Inspiration Italy

Octopus Spiedini from Monteverde.
Octopus Spiedini from Monteverde. Galdones Photography: Monteverde

Some U.S. chefs strive to honor the old-school traditions of Italian cuisine, while others are bringing distinctly modern technique into the category.

Perhaps no cooking style speaks to tradition as much as Italian cuisine. And perhaps no culture on earth holds food as closely as the people of Italy. 

From pesto ground from basil leaves in the north to the sweet cannelloni found down south in Sicily, Italian foods are much adored for their regional flair and their down-home characteristics. While it’s easy to frame Italian cuisine as a monolith, gourmands know that the preparation of pizzas, pastas, and other dishes varies widely across “the boot.” Some meals even vary across regions, while others are specific to a certain town or a single family. 

Stateside, Italian cooking spans the gamut, from durable Italian-American checkered tablecloth establishments to modern fusion concepts and those that seek to uphold and replicate the traditions of the old world. Here’s a look at six U.S. chefs along the tradition spectrum, from those who are bringing Italian cuisine into the modern age to those who are striving to balance time-honored Italian methods and ingredients. 

Sarah Grueneberg

The menu at Monteverde in Chicago draws a fairly clear line in the sand. 

Pasta offerings are divided between a “tipica” menu that includes Italian mainstays like tortellini and pappardelle, and “atipica” items like the Cacio Whey Pepe, a play on the classic Roman Cacio e Pepe (which translates simply as cheese and pepper). That dish incorporates the whey from house-made Ricotta cheese instead of the more traditional pasta water, and it uses a four-peppercorn blend rather than just black pepper. 

“When you get it, it still looks exactly like Cacio e Pepe,” says Monteverde chef and owner Sarah Grueneberg. “It’s not a stretch. It still stays true to the original method.”

Grueneberg says she tries to imagine she were an Italian chef plopped into the middle of America. Such a chef would likely lean heavily on Italian tradition, she says, but incorporate more global ingredients. 

The runner-up on season nine of “Top Chef,” Grueneberg credits that experience with pushing her beyond preparing only classic Italian food. Throughout the season’s challenges, she cooked fairly straightforward Italian dishes, but toward the end of the season, the judges pushed her to put her own mark on her food. During the finale, she prepared a squid ink fettuccine with coconut milk sauce, prawn stock, shiso, and prawn tartar. 

Such freedom to experiment with classic cuisines must be earned, Grueneberg says. The Texas native has studied Italian food for more than a decade, researching in Italy and working under Tony Mantuano at Chicago’s Michelin Star–rated Spiaggia.

“I think that there are a lot of ways that you can interpret Italian cuisine,” she says. “For me, I don’t think anyone should try to reinvent Italian cuisine unless they totally learned the classics and learned the traditional, regional cuisine of Italy first.”


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