My QuickPicks
Register now to activate

Contents At A Glance

R&IEditorial Archives2000 — October 1 — Food

Italian Branches
The cuisine reaches far beyond its borders.

Italian is among the most fashionable ethnic cuisines, capturing the spotlight more consistently than any other style of food. The red sauce-based fare of southern Italy was the standard before popularity shifted to the upper half of the country, showing off the culinary accomplishments of Milan, Venice and Piedmont. Tuscany reigned as the media darling for awhile, before attention turned south to Rome, the coastal shores of Puglia and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

All the while, operators from fine dining to casual have been modeling menus after authentic Italian cuisine.

So what next will be in vogue for Italian cuisine? Some chefs are banking on an extension of current lines, branching beyond traditional borders and the expected. More than ever, restaurateurs are attempting to establish their own spin on Italian. Whether the cooking is pegged as traditional, contemporary or a melding of Italian with the flavors of Portugal, Asia or the Mediterranean, the push is toward creating a sense of verve and personal style.

“If you don’t want to be just any Italian restaurant, you need to always be thinking of how to compete and stay ahead,” says Robert Ruggeri, president and founder of the New York-based Bice restaurants, which has 30 units worldwide.


In Manhattan, where an Italian eatery seems to sit on every block, restaurateurs such as Lidia and Joseph Bastianich have different approaches for setting themselves apart. At Felidia, one of their four restaurants, the food is driven by market-fresh fare.

“We do not put together a menu and then find the ingredients,” says Executive Chef Fortunato Nicotra. “We have farmers in New Jersey, upstate [New York], Pennsylvania and Ohio who send us what they grow and then we think of the food. It’s 80% of the dish.”

Every two months, part of the menu is dedicated to seasonal ingredients. The fall lineup begins with varieties of squash, followed by truffles, then game. Past items have included Delicata squash with black-eyed pea soup and rock shrimp; golden and Blue Hubbard squash ravioli with butter, sage and toasted pumpkin seeds; and slow-braised veal cheeks with crisp sweetbreads, acorn squash and salsify-scallion purée and vin santo-dried apricot glaze.

For seafood, an employee makes a daily foray to the fish market, arriving at 4 a.m. to scout the best selection for the restaurants. “It is unbelievably fresh,” says Nicotra, mentioning rouget de mer, which is popular in Italian waters, as well as jumbo red shrimp, a specialty of Nicotra’s native Sicily. The shrimp is prepared simply: split and sprinkled with bread crumbs, orange and lemon zest and Parmigiano-Reggiano, then grilled briefly. It is served with a sweet-and-sour Sicilian vegetable mix similar to caponata.


While meat is a significant part of Italian dining, steakhouses do not dot the Italian countryside. But they are becoming a reality stateside. Two years ago, Minneapolis-based Carlson Restaurants Worldwide introduced its first Timpano Italian Chophouse in suburban Washington, D.C. Modeled after “big city” dining experiences of the ’50s and ’60s, the 300-plus seat restaurant has been replicated in suburban Chicago.

The menu is built around big cuts of meat, bone-in chops, pasta and classic Italian fare. Steaks and chops are grilled and can be prepared with a balsamic glaze, with a garlic and Parmesan crust or with a roasted pepper, onion and garlic pomodoro sauce. Entrées range from $8.95 to $23.95.

Celestino Drago, who owns four Italian restaurants in the Los Angeles area, also sees the appeal of steakhouses. He recently opened Celestino Italian Steakhouse to notable reviews. His U.S.-raised Piedmontese beef is offered six ways, from a 14-ounce rib-eye with arugula and lemon-garlic vinaigrette ($28) to a 32-ounce porterhouse for two ($58). Sauces for the steaks include roasted garlic, green peppercorn, bordelaise and porcini mushroom.

Jimmy Nadell, a chef for 27 years, had owned a trattoria, but wanted “to take it up a step. I was thinking of a steakhouse restaurant with some flair. The price allows us to appeal to a wide range of people.”

Last spring, he opened Bistecca Toscanna in Carbondale, Colo. The name of the restaurant translates to Tuscan steak, but the menu also features classically inspired Italian dishes such as chicken Vesuvio with homemade boar sausage, onions, peppers and roasted potatoes ($14.95) as well as a repertoire of 160 pasta dishes. Steaks are $15.95 to $24.95. “I try to stay ahead of the trends,” he says.


Fusion is becoming less of a dirty word in the culinary vernacular. After opening Italian restaurants over the last 13 years, Ruggeri of Bice is breaking from the pack. “I am trying to get away from being a part of the majority of Italian restaurants: They are wonderful and I have nothing against them, but they can be limited to mozzarella caprese and carpaccio,” he says. “But we are trying to keep our Italian roots.”

Ruggeri’s plan includes opening three New York restaurants within the next year. Chazal, part bistro, part trattoria, was slated to open late last month in the Flatiron district. It is pegged as “the place where the south of France meets the north of Italy.” Grill on the Park, scheduled to open by early November, will feature pizza and pasta as well as a raw bar with sushi and ceviche. Ruggeri also will open Medi in Rockefeller Center in the spring, a joint venture with famed French Chef Roger Vergé. The menu will be Tuscan-Provençal.

At Savona outside Philadelphia, the food is “Riviera fusion,” a result of Chef-owner Dominique Filoni’s practice of combining French technique with his “love for Italian spontaneity.” Filoni, French-born and -trained, turns out a menu listed in Italian and English. Choices include grilled Amish poussin with mushroom-, veal- and pinenut-stuffed tomato and verjs sauce, loin of lamb crusted with herbs and porcini dust, carrot mousse, celery root purée and foie gras sauce (both part of a $75 prix fixe); and shrimp and lobster purses with lobster emulsion ($26).

In Minneapolis at the recently opened Zelo, the menu appears to be distinctly Italian with the likes of risotto primaverissimma (risotto with vegetables, white wine, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, $15.95) and spaghettini isolano (pasta with extra virgin olive oil, tomato, mint, olives and ricotta salata $12.95). But appetizers include seared ahi tuna with sesame and hoisin vinaigrette ($10.95), and grilled chicken satay with coconut-curry marinade and peanut sauce ($7.50).

“I think people choose what they do because it’s the kind of cooking they love to do,” says Joseph Savino, chef-owner of Peccavi restaurant which opened over the summer in New York.

Savino’s family hails from Sicily. His restaurant in the Grammercy neighborhood of Manhattan is Italian but features the flavors of the “Mediterranean, from North Africa to southern France, with some Spanish and a little Middle Eastern.”

Specialties include roasted sea bass with Algerian spices, preserved lemons, olives, couscous and vegetable tagine ($17); grilled rib-eye steak over arugula, glazed cipollini onions, straw potato and porcini-herb butter ($24); and penne with Piedmontese-style meat ragu with fennel, tomato and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($14).

“The food is a part of me and it’s the kind of cooking that I am passionate about,” he says.

“You compete by offering great ingredients, strong technique and interesting flavors.”


Just because Italian is branching out geographically doesn’t mean traditional or contemporary fare lacks a following. On the contrary, these two approaches are evolving and thriving. More than ever, they reflect a personal style.

As restaurateurs continue to trumpet authenticity and the food of the Italian countryside, they face the challenge of recreating family dishes so they have casual or fine-dining appeal. “The food of the people is not necessarily the same as the food from the professional kitchen,” says Paul Bartolotta, the longtime executive chef of Spiaggia who recently left the Chicago restaurant to open his own. “One of the conundrums in this translation is how you define what is acceptable culinary license and still be Italian.

“The goal is not to dilute the essence of Italianism,” he adds. “I try to make it as authentic as possible but have it reflect my own style of cooking.”

For example, a traditional Sicilian sea bass calls for stuffing the fish with rosemary and basil, baking it with orange and lemon slices and serving it whole.

In a fine-dining establishment, such as Spiaggia, the dish has to be refined. For Bartolotta, that meant filleting the fish, roasting it on a bed of fennel (“because fennel goes well with citrus”) and serving it with a reduction of lemon, lime, grapefruit juice and fish stock accented by basil and rosemary. The sauce would then get a pat of butter and drizzle of good olive oil. “It has the same flavors but a more elegant presentation,” he says.

At Vetri in Philadelphia, Chef-owner Mark Vetri’s signature is determined by technique and “the barest essentials of the raw product. Integrity of the product’s freshness, quality and authenticity is always the basis for exceptional food. The technique I use to produce the dish would have very little effect if we were to use an inferior product.”

Dishes at the 35-seat restaurant include “casconcelli,” stuffed-pasta dumplings with sage and pancetta in brown butter ($15); slow-roasted baby goat simmered in natural juices and served with soft polenta ($25); and saffron risotto with beef marrow and red wine reduction ($20).

Cathy Whims, chef-owner of Genoa in Portland, Ore., sets her restaurant apart from others by its format. Four chefs, including Whims, take turns creating menus. The seven-course prix fixe at $68 changes every two weeks. “The goal is to make the restaurant as classically Italian and regional as we can, using great ingredients.”

That might mean a Tuscan zucchini soup, puréed with the vegetable’s flowers and onions and garnished with extra virgin olive oil and julienned zucchini blossoms; grilled locally grown porcini mushrooms tossed with chopped garlic and parsley; and tagliatelle pasta with ground free-range veal, tomatoes and rosemary.

“We try to stay true to the [dish’s] region,” she says. “We look at the history and the way the dish may vary from place to place. That’s what makes what we do so interesting and exciting.”

  • Eggplant Flan with Red and Yellow Tomato Coulis

You may also like...
Pizza 101
- November 1, 2005
Something Old, Something New
- September 15, 2005
Beyond a Regional Doubt
- April 1, 2005
Pie in the Sky
- December 1, 2003
Pizza Particulars
- October 15, 2002
Over the Top
- November 15, 2001
2000 Top 400 - Segment Rankings
- July 15, 2000
2000 Top 400 - Table 1
- July 15, 2000
2000 Top 400 - Table 2
- July 15, 2000
Better Strategies, Better Pizza Hut
- February 15, 2000
Copyright© 1999-2006 Reed Business Information, a division of
The Reed Business logo, Restaurants & Institutions, R&I, Chain Leader, Foodservice Equipment & Supplies and FE&S are registered trademarks. All rights reserved.
Use of this web site is subject to its Terms and Conditions of Use. View our Privacy Policy. .