With 20 diverse regions, each home to its own food traditions, Italy inspires American chefs and diners to explore its culinary breadth.
This article first appeared in the 1 December 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
TRY THESE R&I RECIPESBaked Fontina With Garlic, Olive Oil and Thyme >>
Braised Pasture-Raised Beef Short-Rib "Osso Buco" >>
Bread-Crusted Wild Striped Bass with Olive Purée and Livornese Sauce >>
Capellini di Mare >>
Caramelized Onion, Pear and Gorgonzola Pizza >> Caramote Prawns with Cannellini Beans >> Chestnut and Sausage Ravioli with Brown Butter And Crispy Sage Sauce >> Chicken & Asparagus Pizza >> Chicken Picatta >>
Fusilli with Pork Shoulder Ragu >>
A bowl of spaghetti in red sauce topped with meatballs. A mountain of clams redolent of garlic and wine. Chicken Parmesan coated with oregano-speckled breadcrumbs.
"We've seen increased interest from customers who understand that the food in Italy isn't just Italian food, it's regional food," says Maurizio Mazzon, executive chef of the 20-unit Corte Madera, Calif.-based Il Fornaio chain.
Chefs from many culinary backgrounds are gravitating toward the more relaxed, rustic cooking of Italy. At A Mano, the restaurant Caputo opened with his partners from brasserie-style Bin 36, guests choose from daily specials that highlight regional recipes such as bollito misto, a Northern Italian dish of boiled meats, as well as house-made pastas. The restaurant represents a shift for Caputo, who, although he grew up eating his mother's and grandmother's Southern Italian cooking, never thought he'd be running an Italian restaurant. "I wanted to get into French restaurants-they were the epitome of cooking," says Caputo. "Now it's the exact opposite. I am older and I want to get down to the basics."
Tradition with a Twist
For Caputo and other chefs who want to capture Italian cuisine at its most authentic, studying the country's regional cooking styles is the pivotal first step. Chef Scott Mahar made a few surprising discoveries when he and his wife traveled through Italy six years ago. "Town to town, there are differences," Mahar says. In Tuscany, he offers as an example, "there was a lot more seafood than we expected; inland there's more meat."
Putting the lessons he learned into practice at his Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen restaurant in Fredericksburg, Va., Mahar serves a seafood stew inspired by one he sampled on the Tuscan coast. Pan-seared scallops and tilapia are deglazed with white wine, simmered briefly in a simple tomato sauce along with shrimp, mussels and a pinch of red chile flakes, and finished with fresh herbs.
Missy Robbins gleaned an idea from a simple staff meal she ate while working at a restaurant eight years ago in Emilia-Romagna, a region of Northern Italy with deeply rooted culinary traditions. "I lived with all these chefs, and they would cook for me," Robbins says. "One of the things they made was farfalle pasta with pecorino, bacon and cabbage. [That dish] made me fall in love with cabbage." Now working as executive chef at A Voce in New York City, Robbins calls on similar ingredients, filling pyramid-shaped pasta she calls quadrati with a mixture of ricotta and pecorino cheeses and then tossing them with shredded Savoy cabbage, lardons of bacon and black pepper.
Chris Cosentino, chef at Incanto in San Francisco, draws inspiration from history. After encountering peposo, an old Tuscan recipe that combines beef and black pepper with pears, while traveling through Tuscany five years ago, he developed his own version for the restaurant. Cosentino braises beef in a rich sauce of meat stock, wine and multiple varieties of black pepper, as well as caramelized onions, carrots, celery and pear, all of which have been passed through a sieve.
With a nod (and a wink) to the past, Chef Simone Bonelli of Perbacco in New York City applies modern techniques inspired by molecular gastronomy to traditional Italian cuisine. "We are still following the original recipes, but we're trying to change the dishes and make them more interactive for the customers," says general manager Antonello D'Ambrosio. In one example, Bonelli deconstructs a classic grilled Sicilian swordfish with eggplant-and-tomato caponata. His version serves the swordfish with braised eggplant, caper gelato and a tomato-and-olive salad. "We want to bring freshness to the Italian restaurants around us," explains D'Ambrosio. "We want to be a little bit different."
Though there are 20 regions in Italy, each boasting its own local specialties and traditions, Southern Italian cuisine in particular seems to be enjoying a culinary renaissance, says Michael White, executive chef of Alto and Convivio restaurants in New York City. "Some of the best cooking in Italy is from the south," White says. "They have raw materials there that are second to none." And Italy's south, home of pizza and maccheroni, holds great appeal for American diners: "It's red-sauce-based cooking," he says. "It's what Americans associate with Italian food."
For one such red-sauce entrée at Convivio, White tosses hand-twisted fusilli with a ragu of pork shoulder braised with San Marzano tomatoes. The recipe isn't without White's personal spin: For a touch of refinement, servers pour fonduta-typically a northern specialty-at the table. But in keeping with the Southern spirit of the dish, White's fonduta is light. He omits cream, making the sauce instead by blending grated caciocavallo, a Campanian cheese, with hot chicken stock and olive oil.
Drawing from his experiences visiting extended family in Campania, Chef Dante de Magistris also incorporates influences from Italy's southern reaches into the menu at Restaurant Dante in Cambridge, Mass. For example, he makes a ragu by braising goat legs with carrots, celery, onions and tomatoes. To counter its rusticity, he adds delicate cappellacci, a round house-made pasta filled with ricotta and grated caciocavallo cheese.
Filled pastas are generally served for special occasions in Campania, says de Magistris, so it's a dish befitting his restaurant's upscale atmosphere. The chef's forthcoming Il Casale restaurant in Belmont, Mass., will serve more rustic and casual Southern Italian dishes.
The Big Picture
Of course, with such culinary diversity throughout Italy-from German-influenced preparations in the northern regions of Alto Adige and Friuli to the North African flavors inherent in Sicilian cooking-there's no shortage of culinary ground to cover. And many chefs offer menus with a sampling of different regional cuisines.
"Any great Italian chef bases their food on what's around them," says Cosentino of San Francisco's Incanto. "What is unique about California is that we have this abundance of wine and produce and fish and meat, which allows us to basically pick and choose the [Italian] region we pull inspiration from."
At Seattle's Tulio Ristorante, Chef Walter Pisano creates region-specific menus on occasion, but his daily offerings are compiled from a mix of Italy's cuisines. There's baccala, a puréed salt-cod recipe from Venice, as well as orecchiette with rapini, a traditional Puglian pasta dish. "For me, it's fun to take the whole country and look for inspiration," Pisano says.
Periodically showcasing different regions can encourage repeat business. As part of its "Festa Regionale" program, Il Fornaio highlights the recipes and wines of a different area of Italy each month. When the restaurant started the program 12 years ago, most customers knew only about Tuscany and Sicily, Chef Mazzon says, but consumer understanding has come a long way since.
In January, the chain will spotlight Friuli, offering dishes such as gnocchi alla friulana, a type of potato gnocchi served with sausage, onions and mushrooms in tomato cream sauce. "We go little by little," Mazzon says. "We have the trust of our guests."
Even with the growing interest in regional Italian fare, there likely will always be room at the table for familiar Italian-American dishes. Back at A Mano, Caputo admits that-to many customers' delight-he serves the occasional chicken Parmesan as a special. "Sometimes you can't fight City Hall," he reasons.
To appreciate the diversity of cooking styles found in Italy, it helps to have a guide. Here, a culinary exploration of Italy's 20 regions, divided into three main areas.
Regions: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Lombardy, Valle d'Aosta, Piedmont, Liguria, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna
Cooking fat: Butter and olive oil
Starches: Polenta, risotto-style rice, fresh pasta made with egg yolks
Distinctive items: Aged balsamic vinegar, truffles, Parmigiano-Reggiano
Region on the rise: Friuli-Venezia. The food's German influences (sauerkraut is common) and the region's white wines inspire chefs and sommeliers alike.
Regions: Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio
Cooking fat: Olive oil
Starches: Fresh and dried pasta, unsalted bread, farro
Distinctive items: Olives, Chianina beef, guanciale, porchetta, espresso, beans
Region on the rise: Marche. Its position along the Adriatic Sea provides for a rich assortment of seafood dishes.
Regions: Campania, Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia
Cooking fat: Olive oil
Starches: Dried long pasta and short, tubular pasta
Distinctive items: Bottarga, chiles, citrus, tomatoes, mozzarella and burrata cheeses
Region on the rise: Sardinia. Hearty meat and seafood dishes and unusual pastas, such as saffron-flavored malloreddus, offer new flavors for adventurous eaters.
Scuola di Cucina
There's a reason Italy's food culture continues to attract tourists: Its residents take their cooking quite seriously. "Italian food is very stubborn in some senses-that's why it has stayed so consistent in certain regions," says Dante de Magistris, chef-owner of Restaurant Dante in Cambridge, Mass. "In Bologna, if you were to make a Bolognese sauce, you would never serve it with spaghetti. They serve it with tagliatelle. That's how their grandmothers made it." Here are a few more tips to avoid upsetting Italian grandmothers:
Go easy on garlic After an Italian wine dinner, Walter Pisano, executive chef of Tulio Ristorante in Seattle, recalls receiving a compliment from the attending Italian winemaker, who said: "You don't cook like an Italian-American chef. I didn't taste garlic in my food."
Italians use garlic delicately. Chefs crush cloves with the sides of their knives and then sweat the cloves in olive oil for a few minutes. They often remove the garlic before adding more ingredients to the pot. If onions already are called for in the recipe, they may skip the garlic altogether.
Watch the water "It sounds so petty, but in a lot of restaurants in the U.S., it's never a priority to keep the pasta water perfectly salted," says de Magistris. It's particularly important to monitor the saltiness of the water when using a pasta cooker. Every hour or so, taste the water and add more salt if needed.
Choose between black and red An integral part of Italian cooking is knowing when certain ingredients are superfluous. To many Italians, using both black pepper and red chile flakes, for example, is redundant. Not all chefs follow this rule, however. Chef Paul Bartolotta from Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas uses black pepper and chile flakes together because he likes to combine their different piquant flavors.