Italian restaurants excel by meeting customer expectations—and then upping the ante.

When it comes to menuing ingredients, Italian restaurant operators have a wealth of options at their disposal, from cured meats and delectable cheeses to rich sauces and artisan oils to signature wines and other beverages.

Here, we look at a few of the must-haves for operators in the current market, and offer suggestions for how to take menu offerings to the next level.

1. Premium Toppings

The building blocks of a perfect Italian dish are, in some ways, straightforward. When customers choose to dine at il ristorante, they come with a general expectation for carbs—lots of them—loaded with some combination of sauce, cheese, and, usually, meat.

These products are available in many formats, and restaurant operators looking to diversify their menu may at times be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices available.

“For example, there’s a world of opportunity in the array of pasta shapes available on the market,” says Barilla Foodservice chef Yury Krasilovsky. “There’s a lot of sameness out there in terms of the cuts and types, but just using a more unique shape—pipettes or campanelles instead of elbows in a mac and cheese, for example—can help a restaurant to differentiate itself.”

To further elevate pasta and pizza dishes alike, many chefs are combining surprising flavors using a variety of meat and cheese products. Incorporating figs, arugula, parmesan reggiano, and prosciutto, for example, is a popular way to add interest to a familiar food.

At his Washington, D.C. restaurant Ripple, chef Ryan Ratino menued several special offerings—from charcuterie boards to a morbier grilled cheese—which featured prosciutto di parma as a signature ingredient.

“I enjoy using prosciutto because of its clean flavor and prominent nutty notes,” Ratino says. “For my style of cooking, it blends well without overwhelming the subtle flavors I like to weave into my dishes. It’s also a great accompaniment to green spring veggies, like peas and asparagus. For me, the complexity of flavor allows me to use prosciutto across the whole menu.”

In the past ten years, the U.S. has become the top export market for prosciutto from Italy. According to a MenuTrends report from Datassential, it is among the top five—and fastest-growing—premium protein options for flatbreads and pizza, and is also regularly incorporated into pasta dishes, appetizers, and even desserts like grilled peaches served with ricotta and honey.

“We are thrilled to see the demand for prosciutto di parma continue to build in the U.S.,” says Paolo Tramelli, director of international marketing for the Conzorzio del Prosciutto di Parma. “We expect the demand to continue.”

According to Datassential, 91 percent of consumers either love or like pizza and are very likely to order it from a full-service restaurant menu. In order to capitalize on the appeal of this classic, many chefs are upscaling their offerings with prosciutto as a way to differentiate menus while still driving profits.

“There are three ways that restaurants are upping the ante on pizza,” says Gary Kolling, director of marketing for Lactalis. “Customization, new dayparts, and premium flavors.”

Italian dishes invite innovation, and restaurant operators are differentiating menus by elevating the style and ingredients of their offerings. Chefs who want to cater to consumer favorites and yet introduce new and engaging dishes are free to stick with current trends, or to even get ahead of the trends by using flavors that are not yet ubiquitous. Because pizza and pasta in particular are viewed by customers as reliable comfort foods, guests are often willing to try new variations on fundamental components, such as crust or add-ins. In addition to using premium meats like prosciutto, operators are incorporating a variety of cheeses in order to increase the profitability of different plates.

“So many cheeses can work well on Italian food,” Kolling says. “And while mozzarella continues to dominate the consumption in this country, a lot of restaurants are differentiating their offerings with surprising ingredients, such as manchego.”

The demand for familiar Italian dishes isn’t going away, but neither is consumer curiosity for new ingredients and fresh flavors. By starting with a customary base and then adding premium ingredients, operators and chefs will attract new customers and may increase menu sales across the board.

“The marriage between the cheese and roasted garlic makes pesto an amazingly versatile palate pleaser.”

2. Interesting Sauces

Marinara may be the ubiquitous sauce in the Italian food segment, but nowadays there’s a lot more going on with pasta, pizza, and the rest. Consider spaghetti limone, for example, which is tossed lightly with a lemon, cream, and wine sauce, and topped with parmesan and cracked pepper—that’s it! Or the even simpler cacio e pepe—buttered noodles dusted with cheese and pepper.

According to Lorenzo Boni, an executive chef at Barilla, there are three categories of Italian sauce: tomato based, such as bolognese or puttanesca; olive-oil based, such as aglio e olio or vongole; and cream-based, such as carbonara (note: Alfredo is a purely American invention). Despite the limited number of categories, the applications are endless.

Pesto, for example, is an olive-oil based sauce made from crushed garlic, basil leaves, and parmesan-reggiano and can be used across menus.

“I love the bright flavor and the bright green color of pestos,” says Chef Fabio Viviani, who owns multiple restaurants in Florida, California, New York, Oklahoma, and Illinois. “The marriage between the cheese and roasted garlic makes pesto an amazingly versatile palate pleaser.”

Added to soups or other non-pasta items such as caprese salad or even collard greens, pesto provides an instant bite of flavor and color on a plate. And because it’s a less-common offering, chefs can menu this product at a premium and attract customers who may be looking for something a little different than spaghetti and meatballs (although pesto works well on that too).

In addition, many chefs are experimenting with sauces from outside Italy and the US. In a trendspotting report from Datassential earlier this year, millennial diners were found to be twice as likely to choose global or exotic flavors—such as cumin, gochujang, or yellow curry, which can add flair to dishes—compared with the overall population.

Pasta is being used as a bridge,” Krasilovksy says. “It makes global ingredients and flavors more approachable and easier to order. “Harissa and ras al hanout—North African spice mixtures—might be too exotic in a different dish, but in a pasta context, they’re safe for exploration.”

By incorporating different kinds of sauces on menus, chefs and operators can provide an opportunity for guests to try new things within a familiar framework. This not only increases interest with new customers, but also creates an opportunity for restaurants to dialogue with customers and ultimately engage them with the brand more than ever.

3. Wines On Tap

According to a report from Datassential, 25 percent of customers say they “don’t know much about” wine. For many diners, there’s an expectation not only for the menu at an Italian restaurant to offer a varied selection, but also that wait staff is knowledgeable enough to make recommendations based on food selections and preferences. Even then, many customers are cautious about trying different things and may be less likely to experiment with a wine they don’t know than with unfamiliar food dishes.

Among the top menued wines are familiar varieties such as chardonnay, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and chianti. But there is also a growing market for lesser-known wines like marsala, and older products like sherry and limoncello are also making a comeback. For operators, the key is striking a balance between offering the kinds of wine customers are most likely to ask for, and also providing new and unusual items that more adventurous diners will be willing to try.

More than 13 percent of consumers report that they drink at least one glass of wine each day, according to surveys conducted by Datassential. Because demand for wine is high, it is essential for restaurants to make sure it’s menued in a way that engages a variety of customers and appeals to different tastes.

To achieve this, many operators are installing wine taps, which make it easier for diners to try new wines without committing to a full bottle, or even a full glass. Wine taps, like those pioneered by the California-based company Free Flow Wines, are on the rise in restaurants across the country, and allow operators to pour controlled amounts—from a tasting portion to a full carafe—inviting guests to try multiple offerings and determine which wine pairs best with their preferences.

“We offer wines on tap so that our guests can experience them just as the winemaker intended,” says Lou Trope, vice president of Restaurant and Bar at Marriott Hotels. “It’s not only a great quality solution, but also alleviates the common wine storage challenges behind the bar.”

Because customers will often only buy a glass or two of wine, restaurants are often faced with the challenge of discarding unused wine due to uneven ordering. Tapped wine, which stores the product in stainless steel kegs or uses a siphon system to move wine from the bottle, keeps product fresher for much longer than a recorked wine bottle would, improving quality and reducing waste.

In addition, wine taps create an opportunity for operators and restaurant staff to engage customers more directly in conversation regarding their wine options. Because customers are less limited to ordering “by the glass” or “by the bottle,” there’s more room for experimentation and dialogue. If a customer dislikes a first 2-ounce pour, they can simply move on to trying a different offering. Similarly, many operators are finding success by menuing wine flights, which introduce customers to select varieties, which they can compare similar to a wine-tasting experience.

In 2016, chef John Franke and his then-general manager Justin Beam opened Sixty Vines, a restaurant concept in Dallas committed entirely to the use of beverage taps—including wine.

“People love it,” Beam says. “It’s very interactive and it’s definitely a huge benefit for the guest.”

And it’s been beneficial for the restaurant as well. Beam says that approximately 90 percent of Sixty Vines’ wine sales are from the tap rather than from bottles. By incorporating wine taps into their offerings, Italian restaurants can cater to customers’ expectations of helping them to identify the wine which pairs best with their meal, or simply allow them more room to experiment and try new varieties—upping sales and increasing customer satisfaction along the way.

Beverage, Feature, Kitchen Equipment, Menu Innovations, Sapore