lumache with snails, garlic, cherry
tomatoes, Parmigiano-reggiano crisp
and tarragon at spiaggia cafe.
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“Probably half the customers who come in think the food we’re doing is not really Italian.
They want to see spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna. But we’re not Italian-American. That’s a
harder perception to change,” Flamm says.
Having grown up on Chicago’s South Side, which has a significant Italian-American population,
he adds, “When I was a kid, all I ate was Italian-American. I thought that’s what nice Italian food was.”
A (respectful) wink and a nod
Spence and Accarrino—who both grew up in New Jersey, which Accarrino calls the “heartbeat
of Italian-American food”—also acknowledge the powerful influence of Italian-American on
consumer perceptions. Both sneak occasional nods to the food of their childhood onto their
menus, though neither would consider his restaurant’s cuisine Italian-American.
Accarrino does a play on pasta alfredo using abalone livers steamed with sake and pureed
with butter, onions and cream, which he tosses with pasta and serves with braised abalone and
garlic chips on top.
“I call it alfredo because it’s a creamy pasta, but I’m also poking fun,” he says, adding that he
treats it carefully, knowing he’s dealing with personal food memories. “You are tugging at those
emotional strings by using ‘alfredo’ in the name, so I like to give them something completely
different. That way, I’m creating that association without the expectation.”
Spence menus a pork chop with San Marzano tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella. “It’s
nothing unique. It really comes down to using high-quality ingredients,” he says.
He adds that American chefs have a distinct freedom to experiment in a country with only a
few hundred years of culinary tradition under its belt and a considerable immigrant population.
“It’s kind of a cool thing to have so much tradition associated with Italian food in America, but
chefs cooking contemporary Italian here and now are creating traditions of their own. There are
no set dishes for what this cuisine is.”