American's love of Italian cuisine seems to be stronger than ever and three trends are further building on its popularity: combining other ethnic ingredients with "classic" Italian ones; focusing on regional specialties and ingredients; and refining traditional dishes with unique and/or upscale ingredients.
"There has been a tremendous wave of Asian and North African immigration to Italy in the past 20 years. An influx of ingredients associated with those cultures (ginger, for example) are becoming mainstream," says to Kyle Phillips, an Italian cuisine webmaster (www.aboutitaliancuisine.com).
Today Italian chefs, and indeed home cooks, are deftly co-mingling ethnic ingredients and cultures in restaurant dishes and traditional comfort foods.
The classic dishes that customers love are rooted in centuries-old regional recipes and each regions distinctive ingredients. Chefs showcase these regional specialties by offering special dinners, unique catered-event menus and even developing whole restaurant concepts around specific geographic areas of Italy.
Finally, some of the most popular American chefs today are taking the naturally rustic nature of Italian cuisine and are refining it by adding their own unique interpretations of the dish. The recipes maintain the core, simple flavors associated with the dish, but then a chef will add his or her own distinctive, and even upscale, flavor nuances often in the form of locally procured (American regional) recipe components.
A Look Towards Italy
Italy is divided geographically into 20 distinct areas, each with it's own specialties. For easier menu development, these can be considered as eight key regions.
- Liguri and coastal Tuscany: Here the food is simple and predominantly vegetarian though fish plays a main role as a protein source. Pesto is the sauce of choice and fresh herbs play a dominant role in seasoning.
- The Po basin (Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, southern Lombardy) is the area known for rice specialties, such as risotto. Local farms provide milk, cream and meats, especially ham and sausage. Here the use of butter is more common than olive oil.
- The Alpine region (Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Northern Lombardy, south Tirol, Trentino, Friuli-Venezia Giulia): each valley has it's own specialties but the cuisine here is generally based on butter, bacon, cheese and bread. Fish is from mountain brooks, not the ocean, and white truffles are the specialty of Piedmont.
- Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. Tomatoes and legumes play a key role and meat consumption is high, either prepared grilled or on a spit. In lieu of pasta, locals prefer white crunchy, crusted bread. Fish chowders are prevalent along the coast, while in the inland mountainous regions, sea and river trout and carp are staples.
- Latium and Sardinia. Rome is found in Latium where hearty, robust specialties dominate (e.g. meat that is stewed or roasted with lard and bacon). These two regions share a love of sheep milk products like pecorino and ricotta cheese and coffee is very important here.
- Abruzzi, Molise and Apulia. Together with the olive oil from Apulia, spicy peppers are used in simple and original regional specialties. Fish, vegetables and homemade pasta play important culinary roles as well.
- Campanga and basilicata. Pizza originated in Naples, located in Campagna; it's a perfect example of a simple yet spicy regional dish. The region is also known for its pasta diversity. Vegetables, tomatoes and cheese are part of every meal. Basil, pork, sausage and spicy chili peppers flavor the cuisine.
- Calabria and Sicily. Sheep and goat farming are important here for the production of cheese. Coastal fishing, and in the interior pork and sausage, are the basis of local cuisine. Tomatoes and eggplant dominate vegetable dishes. Rich sweets and dishes containing cinnamon and raisins are offered for dessert.
From classic dishes to contemporary interpretations, these three cookbooks exemplify the vast range of regional dishes that can inspire an Italian themed menu.
My Favourite Italian Recipes, 100 Original and Delicious Dishes, by Antonio Carluccio, Butler and Tanner Ltd., Frome, Somerset England, 2002.
La Tavola Italiana, by Tom Maresca and Diane Darrow, William Morrow & Company, Inc. New York, NY.
Simple Italian Food, Recipes from my Two Villages, by Mario Batali, Clarkson Potter Publishers, NY.
An Italian Pantry
The following items are essential in order to re-create classic Italian dishes. Creative chefs will deftly add American regional ingredients and personal touches for uniquely authentic presentations.
High-quality imported olive oil Balsamic vinegar (preferably from Modena)
Tomato products (paste, puree, canned peeled plum tomatoes
Canned anchovies: rolled and flat
High quality white meat tuna
Prosciutto cotto (cooked) crudo (raw), Pancetta
Parmesan (made from cow's milk), and/or pecorino cheeses (made from sheep's milk)
Dried herbs: bay leaves, parsley, basil, fennel, ginger, marjoram, mint, nutmeg, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, black pepper
Peperoncino rosso (a red hot chile pepper)
Homemade or high quality broth/stock
Red and white wine
|Italian Menu Theme ideas |
Traditionally the main meal in Italy is at 1:00 p.m.—perfect timing for onsite operators who want to offer a sampling of dishes within the framework of an Italian lunch. Consider these themes on which to build:
"Design your own" Italian Meal
The typical weekday lunch in Italy will begin with a primo, or a first course, of soup, risotto, pasta, or beans. The serving size—about a cup—is not intended to be a full meal. The primo is followed by a secondo, a fish, meat, egg or vegetable-based main course plus a complimentary side dish. Again, portions are small—about a quarter pound of the protein, plus a serving of the side dish, and bread. The secondo is then followed by dolci, dessert, usually fruit but may also include cake, gelato, tarts (torte) or an assortment of cookies and a demitasse of espresso.
Put together a menu of portion-controlled choices in each category, allow the customer to choose one item in each category, all for one price, regardless of choices.
Pick one region —or three— and feature entrees, side dishes and desserts from each.
Ethnically inspired celebrations always include great food! Here are just a few events around which operators can build a menu: il Carneval, from the Epiphany on Jan 6 to the beginning of Lent. This is a time dedicated to parades, masquerade balls, music and food. Seasonal celebrations abound in all the regions of Italy. And of course, holiday parties from Easter to New Year's can be celebrated with Italian flair.