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.
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.”
New York City
Michael Ferraro loves many of Italy’s classic dishes, which he calls “some of the most beautiful things in the world.” But he doesn’t necessarily want to compete with that kind of perfection.
“Few are the very best,” he says. “Take Cacio e Pepe. How many of the best can you really compare? You’re basically narrowed down to one.”
The son of Italian natives, Ferraro oversees an eclectic menu as the chef and owner of New York’s Delicatessen. He initially entered the culinary world set on cooking in fine dining, but he says the recession drastically changed the restaurant world. The downturn pushed him into a more casual concept and back to serving many dishes reminiscent of his Italian roots.
One of his favorite dishes is a refined version of tortellini and broth. Ferraro’s take on that classic includes a Parmesan broth made from the cheese’s rinds, prosciutto, chervil, and more Parmesan. The broth is aerated into a milky white consistency and poured tableside by servers.
“I love tortellini broth,” Ferraro says. “But I’m not going to compare mine to your grandmother’s.”
Ferraro believes there is plenty of room to play around with Italian food, so long as the ingredients are honored.
“I think Italians are big about the ingredients, and they’re pretty open-minded as long as the ingredients are used properly and they shine,” he says. “There’s a lot of pride in the ingredients, when they’re in season, where they come from.”
In creating his own Italian dishes, Ferraro tries to follow the seasons, serving more rustic dishes in the wintertime and offering favorites like caprese with Buffalo Mozzarella in the summer. And even though he’s known for taking a modern spin on Italian, you’ll never see him totally abandon tradition.
“I mean, look, food is always changing. It’s always going to evolve more and more and more,” he says. “I have a great appreciation for both. There are some things that I don’t want to change at all. When my dad makes lobster fra diavolo, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”
When he first started cooking, Michael Pirolo says he attempted to perfectly replicate dishes served in Italy. Raised in both New York and Italy, Pirolo now believes that approach was folly.
“That doesn’t work,” he says. “The ingredients aren’t the same as they are in Italy, and the palates aren’t the same.”
The chef and owner of Miami’s Macchialina, Pirolo says Italians are accustomed to eating smelly cheeses and fishy-tasting seafood—tastes that many Americans still find off-putting. The opposite is true, too. He recalls a visiting cousin’s first taste of horseradish in the U.S.
“He thought we were trying to poison him,” he says. “He couldn’t eat anything else. He had never had anything like that before.”
Pirolo avoids using some Italian staples, like porcini mushrooms and branzino fish, on his menu. While he loves eating those items in Italy, he says, the long travel time required to import them to the U.S. degrades their quality. “By the time those mushrooms get here, they’re like cardboard or they’re filled with worms,” he says. “People buy porcini oil to supplement lack of flavor. I’m like, why are you working so hard? We have beautiful mushrooms here. The tradition should last because it’s good. We shouldn’t force it.”
Pirolo says he is able to stay true to the heart of Italian cooking by using more locally sourced ingredients. He points to his menu’s Tagliolini Ai Funghi, which is made with Parmesan cheese and abalone mushrooms.
“It’s using the philosophies of Italian cooking, but using our ingredients that we have here. And it’s crazy, because that dish is so simple,” Pirolo says. “I’ve had famous chefs eat it and they’re like, ‘How do you cook the mushrooms? Are you sous viding them?’ I’m like, ‘No, we put them down in a hot pan.’”
He believes Italians themselves have shown a knack for culinary interpretation. When Pirolo worked outside Bologna, Italy, he tasted dozens of varieties of Bolognese. Some were made with sausage, some with beef. Some included milk, some didn’t.
“Even there you cannot find a traditional recipe for Bolognese,” he says. “You just have to take what you think is the best way of doing it.”
Matt Sigler says he tries to stay as true to traditional Italian cuisine as possible. But even the tradition itself can sometimes be up for debate.
“Throughout every region in Italy, they do things very differently,” Sigler says. “I just try to mimic that for where I am. Here in Portland, the weather is a little more like that in northern Italy.”
That means he serves stuffed pastas and roasted meats in the wintertime, and more South Italy–inspired dishes in the summer, like noodles made with semolina and sauces using tomatoes and olive oil. All year long, Renata makes its own pastas and charcuterie in-house and constantly changes the menu as the kitchen works its way through whole animals.
Sigler, whose family has Italian roots, says the cuisine is as much about family as it is ingredients. Think Sunday suppers with cousins, aunts, and uncles sitting around a big table. “I think that sense of family and comfort is very unique to Italian cuisine,” he says. “And that’s why you see people all over the place flock to this cuisine.”
Even with an eye on tradition, Sigler says, he occasionally tweaks the classics, oftentimes adding a locally made cheese or protein to the mix. He might swap out pancetta and use bacon in his carbonara, for example. And sometimes he uses Hannah cheese from the next-door Ancient Heritage Dairy in his Cacio e Pepe instead of the Pecorino Romano used in the classic Roman pasta dish.
“I find that too simplistic approaches don’t always gain the diner’s full attention,” he says. “I think diners here want it to go one step further. They don’t want anything that they think they could cook at home.”
Aside from a sauté station for pasta, nearly everything at Renata is prepared in a wood-burning oven—a quirk that Sigler believes speaks to the heart of all cooking.
“Fire is like the truest and oldest way of cooking for every cuisine,” he says. “For us, we use it for Italian cuisine, but it’s true to the roots of all cooking. So we try to use it that way.”
Francesco Di Caudo
A native of Sicily, Francesco Di Caudo frames his approach to preparing Italian cuisine simply.
“Italian cuisine is not the one you will find in an Italian restaurant,” he says. “Italian cuisine is what you find at home with your mother, your grandmother.”
The executive chef at Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar in Las Vegas, Di Caudo oversees a menu that is both deeply rooted in tradition and open to interpretation.
Two of Ferraro’s specialties, the Osso Buco and the Coniglio Brasato, lean more toward the traditional end of Italian cuisine. The former features veal shank braised in red wine reduction and is served alongside farro, while the latter includes farm-raised braised rabbit and is served with spinach. “We will never touch them,” Di Caudo says of the signature dishes.
Ferraro’s, which was founded by Southern Italy native Gino Ferraro, has long sought to introduce diners to authentic Italian dishes rather than simply offering Italian-American favorites like spaghetti and lasagna. While that’s not unusual for modern chefs, Di Caudo says Ferraro’s was among the first restaurants to do this, having opened in 1985. He points to the restaurant’s early inclusion of tiramisu on the menu.
“Everybody knows tiramisu now. It’s like pizza or pasta,” he says. “But 30 years ago, tiramisu was something out of this world.”
The chef still finds ways of injecting his own personality into the menu. He has freedom to create new dishes inspired by Italian cooking, even if they’re not familiar to the traditional Italian table. His favorite creation is the Brasato, which includes braised prime short rib and is served with soft polenta, roasted hen of the wood mushroom, and Castelmagno cheese fondue.
“I think Italian cuisine is just simple, light, and respectful of the ingredients,” he says.
New York City
No detail is overlooked at New York’s Ribalta.
Chef, partner, and founder Pasquale Cozzolino has meticulously sourced the ingredients that go into his pizzas. The dough is made from stone-milled flour, Cozzolino says, because that’s how Italians prepared it two centuries ago. He relies on a “mother yeast” aged at 80 years, and the dough’s maturation process can span over five days—a process that has made Ribalta a favorite among diners with aversions to gluten, as the pizza is easier to digest. The restaurant imports Sicilian sea salt and pastas dried by the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
“We import every single ingredient from Italy—even the water from the beginning that was part of the recipe,” Cozzolino says.
Lest anyone question his Italian street cred, Cozzolino assures that his pizza is “exactly the same” as those found in Naples. “I have a lot of [Italian] tourists that come to my restaurant because we are very famous in Italy. They say it may be better than many pizzas in Naples,” he says. “I’m very proud.”
Aside from pizza, Ribalta features a menu full of seafood and pastas, like the house specialty Spaghetti Pomodoro, made from tomatoes from the Mount Vesuvius area. Cozzolino’s favorite dish is a baby octopus, which is slow cooked in a San Marzano tomato sauce, Gaeta olives, and Sicilian capers.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “It’s very simple. I like simple recipes. I don’t like too many processes.”