From Posh Pastas To Cozy Family Feasts, Italian Cuisine Is Now Love, American Style
When Tony Mantuano and his business partners opened Spiaggia on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, little did they know that they were at the beginning of an Italian revolution.
That was more than 32 years ago, and since then Mantuano’s collected a stash of awards—including Michelin stars and James Beard prizes—written two cookbooks, competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and cooked for President Barack Obama.
He also found time to open more restaurants, from the pizza-focused Bar Toma to Terzo Piano, a seasonally focused eatery tucked inside the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. There’s no doubt about it, Mantuano and other high-profile chefs like Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello, Tom Colicchio and Giada De Laurentiis have elevated the game when it comes to Italian cuisine.
They’ve made the fare sexy and sophisticated as their big personalities entice eager fans to eat at their restaurants, buy their DVDs and attempt to copy their recipes. In other words, Italian food is big business. And Mantuano is a happy man because of its evolution.
“Because they started traveling more, people know that Italian food is more than overcooked spaghetti with a sauce that has meatballs in it,” Mantuano says. “When we first opened Spiaggia, people would tell me that we weren’t serving Italian cuisine like they knew. We had just come back from working a year in Italy and the recipes and influences we used were things we saw there. People really get it now and understand that there is a lot of variety out there.”
He adds that the public’s appetite for Italian food never wavers, which is why his restaurants remain busy. But, Mantuano continues, even though it’s a type of simple cooking, people must understand its techniques, which ingredients are important and when to use fresh ingredients.
“Extra virgin olive oil has to be super fresh to have the health benefits and the great flavors,” he explains. “The other important ingredient (in Italian cooking) is balsamic vinegar, where it doesn’t have to be fresh. It’s best when it’s aged six to 10 years.”
He also believes the ingredients’ origins make a difference in the taste of the food. “You can make great tomato sauce in Chicago when tomatoes are in season. Other times of the year you should rely on great tomatoes from Italy, like a San Marzano tomato or from Campagna. Fresh is good, but good ingredients matter even if they’re not fresh (or local).”
Greg Hunsucker, the second-generation owner of V's Italiano Restaurant in Independence, Mo., says that people love Italian food simply because it feeds a lot of people.
“What people don’t realize about Italian cuisine is that Italian food was originally peasant food,” he explains. “The country of Italy wasn’t a wealthy country. Pizza, for example, was generated because we could afford flour, we could make a crust, we grew tomatoes to make a sauce to put on that pie. And then we put on them whatever we had growing in our gardens.
“Pizza was feeding a big family for very little money. So you had to make it good. You really had to inspire yourself; hence all the garlic, basil and all those flavors that come out in the Italian cooking. We had very little to work with, so we had to really focus on creating something that people would enjoy.”
Every Sunday, three generations of Jasper Mirabile Jr.’s family gather at his home to test new recipes from Jasper’s Italian Restaurant, the iconic establishment his parents founded in the early 1950s. Most of these recipes are his interpretations of what he learned during his annual excursions to Italy, and all are meant to educate and entertain his guests.
“Bringing family and friends to the table and sharing a dish as simple as a plate of pasta or breaking bread together speaks a lot,” says Mirabile. “This is the hallmark of Italian cuisine and to be honest, have you ever heard anyone say they do not like Italian food? Pizza and pasta is as American as apple pie today and I, for one, am proud to call myself an American citizen of Italian descent.”
Albert Di Meglio, who serves as executive chef/partner at Barano in Brooklyn, says that Italian food is American comfort food because it’s “soul satisfying.”
“It’s simple,” he continues. “It’s not like most of the ingredients you’re scratching your head on. It’s mostly based around bread and pasta and pizza. I think that’s why you see a lot of Italian restaurants. There is so much more to see and experience when it comes to Italian cuisine and that’s what I’m doing now is bringing out stuff that people have likely never seen before.”
Located in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood, Barano aims to be a cozy alternative to all of the too-cool-for-school spots in the area. The restaurant is named in honor of Di Meglio’s grandmother’s hometown of Barano D’Ischia, a southern Italian city near Naples. He hopes to introduce his diners to the food he experienced during childhood.
“While everyone else was eating fried chicken, my granddad was cooking fried rabbit,” he recalls. “I’m trying to bringing those things to light. It’s not made in flour; it’s in a batter laced with an Italian beer. These are simple, good items that people don’t realize exist. It’s not always about pizza and pasta, there’s a lot more.”
One Italian influence he would like to see more of is Americans supporting mom-and-pop shops and butchers that have been around a long time. He believes that a lot goes unnoticed because people walk around the streets with their eyes glued to their phones, so they miss out on what’s going on under their noses.
“Support them and the neighborhood,” he pleads. “It’s about knowing the people you buy from. I think people need to put down the phones and really start to interact with one another again and observe what’s around them.
“I watch people walk around with their faces in their phones and to the left and the right they’re missing a butcher shop that’s been there for 100 years, but it won’t be there too long because they don’t see it. Italy is all about community and I believe we should do that and support one another and build stronger communities.”