For many Americans pizza and spaghetti represent Italian cuisine. represent Italian cuisine cuisine.
And for some of your customers that may be enough to satisfy their craving for “ethnic” food. But for operators who want to wow their customers, not to mention encourage their chefs to flex their creative muscle, they can look beyond generic interpretations of Italian food and focus on authentic regional cuisine and ingredients to develop an enticing Italian menu experience.
In fact, the very reason Italian food is so popular is that it is rooted in centuries-old regional recipes that call for simple, clear pairings of flavors. And each of those regions, many of which were independent kingdoms and republics before unification of the country in the mid 19th century, has its own peculiar components of geography, climate, history and socio-political factors that formed the local character in eating habits and cooking.
Simply stated, the combination of lush mountains and fertile seas and river valleys and arid terrain produces a cornucopia of foods as varied and extreme as the physical nature of the land itself. The constant denominator throughout all these diverse regions is a taste for fresh, high-quality ingredients, prepared in ways that highlight natural flavors—indeed, the very reason we love to cook and eat Italian.
Developing an Italian menu based on regional specialties does take some research however—and the myriad of sources is astounding. As an introduction to the fundamentals of great Italian food and for tips on developing an authentic menu, FM spoke to Charles Rascoll, chef instructor at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), for some guiding principles and kitchen wisdom. We also offer a glimpse of the regions, identifying key ingredients, and conclude with a few recipes that operators are sure to want to add to their repertoire—whether hosting an elaborate Italian buffet or serving a simple luncheon.
The first question we pondered was if there are specific guiding principles to developing an Italian menu. “The first rule that comes to mind is to use quality ingredients. Italian cooks will generally prefer to handle ingredients that are local and in season,” says chef Rascoll.
When asked about authenticity, Chef Rascoll noted that some ingredients may be off limits. “Authentic flavors can only be achieved by using authentic ingredients in a traditional way. Ingredients that should be considered are those that have become the standard of excellence, that were achieved through years of careful development or were occurring naturally within a unique microclimate of conditions.
“Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, Risotto, Mozzarella di Bufala, White Truffles, Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva, and Italian wine. These items are unique to Italy and cannot be produced anywhere else.”
However, even for operators with large culinary budgets and great sources, some of these “authentic” ingredients may be hard to find or simply too costly to purchase. In that case, finding quality substitutions may be imperative and should be determined by the intention of the cook, says Rascoll. “If they are pursuing Italian authenticity, then they must utilize those ingredients which will deliver authentic flavor. However, there is nothing blasphemous about mixing and substituting, so long as the quality and the essential characteristics of the ingredients are not compromised. Success will depend on the cook’s understanding of the role of the ingredients in its authentic context, and their ability in handling them.
“For an experienced chef, domestic seafood, vegetables, legumes, herbs, meats, etc. are generally seamless to substitute and of course would be common practice in Italian American kitchens. For example, if an American cook substitutes a local quality granna style cheese for Parmigiano Reggiano, they can achieve good results.
“Or if one substitutes a California extra virgin olive oil for an Italian one, they can still achieve terrific results. Some other good substitutes are domestic mozzarella, dry pasta from the heart of the durum kernel and, of course, the world’s most popular red vegetable/fruit of the Americas, the tomato.”
Once an operator is ready to construct a menu, we asked which regions were the most popular to feature? “That’s a difficult question to answer. There are 20 provinces in Italy, each one unique enough to be recognized topographically. When regional cooking is discussed by many food writers and chefs, like Northern Italian, they may be referring to an area that encompasses 10 provinces (see the sidebars Celebrating Italian Cuisine and Culture, An Italian Pantry, An Italian Menu Defined).
“Therefore, I think it’s a misnomer to speak about Italy regionally, unless you are talking about a specific region, or you are purposely discussing the style of more than one region as a region in itself.
“I believe it’s more meaningful to speak about popular foods that are regional as opposed to specific regions. For instance, polenta is popular in the North but not every region in the North—more specifically the Northeast encompassing Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Veneto. Risotto can be made in any region, but where it’s actually cultivated—in the provinces of Piedmonte, Lombardia, and Veneto—is where it reaches it’s culinary climax.”
Because different regions have different menu specialites, operators may wonder if they can combine dishes from different regions onto one menu. Rascoll says yes, “so long as your Pan- Italian dishes create a balanced menu.”
And finally, with so many potential choices and courses, are there guidelines as to portion sizes? “This is very important and hard for most American cooks to grasp. If you intend to serve a traditional Italian meal, you need to consider that each course is a separate step, carefully building to the final point of total gratification, not excessive satiation.” Buon appetito!
- Olive Sicilane Al Forno (Sicilian Baked Olives)
- Fior Di Broccoli Rabe Saltati Ali ‘Aglio (Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Chili Pepper)
- Panna Cotta (Eggless Italian Custard)
- Papardelle Al Ragu Di Anitra (Wide Noodle Pasta with Duck Ragu)
An Italian Pantry
Here’s a culmination of “essential” pantry ingredients for those serious about Italian cooking.
*Prosciutto is a term broadly used to describe ham that has been seasoned, saltcured and air dried. Italian prosciutto is designated as either prosciutto cotto, which is cooked and prosciutto crudo, which is raw (though because of its curing is ready to eat). The most famous prosciutto bears the appellation “di Parma.”
An Italian Menu Defined
An Italian meal can consist of one to eight courses, including cheese and beverage courses, depending on the occasion.An Italian menu focus affords operators a unique chance to construct the number of courses and variety to suit every meal service need, from a light lunch to an extravagantly catered event.An imaginative, unique or interesting menu is a wonderful way to entice customers and to pique their senses before the first taste.
Here are the general definitions of courses and the types of foods that may fit into an Italian menu—regardless of whether the menu is based on regional cuisine or popular type of food.
Antipasti—begins a large meal with offerings of appetizer style foods. Generally there are three categories of antipasti: affettati, antipasto misto and antipasto misto mare. Affettati includes sliced cured meats such as prosciutto, salami, Mortadella, or lardo. Antipasto misto features a great variety if mixed dishes, often without meat, that includes olives, roasted nuts and vegetable dishes. And antipasto misto mare consists of all kinds of seafood recipes using small fish and shellfish.
Contori/contorini—vegetables and side dishes or a side dish of vegetables, sometimes served shortly after the secondo or as a separate course in itself, like a mixed green salad.
Primi/ Primi Piatti—first course: Pasta, rice, risotto, beans and soups.
Secondi/Secondi Piatti—second course: fish, meat, poultry, game, egg dishes or hearty vegetable.
Formaggi—cheese course. Consider Taleggio, a semi-soft Cow’s milk cheese; Caciotta Toscana, an aged Tuscan sheep’s milk; Bel Paese; a “young” Pecorino Romano; and Gorgonzola, a blue veined cheese. Cheese should be offered and eaten mildest to strongest.
Dolci—desserts. Fresh fruit, Torte (cakes), gelato (ice cream), crostate (tarts), piccola pasticceria (small assorted pastries or cookies).