

        Reply
        1. Chris B

          Also in the Midwest there is a variety of “chili” that is really just “hamburger, bean, tomato, and pasta soup” with runny broth. (Chili mac is actually closer to real chili than most Midwest chili soup is.)

          NO! Real chili is thick, and the meat is chopped or shredded, not ground.

          (It comes down to regional variations, and they’re all just different dishes. I prefer mine over broccoli, which I have never seen on a menu anywhere.)

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt

            I think I can manage the broccoli, but from my perspective, chopped or shredded meat is sacrilege. I guess if it’s chicken chili I can understand, but then that is still a mild act of apostasy. With turkey chili, it’s still ground–anything else is likely to raise the ire of Ron Swanson, and we don’t want that (of course, he’d ridicule turkey chili too).

            Reply
        2. AmericanDirt

          So I guess the spaghetti fad didn’t creep up all the way north to the Fort? We certainly enjoyed spaghetti in our chili in Naptown.

          Reply
  2. Samuel Laughlin

    On 10th street by Ben Davis High School in Indy, there used to be a Mexican and Chinese fusion place built into an old pizza hut. I never went, but it sounded pretty wild.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the observation! Now that I think of it, wasn’t there a La Chinita Poblana in Broad Ripple until recently? I went there a few years ago: bubble teas and tacos, and the tacos had both Mexican and Asian ingredients. In its own way, though, that’s kind of a predictable level of eclecticism for Broad Ripple. A place with two distinct menus–General Tso’s chicken and beef chimichangas–that really is a lot more wild. But probably a nice touch for the West Side.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Very appropriate for this article! I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese/Thai person who’d be offended by that. If anything, it’s making fun (yet again) of country mouse. But gently, so I think they can take the joke too. The only ethnicity that would likely get offended is the indigenous Californian.

      Reply

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