What is the definition of great Italian cooking? Ask an Italian-born chef and the answer will depend on the particular region in which he or she was raised. Northern Italy is known for its hearty recipes, based on meat like lamb, veal and game. Here risotto, fresh egg noodles and polenta commonly grace the table.
The cuisine of Central Italy is perhaps most familiar to American palates. Lighter than the North, this area is well known for its pasta specialties. Fresh fettuccine, papardelle, and stuffed pasta like ravioli share the table with dry pasta dishes. Many pasta sauces are executed al bianco, with just olive oil and white wine or raw egg (carbonara) as the liquid base. Grilled and braised meats accompany abundant vegetable dishes.
And in the South, vegetables, olive oil, fresh herbs, garlic and fish rule the kitchen, albeit with a light touch— no heavy or thick tomato sauces here! Warm breads like pizza, pizella, calzone and durum wheat products (dry pasta) are the stars.
Yet, no matter what region is favored, everyone agrees that the hallmark of great Italian cuisine is the use of high quality ingredients, combined sensibly and prepared simply for maximum flavor.
The true measure for the love of Italian cuisine is reflected in customer demand and revenue. Noncommercial operators work in an incredibly diverse range of environments, striving to please customers in many walks of life. Here are some examples of how they apply Italian traditions to their menu planning.
In the heart of the southwest United States, Tex Mex may be the indigenous culinary style, but Italian remains one of the popular cuisines on the campus of the College of Santa Fe, NM where the students and faculty hail from an extremely wide geographic area. "Their tastes are as different as their origins," says Guido Lambelet, executive chef for Bon Appetit. "Yet, for most of my cus- tomers, Italian is a symbol for home cooking, fresh and plentiful," he adds.
"Pizza and spaghetti are becoming as much of an American standard as the hamburger is," says Lambelet. "But there is sooo much more to Italian cuisine than that."
Lambelet's culinary experience reads like a chef's fairy tale. Born and raised in Switzerland, his southern Italian mother nourished his and his brothers' passion for cooking at a very young age. Lambelet spent his time outside of school working in a family-owned and operated Pension in Neufchatel, cooking for lunch and dinner guests. Additionally he spent summer vacations cooking with his family in Italy.
After moving to the United States in 1979 and studying English Lambelet honed his culinary skills in various restaurants featuring classical French and Italian cuisines. His advice for chefs interested in offering authentic Italian dishes? "I suggest exploring regional cuisine and inviting customers to learn a little history of the region featured," says Lambelet.
"Using fresh products and enhancing their inherently delicious flavors with simple yet sophisticated preparation techniques (like a quick sautè or easy braise) versus drowning ingredients in heavy sauces is key," he says. "Consider offering a fresh sauce like Pasta Pomodoro: toss just cooked pasta with fresh chopped garlic, basil, vineripe tomatoes, Extra Virgin olive oil, salt and cracked black pepper. It's very simple but incredibly flavorful and satisfying,"
Arrosto di Maiale Con Frutti, Lambelet's roast pork with apples and oranges, is the perfect example of simple Italian cuisine. In this tender braised pork recipe naturally sweet fruit juices mingle with the pan juices of browned meat enhanced with rich yet subtle brandy flavor tones.
"For the people in the Bay area Italian means rustic, simple food made with high grade olive oil, vinegar and fresh herbs," says Executive Chef Mark Dierkhising, Sonoma State University (SSU), Rohnert Park, CA.
"It's about offering regional culinary interpretations of Italy. For example, from one region to the next (in Italy) the cheeses available change dramatically. American chefs and consumers really appreciate a chance to learn more about those regional differences and flavors in the recipes they get to enjoy," says Dierkhising.
"Italian style food events are very popular here because of the sweet and sour flavor profile of the cuisine. And here at SSU, braised food in the Italian style is popular, along with salads and grilled vegetables or cheese with lavender," he says.
Even though the residential dining venue at SSU is a traditional one, with a straight line servery, Chef Dierkhising and his cooks deftly add authentic Italian items to the menu mix there and in other university dining venues. "Exploring Italian regional food preparation opens up a whole flavor spectrum in menus," he says.
Smoked Chicken Penne Pasta is a good example of that flavor spectrum. Student, faculty and guests savor al dente pasta tossed with savory onions and garlic, fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and a mustard-enhanced chicken broth. Smoked chicken is added at the last second, heated through and then the whole dish is sprinkled with aromatic Romano cheese.
To meet their customers dining preferences, the development staff at Aramark created Tuscan Oven, with a real brick-oven and dozens of Italian offerings - a destination station with Mediterranean style.
During the 2004 academic year, the company solicited feedback from over 4,000 students, faculty and staff members at George Washington University (GWU), Washington, DC. The research revealed the most popular menu preference on GW's campus was Italian offerings. "Of 1669 full time students surveyed, 89.1% included Italian among their top food choices," says Leanne Scott-Brown, Aramark communication specialist. (For more research results, see "Solving a Pizza Puzzle,")
"Since we opened the Tuscan Oven at GWU, our student dining participation has increased 140% and our sales have increased per week as well," she says.
Appearing daily are Sicilian pizza pies, baked pasta specialties, a sautè-to-order pasta station, oven baked sandwiches, side salads and desserts. "By combining American's favorite-pizza with assorted pasta made to order, we are able to customize items to everybody's palate and keep the menu exciting on a daily basis," says Aramark's Senior Executive Chef Len Lagasse.
Consider Pasta Rags with Grilled Snapper. Red snapper is rubbed with garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper then grilled just until flaky. The fish is served with a rich saffron seafood broth, pasta 'rags' tossed with warm spiced tomatoes and toothsome escarole. "Using high-quality and authentic ingredients allows us to keep ahead and on the cutting edge as far as offering a restaurant style menu to our customers," Lagasse adds.
Tuscan Oven, an Italian destination worth exploring. (Aramark)
The 2003 debut of Italian-inspired Mozzarellas at Boston College brought out Italian food fans-and skeptics. "Students who come here come for familiarity," says Helen Wechsler, food services director. The cafè serves homey dishes like baked pasta, cheese ravioli, and stuffed shells in individual servings. But gourmet items like a Prosciutto and Pea pasta dish are offered, and savored, as well.
The sautè station features three different kinds of pasta shapes, three sauce choices (marinara, cream based, and tomato base with veggies) and assorted proteins.
Wechsler explains that one bittersweet consequence of this popular concept is that customers' orders get backed up on the production line, as the sautè chefs often frantically try to keep up with demand in a timely manner. And that is with four cooking stations going at once!
"We tried an experiment to ease prep pressure and service time," she says. "We sautèed a huge batch of Chicken and Broccoli Pasta in the back and presented it on a beautiful platter. But our customers were very leery about it. They said they would rather wait a few extra minutes for their freshly-made plates. They are very skeptical about quality and freshness when it's pre-made and wanted to see our chefs prepare it a la minute," she explains.
The following recipes reflect the fresh and balanced nature of regional Italian cuisine, based on century's old recipes that reflect today's modern culinary sensibilities
Today almost anything can grace the top of the beloved pizza pie. For a change of pace consider the following:
Solving a pizza puzzle
There are a few key hallmarks of a successful pizza program: Offer it fresh, offer both traditional and unique toppings, offer it fast, and deliver it hot. One company has developed two pizza programs to do just that.
In the healthcare segment, patients at hospitals generally expect a chewy, tepid, dull-flavored pizza. But at these locations patients are pleasantly surprised to get an individual-size pizzeria-style pizza delivered hot to their door.
Pizza for Patients is one of the newest developments for the healthcare division of Aramark. Patients can choose from several traditional toppings depending on their medical diet. Aramark worked closely with partner Schwan's Food Services, Inc. to develop the concept.
The foodservice department guarantees that the 7" pizza (and a breakfast pizza) will be delivered in 30 minutes or less from the time of the order. Pizzas are kept warm during delivery using the same system ( cardboard logo box and insulated bag) as commercial pizza operators.
"As one of the most popular hospital menu items, patients are excited to be receiving a pizza that is hot and ready-to-eat. Furthermore, the delivery of a hot, crisp, pizzeria-style pizza to the hospital bedside is consistent with our commitment to offering the best dining experience for patients," says Leonard Lagasse, Senior Executive Chef, Aramark Healthcare Management Services.
In the school segment, Aramark recently conducted a national study providing insight into high school students' lunchroom habits and behaviors.
One key finding was that pizza (23%) and Italian (9%) were mentioned most often as high school student's favorite food. Smart Pizza is one new item developed after the research. It utilizes ingredients like low-fat cheese, turkey pepperoni and soy protein to reduce sodium (as much as 22%) and fat (as much as 50% over comparable pizzas.) "Students love it and it is being served in school districts such as Duval County Schools in Florida," says Leanne Scott-Brown, Aramark,
For more information on pizza preparation methods by segment, sales by day part, toppings, labor costs and popular methods of promoting pizza see FM November 2004, Pizza by the Numbers.