Authentic Italian Is Alive And Kicking
It seems appropriate that Italy is shaped like a boot – since the country has kickstarted many of the world’s most impactful trends, dating all the way back to the Renaissance. For centuries, the rest of the world has looked to Italy as the arbiter of good taste – in the art world, fashion, food and wine.
To put our fingers on the pulse of what’s currently trending in the world of Italian cuisine, Reinhart was fortunate to speak with two gentlemen with an impeccable Italian food pedigree – brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta. Joe and Paul grew up in a traditional Italian family in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. They are co-owners of The Bartolotta Restaurants, which today encompasses 12 award-winning restaurants and two catering facilities throughout greater Milwaukee, including Ristorante Bartolotta (opened in 1993), Lake Park Bistro (1995) and Bacchus (2004). The company has garnered numerous accolades, including DiRoNA and James Beard awards.
Paul Bartolotta trained in Italy, and is considered one of the pre-eminent Italian chefs in the world.
Reinhart: What is trending in the U.S. in terms of Italian cuisine?
Joe and Paul: The global love affair with all things Italian continues. We are seeing more chefs striving for true authenticity by either training in Italy or traveling to the different regions of the country and truly immersing themselves in the food and culture. By doing so, they gain a true understanding of the history and romance of Italian cuisine. Witnessing preparation techniques firsthand and tasting the food at its source ensures that chefs and operators are better equipped to successfully recreate authentic Italian here in the United States. It is critical that chefs and operators understand the simple basics, and the importance of not taking shortcuts.
Reinhart: Talk a bit about pizza.
Joe and Paul: We are noticing a proliferation of more authentic pizzerias in the U.S., with more and more pizza operators moving away from the American bastardization of genuine Italian pizza. We are seeing more Roman-style and Neapolitan-style pies. Authentic traditional Italian pizza is straightforward, without too many ingredients and certainly nothing canned, such as mushrooms. Italian chefs use garlic sparingly. Things such as canned mushrooms and loads of garlic are heresy to the true Italian brand.
Reinhart: What about front-of-the-house?
Joe and Paul: Successful operators are recognizing the importance of training staff to communicate professionally and with a real familiarity of menu items, preparation techniques, sourcing and ingredient characteristics. Correct pronunciation of the name of a particular dish is vital, as well as being able to describe the flavors. Great managers are stressing the importance of being gracious with all customers. Keep in mind that many of your guests have been to Italy, and know what is authentic and what is just pretense.
At our restaurants, we create a list of critical messaging points as part of our training program. Knowledgeable tableside presentation is the key to gaining diners’ trust, and in prompting them to try an item they haven’t previously experienced. Servers should not try to push the most expensive menu items, or the most expensive wines. However, if guests are curious about these items, a knowledgeable server should be able to explain convincingly why they command a premium price. If a particular fish was flown in from Italy, or a wine is beyond compare, a server should convey these facts in a straightforward manner.
Reinhart: Years ago, tiramisu took the U.S. by storm. What Italian desserts do you see on the rise?
Joe and Paul: Gelato is now very popular all over the place. For a lighter, more refreshing end to the meal, granita is on the rise, as is fruit-based Italian ice. Here are several modern twists and turns on traditional Italian fare appearing on menus across the USA.
On the antipasto menu at Nico Osteria in the Thompson Hotel in Chicago, we found oh-so-trendy Burrata cheese (Fresh Mozzarella ball filled with curds and heavy cream) served with mission fig, grilled kale, Treviso (a variety of Italian radicchio) and pecan pesto.
A main course at Giada in the Cromwell hotel in Las Vegas is Braised Wagyu Beef Short Rib, served with smashed purple potatoes and zucchini scapece (horizontally sliced zukes, fried and pickled in vinegar).
The Baby Kale Salad is still going strong at Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. It’s topped with Sicilian pine nuts, Ricotta salata and anchovies. Desserts here are the creation of 2016 James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award winner, Dahlia Narvaez. She laces gelato with bourbon, and serves it alongside Honey Baked Peach (with hazelnut cake and poached blueberries).
At Giacomo’s Ristorante Italiano in Boston, vegetarians will be thrilled to find Giambotta di Verdure, seven kinds of fresh vegetables sautéed in garlic and oil, with a spicy fresh tomato sauce. The restaurant also caters to guests who must avoid gluten with its Gluten-Free Chicken Scalloppini, which is served with mushrooms, onion, and white wine sauce with a touch of tomato; and Gluten-Free Penne Pasta, served with marinara or creamy pesto sauce.