Give classic Italian dishes from the old neighborhood a new accent with unexpected ingredients, new textures and world flavors.
Lasagna again? That's not so bad, but it's predictable. How about Pear Lasagna with Brie? Now, that's Amore!
When your customer base is largely made up of the employees or students you serve day in and day out, breaking from tradition with Italian classics is a great way to shake things up. An unexpected main ingredient can provide the twist, and so can seasonings taken from an international spice rack.
Twists not only break up menu monotony; variations on Italian favorites can become customized versions in health-conscious foodservice settings. Chefs substitute ingredients for a lighter take on a traditionally heavy Italian meal, or make changes to fit special diets.
Whatever the reason, playing around with the standards can result in new arrangements that are music to your customers' palates — and your registers.
Worlds Collide, Riffing on Risotto
At University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, OH, Senior Executive Chef Anthony Verona, CEC, says the strategy has proven effective for his menu development. Santa Fe-style pasta with black beans and red peppers is a big seller in the hospital cafeteria, he says. It incorporates the flavors of smoky chipotle chiles and bright cilantro, creating a fusion of Italy and the American Southwest, and is always a star when it is offered on the Sodexo account's “Innovations” station.
“Mixing different flavors is big right now,” Verona says. “If you can incorporate Southwestern or Asian flavors into pasta dishes, that's huge.”
The hospital's cafeteria menu cycle also includes a risotto (an Italian rice) bar, where the mix-ins can wander far beyond Italy. “Customers can put together a Greek risotto, with spinach and feta cheese,” he adds.
In another riff on risotto, Chef Stephen Bello, CEC, CCA, AAC, executive chef at South Nassau Communities Hospital on Long Island, NY, plays with texture and region in a dish that picks up influences from across America. He combines risotto and orzo, a rice-shaped Italian pasta, to make what he calls “orzatto.” This provides the dish with a lighter texture than traditional risotto because of the “pasta feel” of the orzo. Bello takes this dish to the American heartland with Tillamook cheddar cheese and applewood-smoked bacon, then continues to the West Coast by topping the “orzatto” with grilled salmon and an heirloom tomato salad. (See Wild Salmon over Herbed “Orzatto” with Heirloom Tomato Salad Vinaigrette recipe p. 42).
Verona makes a smaller change with white vegetable lasagna. While remaining fragrant with Italian seasonings, this dish replaces traditional red sauce with a white sauce, and meat is replaced with onions, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, and green peppers. “Some patients can't have tomatoes because of special diets,” Verona says, citing renal/kidney diets as an example.
Vegetable lasagna with a white sauce is just the tip of the cannoli. Lasagna, more so than many other classic Italian dishes, lends itself to creativity. Chefs look at the long, flat lasagna noodles and see a blank canvas. Several chefs told FM that lasagna has a way with leftover ingredients.
Layers of Frugal Creativity
At the University of Massachusetts' recent Italian Festival, Chicken Lasagna (see recipe, p. 45) debuted to rave student reviews. The dish not only uses a non-traditional protein, but also makes use of leftover ingredients. Many other main ingredients can be workable in lasagna, as well. If you find yourself with leftover spare ribs, why not offer BBQ lasagna?
“We've got to be very prudent these days, as chefs,” Bello says. “With the way the economy is, you need to utilize everything you can.”
Bello turns scraps from veal scaloppine into meatballs, which become his twist on the classic Italian dish osso bucco. “With the meatballs, I use the same ingredients you'd find in osso bucco — mirepoix, tomatoes, fresh herbs — and I make Osso Bucco Soup with Meatballs.”
- Grilled Eggplant “Lasagna” Stacks
- Crispy Wisconsin Mascarpone Rigatoni
- Potato-Cheddar Gnocchi with Bacon and Eggs
- Grilled Polenta with Bruschetta Topping
- Italian Cream Cake
- Meatballs in Plum Sauce
- Wild Salmon over herbed “orzatto” with heirloom tomato Salad Vinaigrette
- Bosc Pear Lasagna with Almonds and Brie
- Twisted Turkey Lasagna
- Pesto-Onion-Ricotta Lasagna Rolls
- Chicken Lasagna with Garden Herbs
An Italian Classic from the South (Texas, That Is)
Sometimes, a change in Old World classics occurred long ago. Italian Cream Cake may be one such example, although the origins are sketchy. The theory is: When Italian immigrants began to settle in the American South throughout the last century, they joined junior leagues, embraced butter, and came up with such things as the Italian Cream Cake, now a beloved dish at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, TX.
The cake is a sweet, indulgent treat with coconut, pecans and cream cheese frosting, and oh, 19 lbs. of sugar.
“The original recipe is lost, but more than 25 years ago, one of our supervisors brought in a recipe. She's long since retired, but everyone has loved it ever since,” says Celia Krazit, Parkland's director of nutrition services. “I'm not sure how Italian it is, but I've seen it in a lot of Southern junior league cookbooks. Everyone in the South knows of this kind of cake.”
The cake appears every Thursday, causing some fans to dub it “Thursday Cake.” The cake can also be found at Thanksgiving and Christmas bake sales, and is often made for weddings. The cake isn't advertised, but word-of-mouth is a powerful thing. Krazit says the public calls and the hospital tries to meet the orders.
The cake has become so popular that it garnered attention earlier this year in The Dallas Morning News, where a reporter who tried the cake at a wedding decided to investigate further, Krazit says.
“Everything we have is good, but the Italian Cream Cake is the best,” Parkland's baker, Johnnie Odoms, told The Dallas Morning News.
Odoms was nice enough to share the recipe with FM readers.