“You’d start to see more regional designations like Lazio
or Puglia,” he says. “We backed off from that. But it’s difficult,
because as chefs we love titles. They’re a way for us to relate to
customers what to expect.”
Despite SPQR’s debuting tagline of “a traditional take on
Roman food,” Accarrino (who trained in Italy and is of Italian
heritage) knew within 24 hours of taking the helm more than
five years ago that he wasn’t going to cook that way.
“In Modena, they can say, we have a great tradition of creating
end products like balsamic vinegar using ingredients from Emilia-
Romagna, but I’m here in Northern California saying, I’m not sure
what I have. I have to investigate and find inspiration in the raw
ingredients,” he says. “But it’s exciting to play a part in beginning
to define a cuisine that’s heritage-based and filtered through our
regional American food system.”
Nontraditional ingredients, from San Joaquin Valley pluots to
Mexican chilies, work their way into SPQR’s pastas, entrees and
antipasti. Traditional Pugliese burnt flour gets incorporated into a
playfully Italian-American baked pasta with veal “marsala” sugo.
The buds of Napa Valley angelica plants are made into a floral-
tasting caper that’s incorporated into remoulade for a Sacramento-
farmed smoked sturgeon salad served with sturgeon caviar that
Accarrino harvests by hand.
“It’s food that’s unique to me and my experience. And through
these dishes, I’m also creating that very Italian experience of
having something you couldn’t have in any other region in the
world,” he says.
At Spiaggia—which recently overhauled its dining room to a
tasting menu-only format—Flamm brings in product from Italy
that can’t be rivaled here, such as salumi and certain specialty
cheeses. But he also leans heavily on uniquely Midwestern
ingredients. A recent dish of vegan corn risotto pepperoncini
with roasted corn and tomatoes got its telltale creaminess from
starchy corn puree instead of typical butter or Parmesan.
“It’s cool to take something as classic as risotto and meld it
with what we have here,” he says. “In Italy they don’t eat corn that
way—they either grind it into polenta or feed it to cattle. But for us,
summertime in the Midwest means corn. And that’s what Italians
would do—use what’s available to them made in their style.”
What? No entree-sized pasta?
Where Italian-American cuisine tends to exert itself the most,
chefs say, is on consumer expectations. When creating Spiaggia’s
tasting menu, Flamm struggled with the pasta portion size, as it
precedes the fish and meat courses as in a typical Italian meal.
“People want to see a bowl of pasta,” he says. “So how do
we make it small enough to where they’ll still eat the rest of the
menu but substantial enough so they’ll say, OK, they gave me
some pasta. We had to cook through it a few times.”
Jason Brzozowy, executive chef of Sicilian and coastal Italian
Agrodolce in Seattle, struggled for weeks to get customers on board
with “primi”-sized pasta, but ultimately caved to guest feedback
calling for entree portions.
“First we tried offering a small and large pasta,” Brzozowy
says. “But it was hard to get the wording right. We didn’t want
to call the small a tasting portion, and when we called the large
a sharing portion, some people said it wasn’t big enough to
share. So little by little, we kept increasing portions, and now
we just offer one pasta size.”
Pushing the envelope
Chefs creating original interpretations of Italian cuisine
also face pushback. Agrodolce has made several concessions at
the expense of representing what chef/owner Maria Hines had
in mind when she was sampling food in the streets of Sicily.
“We find a lot of dishes we’re excited about tend to not be
the big sellers, so we have to choose our battles,” Brzozowy says.
Neither bucatini con sarde (pasta with sardines and breadcrumbs)
nor panelle (savory fried chickpea cakes) have really caught on,
despite several attempts and changes in description. The most
popular dishes remain spaghetti with clams and Calabrian chilies
and variations on pasta marinara.
When James Beard award-winning chef Marc Vetri opened
his flagship restaurant Vetri in Philadelphia in 1998, he based the
menu on Italy’s Lombardy region, where he trained. But the
menu since evolved to incorporate influences from other regions
and countries reflecting the current state of Italian cuisine, and in
2005, transitioned to a tasting menu-only format.
Since 1998, the Vetri group has added five more Italian-inspired restaurants—a namesake pizzeria, a trattoria (Amis),
a Northern Italian (Osteria), a wood-grilled Italian (Lo Spiedo)
and a gastropub (Alla Spina). This expansion is largely why
the Vetri reconcepting has succeeded, says Brad Spence, chef/
partner at Amis and former Vetri chef.
“If it had remained just Vetri, the tasting menu would have been
difficult for people to deal with,” Spence says. “Having those other
restaurants was the driving force that allowed Marc to take Vetri
one step further and make it what we really envisioned it to be, without alienating customers who still wanted their plate of pasta.”
Flamm finds it easier to sell diners on Spiaggia’s tasting
menu because the clientele tend to be more traveled, seasoned and
experimental. “If we show them something new or innovative,
they’ve usually already tried it or seen it somewhere else,” he says.
The bigger challenge is in the more casual sister eatery, Cafe
Spiaggia, which serves authentic Italian al la carte pastas such
as orecchiette with braised rabbit, walnuts and carrot top pesto,
and gemelli with summer beans, preserved lemon, prosciutto di
Parma and pecorino Romano.
ethnic cuisine the real deal