With an increasing number of diners seeking authentic, regional and more diverse ethnic dishes, Italian restaurateurs look to perfect their cuisine. Internationally inspired menu dishes present an opportunity for restaurants as international foods continue to trend. Only one in five consumers prefer Americanized international types over authentic versions, according to Mintel’s International Food Trends, U.S. report.
The Mintel report reveals that 57 percent of survey respondents seek dishes made with authentic cooking techniques. Consumers today are also willing to pay for more authentic experiences and show interest in learning about cultures through food or using food to connect with their own heritage. This rings especially true among young multicultural consumers.
Up and Coming
Authentic Italian dishes tend to have minimal, yet high-quality, ingredients, according to Chef Walter Potenza of Italian Food Artisans, which has offices in Providence, R.I. and Bologna, Italy. The U.S. version of Italian food varies a bit.
“Americans like to add protein or fish to a dish, since it’s more about quantity than quality in many cases, while Italians tend to glorify the ingredients,” says Potenza. “It’s a different way to look at food. Unlike Italians, Americans will make a main course out of starches.”
Italian food has yet to become a main player in the limited-service or fast-casual environment. One New Jersey concept, Passariello’s Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen, seeks to change this.
“This concept takes a casual-dining menu into a quick-service environment,” says Theodore “Ted” Barber, principal at Clearwater, Fla.-based Theodore Barber & Company Inc. The company recently finished the design and construction for a new Passariello’s location in Haddonfield, N.J. All locations are set up like a miniature version of a food court; Passariello’s refers to it as a pavilion concept. Customers receive cards that record orders at individual food stations. Customers then check out at one cashier station. Stations offer a large variety of authentic Italian items, including upscale pizza, entrees, salads, sandwiches and desserts.
The 20-year-old, 3-store operation offers Italian entrees, such as lasagna, chicken Marsala and gnocchi Sorrentino, in addition to pizza, cheesesteaks, gourmet salads and appetizers. Customers receive a card to swipe at each food station when they order and a cashier tallies the amount at the end.
“Many fast casuals are nothing more than assembly line pizza shops,” says Barber. “The menu isn’t casual dining but instead what they can provide quickly, which is limited to salad, sandwiches and pizza.” By comparison, Passariello’s extensive menu offers traditional entrees and 21 pizza toppings, among other items, all cooked to order.
Passariello’s also has a booming delivery service that keeps 25 drivers on the street at the same time. Passariello’s 30 staff member call center handles carry out and delivery orders.
“Food here is not sitting in steam tables, but rather created with a technology-driven [ordering system],” Barber explains. “The amount of activity at Passariellos’ locations validates that this is a trend [quick, yet customized, upscale meals] that will continue. Consumers want a quick meal and can get their choice of 80 Italian dishes in five minutes, the same amount of time as a burger chain.”
The Barber Co. assisted Passariello’s in setting up two point-of-sale platforms to handle the chain’s high volume. This allows the operation to handle both dine in and delivery orders on one system.
Staying True to the Culture
It’s not just fast-casual concepts changing the face of Italian in the U.S. Trattoria Marcella provides a unique take on Italian fare in St. Louis. Brothers Steve and Jamie Komorek opened the restaurant in 1995, then switched locations in 1998 and now operate in a space double the size of the original site. The dining room now seats 180, plus 24 on the patio and 18 at the bar.
The two grew up in an area with many Italian Americans and, although not of Italian heritage themselves, felt a connection to the food. Steve says he wanted to try a different approach than the many Italian restaurants in the area. The restaurant’s first location started with rustic, regional Italian food from central Italy that retained an Italian American flair, but when that didn’t catch on, the brothers changed locations and altered the menu with the more traditional red sauce-based Italian food familiar to Americans.
Handmade pasta supports the bulk of the menu. A top seller is the risotto with lobster, wild mushrooms and spinach, even though it’s not on the menu and only made by request.
“During our last expansion, I was invited into a program for chefs from abroad to visit Italy and see how food has been influenced by the surrounding regions,” says Steve. “It was eye opening digging into historical dishes and gave me a better picture of what we’re eating.”
When he returned, he altered the menu at Trattoria Marcella to focus on more St. Louis-centric Italian dishes. This included toasted ravioli and more dishes with locally grown produce. “Many Italian food items that are popular now, like burrata and prosciutto, were not even heard of 15 to 20 years ago,” says Steve. “We’re also incorporating different types of peas, beans and farro; we’ve come full circle.”
Constantly bringing new items and products to the table helps keep the restaurant relevant, says Steve. “We have many staples on the menu and house specialties but can’t present the same thing all the time due to the many Italian restaurants in this area,” he says.
Kitchen equipment in Trattoria Marcella’s 1,200-square-foot kitchen space includes a salamander for cooking Roman thin crust pizzas, a 20-quart mixer, a range top that holds two pots of boiling water at a time, a walk-in cooler, a vacuum sealer for sous vide and a hand-cranked ice cream machine. Sensors in the exhaust hood constantly compensate for the heat expelled from the cooking equipment, speeding the fans up when it detects more heat.
A Humble Approach
Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., offers dishes that reflect the cuisine in northeast Italy, specifically the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. Ingredients in these dishes include unique spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, along with seafood.
“This region has an interesting and unique history, as it was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until after World War II,” says Erin Pommer, the restaurant’s director of events. “When people think of food from Italy, it’s not what they expect, as it’s reflective of the bordering countries Austria and Slovenia as well as the Adriatic Sea.”
When Frasca first opened in 2004, its entire team would visit the region annually to get a better sense of the cuisine’s origin. Today, the menu at the 90-seat restaurant changes frequently and varies depending on the availability of ingredients from Boulder’s local purveyors and producers. “Customers will see a full menu change once a quarter,” says Pommer.
The four-course dinner approach at Frasca’s includes three to five options per course. A chef’s tasting menu includes six courses that change frequently and offer the best exposure to Friulano cuisine paired with wine. The handmade pasta is the highlight of the menu. Staff prepare it in-house using stamps acquired from Italy for the different shapes.
A staple starter is Frido Caldo, similar to a cheesy hash brown that includes Montasio cheese with russet potatoes that are sliced, pan fried and topped with salsa verde. Frasca also has an in-house prosciutto program featuring Prosciutto di San Daniele, which is specific to northeastern Italy. One featured dessert from earlier this year was tiramisu soufflé, honoring its birthplace in Friuli, Italy. Other recent dishes include white asparagus wrapped in prosciutto then topped with smoked mozzarella and a dairy-free seafood risotto made with shellfish broth.
“We don’t use steamers, since we saute or grill our fish,” says Pommer. “We also utilize flattops and sous vide some items.”
Frasca’s culinary profile aspires to have its menu reflect the region’s simplicity, since all Italian cuisine has humble beginnings and lineage. “It can be tempting to dress it up and make it technical or complicated, but we strive to honor the history of this cuisine by not doing too much,” says Pommer. “Our chefs are disciplined to only have four to five components per dish, and we don’t use a ton of butter or a lot of dairy. It can be easy to default and add to the layers, but we want to be an honest reflection of Italian cuisine.”
Italian Restaurant Facts
- Italian restaurant revenue is projected to continue expanding during the next five years, due in part to rising per capita disposable income and, subsequently, higher levels of consumer spending, according to IBISWorld.
- Authentic ethnic cuisine, ethnic spices, ethnic-inspired kid’s meals and ethnic condiments are listed as top trends in the National Restaurant Association’s 2018 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast.
- Non-wheat noodles, farro and handmade pasta also made the list.
- The Italian restaurant segment as a whole has remained essentially flat according to Technomic Inc.’s 2018 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
- The U.S. Italian/Pizza full-service menu category’s industry sales totaled $27.9 billion in 2017, an increase of 2.4 percent from 2016, reports Technomic. There were 32,673 total U.S. units of Italian/pizza restaurants in 2017, a decrease of 0.7 percent compared to the year prior.
- In spring 2017, the number of people who visited any Italian restaurant for breakfast, lunch or dinner within a period of 30 days amounted to 45.7 million, according to Hamburg, Germany-based Statistica’s October 2017 report.
Italian Segment Equipment Lineup
- Italian restaurants most often use standard commercial mixers for dough production to create pasta. To select the proper type and size, consider additional tasks the equipment might perform before making a purchase.
- While planetary mixers are more geared for heavy dough production requiring a good deal of kneading action, spiral mixers are ideal for Neapolitan pizza dough production, artisan breads and other doughs with a very high absorption rate. There also are cutter mixers designed to knead dough.
- Mixers range in size from 4 ½ -quart countertop models with a 1-square-foot footprint up to 140-quart floor units, which occupy approximately 3 feet by 4 feet of floor space. The most commonly used sizes are 20, 40 and 60 quarts.
- Most units offer variable speeds that adjust according to the mixing task. Built-in timers also help operators better control the mixer. Horsepower for this equipment ranges from .4 horsepower for a 5-quart size to 5 horsepower for 150-quart models.
- Operators can use panini machines or grills, also referred to as sandwich presses, to heat up popular hot Italian sandwiches.
- When open, the flat griddle-type surface of this equipment can cook small portions of grilled vegetables for other Italian dishes. Models with heavier platens can also function as part of a micro-griddle station in conjunction with a ventilation hood.
- Standard and heavy-duty machines come in both single and double sizes. Widths generally range between 10 and 12 inches, with depths of 8 to 10 inches. The most popular panini machine sizes measure 10 square inches, 14 square inches and 10 inches by 14 inches, although smaller and larger units exist. The small size makes this portable equipment versatile and ideal for small spaces.
- Some units include mechanical or electronic timers, which allow operators to preset cooking times for different types of sandwiches. Although these devices monitor cooking time, they do not automatically adjust temperatures. This feature makes it easier to cook quickly on high heat to sear product or prepare food at lower temperatures longer to melt or heat all the way through the item.
- Pasta cookers look similar to deep fryers in their appearance and use a cooking process that’s the same, only with boiling water instead of oil.
- High-volume Italian kitchens should consider a 12-gallon larger floor unit, while smaller operations may function well with a 2- or 3-gallon countertop model.
- Multiple vats provide added flexibility to cook various items at the same time without transferring food flavors. Even those Italian restaurants only cooking pasta can benefit from more than one vat by dedicating one for cooking and the other for reheating.
- Options available with this equipment include computerized controls that monitor time and temperature and may be programmable; an auto drain option that directs used water down a drain; auto fill, which allows excess starch to drain and keeps cooking water cleaner; down draft systems that take the place of traditional ventilation hoods; basket lifts that automatically pull baskets out of the vats after programming a designated cooking time; and a rinse station to cool pasta and stop the cooking process.
- In addition to baking Neapolitan pizzas in as little as 90 seconds, these ovens can roast and bake a variety of foods, including meats, poultry, fish, stews, vegetable dishes, pastries and breads.
- Wood-burning ovens tend to have a traditional appeal, since many pizza restaurants have historically used such units. With visible hearths and flames adding a measure of drama, this equipment attracts attention in front-of-the-house applications. Given the exceptional heat retention of the stone interiors, the units promise faster cooking times than some alternative pieces of equipment.
- The ovens consist of an insulated cavity that contains burning wood, coal or ceramic. The brick or stone blocks evenly disperse the heat. While traditional Italian oven interiors use volcanic rock or stone, the majority of units have adobe, refractory fire bricks or refractory concrete that is heat resistant to hold on to thermal energy. Most units are extremely heavy and must be custom manufactured. The ovens’ construction can accommodate high temperatures and 24-7 use.
- Cooking cavities can range from 9 to more than 40 square feet. The cooking surface size determines the oven’s capacity. For example, a cooking area of 10.2 square feet can accommodate six 12-inch pizzas, while a larger area of 28.9 square feet can hold 15 of the same size pizzas. The larger ovens can accommodate up to 240 pizzas per hour. Walls are generally 40 to 60 inches thick. Modular units are available with either concrete block or steel frame assemblies.