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R&IEditorial Archives2005April 1 — Food

Beyond a Regional Doubt
Italian cuisine as such doesn’t exist. Chefs are discovering that distinctive foods of regions such as Tuscany, Apulia, Umbria and Sicily define the real Italy and command spotlights of their own.

Hold the spaghetti and meatballs. When it comes to Italian food, restaurants at all levels—from fast casual to white tablecloth—are focusing on regional dishes with authentic flavors. Some strive to duplicate traditional recipes; others add their own spin while keeping intact the spirit of the original. Either way, the goal is to satisfy an increasingly sophisticated, experienced and well-traveled clientele.

Spiaggia Executive Chef Tony Mantuano’s Perciatelle all’ Amatriciana combines hollow-center perciatelle pasta, guanciale (pig cheek meat), onions, garlic and tomatoes, with serrano chiles adding a bold edge.

Meals at Brio Tuscan Grille restaurants that end with Torta Di Cioccolata (chocolate cake topped with vanilla-bean gelato) often begin with signature Tuscan bruschetta (below) with shrimp scampi, seared peppers and mozzarella.

Chefs from Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo! Development Inc. (BDI) take to the road to unearth recipes for its Bravo! Cucina Italiana fast-casual chain and the more-upscale Brio Tuscan Grille. Their most recent expedition took them to Rome, Florence, Capri and Sorrento. “We eat our way through Italy,” says Corporate Executive Chef Philip Yandolino. “We interpret dishes and adjust them to what our customers say they like.”

Guests tell BDI they like steaks. “We keep them simple, like in Florence,” says Yandolino, referencing classic bistecca a la Fiorentina. BDI chefs brush beef with olive oil or garlic butter, plus a touch of rosemary and lemon juice, just as their Italian counterparts do, and they crust strip steaks with Gorgonzola sauce inspired by an Italian preparation.

Both chains bake pizzas and roast chickens in wood-burning Italian ovens. Bravo! Cucina Italiana chefs begin making the popular Gamberetti Fra Diavolo (penne tossed with sautéed shrimp and spicy tomato-cream sauce) by sautéing garlic and chile flakes in oil. Only then do they add pasta, tomatoes, cream and shrimp. “Sautéing the chile and garlic in oil first gives a nice even heat throughout the dish,” says Yandolino. “We learned that in Italy.”

$5.8 billion
Aggregate sales for the 23 Italian chains included in R&I’s 2004 Top 400 Restaurant Chains ranking.
(R&I Top 400)

Not all recipes sampled abroad find a home on BDI menus. “We tried to do a truffle risotto,” says Yandolino. “But we operate primarily in the Midwest and our guests didn’t understand it. They thought the flavor was too strong, so we had to back off.”

Chef Suzette Gresham is not one to downplay the power of truffles. The co-owner of Acquerello in San Francisco serves a white-truffle menu for one week each year. During last year’s feast, held soon after she returned from Piedmont, Italy’s truffle festival, Gresham shaved the gnarly white truffles over a gently poached organic egg nestled in a bed of creamy leeks for Uova Affogato, and incorporated truffles and prosciutto into a recipe for wild-boar saltimbocca.

“I try to understand the intention of the dish and renovate or recreate it,” says Gresham, citing her take on the Italian New Year’s staple of cotechino sausage and lentils as an example. She uses the sausage as a filling for pasta that is topped with lentil sauce. “I have the same ingredients, but I slightly alter how they are served,” she explains. Her goal, she says, is “to maintain the integrity of Italian cuisine, with the flavor [duplicated] or slightly escalated. You give a cultural lesson through your food.”

North, South and Between
Mark Kretz, general manager of Laudisio Ristorante Italiano in Boulder, Colo., has been a devoted student of Italian food for decades. He visits Italy twice each year, returning with menu ideas. “I sit down with our chef and say, ‘I found this dish, can you do it?’” he explains. “We prepare it several times until he gets it where we want it.”

Michael White, partner-executive chef at Fiamma Osteria, melds garganelli pasta with prosciutto, spring peas and truffle butter.

Conchiglie al Pollo is an Il Fornaio signature dish. Shell pasta joins with chicken breast, broccoli, dried tomatoes, pecorino cheese, roasted garlic and trebbiano wine.

Laudisio serves foods from all regions of Italy, with a focus on the cuisine of the south because the Laudisio family hails from the Amalfi Coast. One-quarter of the menu changes monthly to spotlight a specific region. “We want people to be able to experience the food and wine of Piedmont or Friuli,” Kretz says.

“There is no such thing as Italian food,” he emphasizes. “Italians will tell you the difference between north and south is like being in a different country altogether. It’s Umbrian food; it’s Sicilian food.”

Regional dishes speak with a distinct Laudisio accent. The kitchen prepares carpaccio with grain-fed buffalo instead of beef (the color and taste are incredible, Kretz says) and serves it with mustard aioli he “stole from an operation in Venice.”

Pappardelle di spinaci, which he copped from a restaurant in Apulia, consists of three kinds of shrimp, house-made spinach pappardelle, dried tomatoes, Anaheim chiles and olive oil in a sauce of white wine and garlic. “It’s an incredible pasta dish,” says Kretz.

Native Authenticity
Il Fornaio restaurants serve regional dishes and bread baked from recipes that can be traced to the original Il Fornaio baking school in Barlassina, just outside Milan. In addition, the chain presents an ongoing monthly Festa Regionale. Recent events have focused on the foods of Umbria, Campania, Veneto, Friuli and Emilia-Romagna

“We get ingredients direct from Italy. We bake breads from the region and we execute the festival in all 24 of our restaurants,” says Maurizio Mazzon, vice president and executive chef of Corte Madera, Calif.-based Il Fornaio (America) Corp. “We talk about authenticity all the time.”

Mazzon leads annual trips to Italy with a dozen or so of the chain’s 19 “chef-partners”—most of whom are Italian-born—looking for menu ideas and products. Back in the United States, he works with a selected chef to prepare a regional menu based on dishes sampled on the trip. When possible, the chef is a native of the region.


Compound annual growth rate for Italian-menu casual-dining restaurant chains between 1993 and 2003.
(Technomic Inc.)

Il Fornaio imported olive oil and piacentino ennese cheese, made with saffron and black pepper, for its Sicilian fiesta. The Friuli menu included an authentic recipe for insalata di bietole: a salad of baby arugula, red and golden beets, walnuts and Asiago cheese, dressed with lemon and olive oil. “In Italy today, chefs are searching for new flavors; they use cilantro now,” says Mazzon. “But we don’t visit [their restaurants]. We want to stay on the true path.”

Michael White, executive chef and partner of New York City-based B.R. Guest Restaurants’ Fiamma Osteria in New York City and Fiamma Trattorias in Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz., admits to veering off the path, but never too far. He incorporates American ingredients into dishes inspired by the seven years he lived Italy and frequent trips since he returned in 2000.

“Capturing Italian flavors is the No. 1 priority,” says the chef, whose signature dishes include garganelli pasta with prosciutto, spring peas and truffle butter, and seared diver scallops with trumpet mushrooms and brown-butter balsamico. “You can’t do it exactly, but you can come pretty darn close, especially in pasta.”

White substitutes American for Mediterranean seafood and seasons domestic meats with Italian salts made with lemon zest and garlic. Come summertime, he reaches for sweet corn. “We use it in an Italian way. They don’t have corn in Italy, but if they did they would use it too,” he surmises.

White is well traveled, and his cooking reflects that wanderlust. “We put two or three different regions on a plate,” he says. “We might have a great bean dish from Tuscany, another bean dish from Liguria and bottarga [dried salted roe] from Sardinia. Italians would never do that, but that’s the fun part. Italy has everything from couscous to spaetzle. That’s what I love about it.”

  • Cannelloni di Ricotta con Funghi e Tartufo
  • Mustard Aioli
  • Grilled Baby Octopus With Rice Beans and Capers

Menu Scan
Campania-style scialatielli pasta with fresh tomato, black olives, capers and garlic
A16, San Francisco
Pansoti con Tocco de Noxe: “Pot-bellied” Ligurian ravioli filled with wild greens and herbs in walnut sauce
Abboccato, New York City
Agnello alla Venezia: Venetian-spiced braised lamb shank with coarse polenta finished with Venetian extra-virgin olive oil
Becco, New York City
Grilled duck breast with Venetian spinach and polenta
Bottega Restaurant and Café, Birmingham, Ala.
Risotto al Cavolo Nero: Italian carnaroli rice with Tuscan black kale and leeks
Il Buco, New York City
Grilled Tuscan pork chops with roasted vegetables
McDaniel College (Sodexho USA), Westminster, Md.
Fontina Val D’Aosto Alla Milanese: Fontina Val D’Aosto cheese cutlet Milanese-style, with eggplant, tomato and caramelized onions
Paolo’s, San Jose, Calif.
Crostini Misti Della Casa: Crostini of Tuscan chicken liver, white beans and crispy prosciutto, polenta, tomato and montasio cheese
Poggio, Sausalito, Calif.
Risotto Rustico: Sicilian-style risotto with garbanzo beans, roasted red peppers and Spanish paprika
Pontevecchio, Seattle
Salmone alla Livornese: Crispy-skin salmon on braised leeks, olives, capers and tomatoes
Zucca, Los Angeles

Secret Society
Chefs who go to Italy thinking they’ll come home cooking like a paisano had better think again, according to Maurizio Mazzon, a native of Venice and vice president and executive chef of Il Fornaio.

“You can go there, see the dish, and ask them how they do it,” he says. “They may tell you the ingredients, but they will never tell you the real secret, the little trick that makes their dish different.” Italian chefs learn the secrets early.

“At 7 years old, I was making pasta with my mother and brothers,” says Mazzon. “It’s like children now who are born with computers; we grow up with pasta machines so we know the little secrets.”

A few Italian “secrets” follow:

  • When making pesto sauce, remove stems from the basil and trim away any thick veins. Some chefs in Liguria—the birthplace of pesto—insist that quickly blanching basil before working it to a paste in a mortar and pestle is most authentic.
  • Italian chefs never combine seafood and cheese in the same preparation. And, according to some chefs, they also never add cheese to highly spiced pasta dishes such as pasta arrabiata.
  • Nearly all soups, pasta sauces and risottos begin with battuto—literally “to strike”—a mixture of finely chopped parsley and onion. Traditionally it also includes lard although olive oil and occasionally butter are used instead. Depending on the preparation, garlic, celery and carrot can also be incorporated.
  • When battuto is sautéed, it becomes soffrito. First, cook the onion in lard, olive oil or butter until the onion is translucent. If garlic is used, add it next and cook until golden. Remaining ingredients are then added and cooked gently until a rich gold-brown color is achieved.

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