The Italian cultural heritage of local food sourcing—olives from your neighbor’s vines, cheese from cows or goats in your uncle’s pastures—is common among the country’s most decorated chefs and their dishes. Why, then, shouldn’t American Italian restaurants embrace that heritage in their cooking, too?
The American foodservice industry has, after all, embraced farm-to-table sourcing in the last decade. The U.S. has seen a significant expansion of farmers’ markets popping up across the country and a refreshed focus on “eating local.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking farmers’ markets in 1994, and the number of markets grew from 1,755 that year to 8,144 in 2013.
This kind of interest in farm-to-table sourcing, paired with restaurants’ efforts to be more authentic, has made local and regional food the star of Italian eateries across the country.
Look, for example, at Ava Gene’s, a Portland, Oregon, restaurant with a self-described “Roman-inspired” menu that emphasizes using local produce and meats grown and raised by Pacific Northwest farmers and ranchers. “We source 100 percent locally when it comes to vegetables and meat,” Ava Gene’s spokewoman Jenna Winkler says. “If we can’t source it locally and it isn’t in season, it doesn’t go on the menu.”
To achieve that goal, the restaurant has cultivated relationships with local farmers and producers to get anything from local corn for polenta to locally grown, edible flowers to add color to the restaurant’s “giardini” menu.
For restaurants using local ingredients like Ava Gene’s, seasonality is one of the biggest keys to keeping a menu fresh and local; produce can’t typically be grown out of season outdoors.
“There is a lot more variety and menu changes during the spring and summer because of the access to more produce, but again, it’s all coming locally,” Winkler says. “Our chefs have quite the relationship with the local farmers—there is constant communication so they know what is coming into season.”
Another Italian restaurant with a penchant for local food is Arugula Ristorante in Boulder, Colorado. The restaurant is inspired by both Northern Italy and Colorado’s farm-fresh ingredients, says owner and chef Alec Schuler.
Arugula’s menu is reprinted twice a week, which Schuler says allows the restaurant to rotate foods in and out as they’re in season; in the height of the summer, Arugula gets more than 30 percent of its food from local farms, pastures, and producers. A summertime Arugula favorite, Schuler says, is a fried local squash blossom stuffed with local herbs and goat cheese, seated on a bed of shaved local zucchini.
Of course, the winter in Colorado makes it difficult to keep a variety and abundance of local items on Arugula’s menu during that season, aside from root vegetables and some meats and cheeses, Schuler says.
“By printing a menu like this, we can just incorporate whatever local food is available at the time,” he says. “We get emails from our local farmers a couple times a week … and then we buy something that’s on the menu the next week.”
Schuler says his philosophy for Arugula matches with Italian culinary tradition. “When you’re in Italy, the people are very proud of their local food, and they’re proud of [food] being from their valley,” he says. “You’ll eat that one item for the whole month that it’s available. They even have festivals based around certain food items, so I think that’s what we do: Try to highlight what we have best here in Boulder County, Colorado.”
Staple & Fancy, a Seattle-based Italian restaurant, boasts a menu that uses about 50 percent local products in the summer.
Branden Karow, culinary director for Staple & Fancy’s umbrella company Ethan Stowell Restaurants, says he thinks Seattle has become an “ambassador” city for the farm-to-table movement. The city’s Seattle Farmers Market Association has one year-round market and two seasonal markets, while another group, the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets, boasts three year-round markets and four seasonal markets.
“Seattle itself is surrounded by little farms, local fishermen, people raising the meat,” Karow says. “If I wanted to, we could easily do a full menu from just the Seattle area. It’s pretty awesome.”
Staple & Fancy is conveniently close to the Ballard Farmers Market in Seattle, which is a year-round Sunday market. That market was responsible for Staple & Fancy beginning to purchase produce and other products from Annie Utigard, owner of King’s Garden in Carlton, Washington. Utigard says she’s sold products like heirloom tomatoes (she grows more than 60 varieties on her farm) and winter and summer squashes (about 50 varieties) to Staple & Fancy since the restaurant started.
In the summertime, Utigard brings her farm to Staple & Fancy by packing a truck with a nice selection of products from her farm—multiple varieties of beans, kale, and tomatillos, to name a few—and stopping by the restaurant. It provides a convenient way for the team there to pick out fresh ingredients with plenty of options for variety.
“It’s kind of like a market on wheels,” Utigard says. “It’s very fun.”
Karow says Staple & Fancy’s two-menu system—featuring classic Italian “Staples” through a stand-alone menu, and a chef’s choice “Fancy” menu—gives the restaurant’s chefs freedom to switch in and out local ingredients for dishes as they see fit and as seasonality allows. One example: A local “whole pig plate” featuring sausage, fried head cheese, a piece of loin, and a piece of braised leg, all on the same plate.
Ava Gene’s features its local farmers and producers on its website and on its menu to better connect customers with the source of their food. One such featured farm is a co-operative called Our Table, a 58-acre plot of land farmed by multiple partners in Sherwood, Oregon, featuring its own grocery store on the property. Despite Italy and Portland being about 13.5 hours of plane travel apart, Our Table executive director Narendra Varma says, there’s plenty that connects the two food cultures.
“It’s a cuisine that celebrates seasonality and cooking with what you have,” Varma says of Italian cooking, likening it to Oregon’s “locavore” culture.
Arugula’s Schuler says he tries to visit the farmers’ market in Boulder once a week; he says restaurants and local farmers forming relationships—and buying their goods—ensures local food systems continue to grow, which in turn means more public access to healthy, sustainable food and preservation of local jobs. υ