A special message from Barilla
Ever wonder how Italian remains America’s favorite ethnic food amid the parade of global cuisines in the marketplace, including trendy styles such as Peruvian, Korean and Vietnamese?
Credit the chefs who stretch the definition of Italian cuisine and keep it fresh and exciting. They regularly discover new Italian regional specialties and tweak familiar ones, melding them into their menus with local ingredients and creative touches.
For Robert Perez, executive chef and director of purchasing for Pasta Pomodoro, a group of 20 casual dining restaurants based in San Bruno, Calif., respect for Italian regional cuisine goes hand-in-hand with American ingenuity and homegrown foodstuffs. Essentially, Perez interprets broad Italian regional influences with a nod to the San Francisco Bay area, which has a thriving local agriculture and its own light and seasonal cooking style.
“We don’t necessarily stick to a certain region,” says Perez. “We try to keep up with the trends and reinvent ourselves. We focus on family-style and comfort foods selected from a lot of regions.”
Take the dish dubbed Siciliane, which features Barilla Penne pasta tossed with roasted California eggplant and mint, fresh mozzarella, spicy tomato sauce and shaved pecorino. It may not have an exact counterpart in Sicily, but it is in the spirit of the cuisine there.
In addition, the roasted California eggplant in the dish, less caloric than the classic fried eggplant parmigiana, showcases local produce and fits the lighter eating habits of some customers.
Even lasagna, a dish that other restaurants often make with ricotta cheese and tomato sauce in the classic Italian-American style, has a distinctive regional spin at Pasta Pomodoro. There it is made with provolone, fontina and a signature Bolognese sauce, a rich marriage of beef, pork and porcini mushrooms simmered for six hours.
“We did extensive research on how Bolognese is made in Italy and this is very close,” says Perez.
At Maggiano’s Little Italy, the 45-unit casual chain owned by Dallas-based Brinker International, pasta recipes take cues from the cooking of the Veneto and other Italian regions as well as regional American styles.
“We look at a lot of different flavor profiles and ask how we can very subtly add them to classic Italian dishes,” says Keith Brunell, senior culinary director.
For example, the seafood dishes that Maggiano’s chefs tasted on a research trip to Venice helped them perfect Linguine di Mare, a dish in which long pasta strands embrace lobster, shrimp, mussels and clams in spicy lobster broth. It also is inspired in part by the seafood stew cioppino that originated in San Francisco. Brunell spruced up Maggiano’s version by adding chunky tomatoes, Calabrian peppers and a more savory lobster broth.
Another creation, Maggiano’s Rustic Chicken & Shrimp, treats ziti pasta and other Italian ingredients the way a Louisiana cook might, building depth of flavor with prosciutto as one might use tasso ham and adding Calabrian peppers for warmth.
Chefs who reinterpret Italian regional cuisine should be mindful of balancing authenticity and familiarity on the menu, according to Matt Harding, corporate executive chef of Bravo/Brio Restaurant Group, which is based in Columbus, Ohio.
“The guest of today wants to be comfortable,” says Harding, who oversees menu development for the group’s 98 Bravo Cucina Italiana and Brio Tuscan Grille restaurants. “The guest of tomorrow wants a little more authenticity. We are marching to that but you have to please both masters.”
To put guests at ease, Harding combines a familiar pasta shape with a less-familiar sauce and couches the dish in appealing terms. An example is Bravo’s Fettucine with Swordfish. In Italy, the pasta preparation would be recognized as alla puttanesca, or pasta “streetwalker’s style” with a toss-up of tomatoes and robust ingredients.
“We don’t say puttanesca on our menu. We say ‘rich, hearty tomato sauce with capers and slivered garlic and pan-roasted olives,’” says Harding. “The flavor is great; to succeed in marketing it to a large group of people, though, you have to make it acceptable for them to try it.”
Adds Harding, “There are 20 regions of Italy—each one eating different things. I think the undiscovered pieces of regionality play into creating food that isn’t like everyone else’s food.”