Large-format proteins channel Italy’s cooking heritage with a heightened focus on quality and conversation.

Like much of the world, family-style eating in Italy is a way of life: Loved ones gathered around a hulking roast, heaping plate of pasta or whole grilled fish flanked by simple sides. If the past decade of shared-plates mania across the U.S. taught us anything, it’s that Americans, too, embrace the conviviality of shared meals—possibly to the eventual detriment of the traditional appetizer, entrée, and dessert construct.

The rise of large-format dining represents a sensible contingent to tapas, whose diminuitive portions are notoriously challenging for larger groups. More importantly, it’s a natural fit for Italian restaurants, given their cultural roots in casual meals centered on hefty proteins.

‘You can’t put ragu on a tiny plate’

“Small plates has the right idea—a couple bites to go with drinks,” says Matthew Sigler, executive chef at Il Solito, a large-format Italian-American eatery in Portland, Oregon. “The Italian food we do is soulful—including a lot of things that take six to eight hours to cook—made with a lot of layers and love and comfort. You just cannot take a bunch of ragu and put it on a tiny plate.”

This nine-month-old restaurant draws on Sigler’s childhood memories of gathering for Sunday dinner at his Sicilian grandma’s house. The menu—divided into antipasti, primi, secondi, and contorni—is built for sharing. Three-ounce portions of primi pasta enable groups to try out three or four (the exception being the sizeable plate of spaghetti and meatballs, keeping with “red-sauce Italian” tradition that conjures nostalgia for many American diners).

The meal’s focal point comes in the form of generous secondi that naturally nudge diners to share: braised pork osso bucco draped over creamy polenta, suckling pig with lentil jus and parsnip purée, or a 22-ounce grilled ribeye with blue cheese butter and balsamic cipollini onions, sided by shareable veggies like roasted squash dabbed with ricotta. Sigler says this generation of diners embraces this style of dining, though it sometimes takes encouragement.

“When you’re sharing, it creates openness—just like sitting around the table with your family invokes conversation and connection,” Sigler says. “So for us, it’s about selling that experience. Of course, some people are dead set on, ‘I want my own dish,’ but we really try to sell the variety with cues like, you can try more, get a broader range, and experience a little bit more by sharing.”

A big part of that is atmospheric. Since opening, Il Solito has loosened up, trading formal server uniforms for casual denim and switching to more progressive music in the dining room.

“You have to be moldable in each new space,” Sigler says. “We’ve been open almost a year, and we’re still on a major learning curve.”

Il Solito is a large-format Italian-American eatery in Portland, Oregon.

Large-format is always on special

Maialino, Danny Meyer’s decade-old Roman-style trattoria in New York, has always offered a variation on maialino al forno, a large-format roasted suckling pork shoulder with crackly skin, served atop roasted potatoes that chef de cuisine Matt Spivey dubbed its signature.

In the past, the dish was on the main menu, but now servers announce it as a special every night. The callout pays off, as the restaurant typically sells eight of the $115 special (which feeds up to four) nightly.

The restaurant also transitioned its private dining setup entirely to four-course, family-style meals—a move that sprang from logistical necessity.

“Years ago, we’d try to accommodate a more individual-style format, but it was so hard to pull off since our line cooks are cooking for everyone in the dining room in one space,” he says. Diners now choose from three antipasti, two primi, two secondi, three contorni, and two dolci. Private-dining orders are fired strategically so as not to overwhelm the line.

“People get over the whole, ‘I want my own’ thing and are really willing to share, which makes for a better dining experience that’s more in the spirit of what we’re trying to do,” Spivey adds. “If you go to Rome and observe how people are dining, everyone’s eating off each other’s plates.”

Dry-Aged T-bone at Il Solito.

This is the place to eat this way

In a broader sense, the opposite proved best for The Progress, a family-style San Francisco eatery that co-owners Nicole Krasinski and chef Stuart Brioza opened in 2014 next to small-plates sibling State Bird Provisions. Initially, the restaurant required every table to commit to a single four-dish menu plus snacks, but it restructured to provide more flexibility.

Now a series of raw, grain-based, seafood, and meat “appetizers” build to a focal point of three to five whole-animal platters priced between $52 and $110. The kicker? The Progress sells 40 to 60 platters a night out of 150 covers, meaning a platter graces almost every table night after night. Brioza attributes this largely to the menu layout.

“Good menu design can really direct people positively,” he says. “We put the platters front and center, which tells people this is the place to eat this way.”

The construct has enabled The Progress to quietly establish itself as a true whole-animal restaurant serving up only primal and subprimal cuts, like barbecue half duck, grilled rack of lamb, and 35-ounce bone-in ribeye. Brioza rotates through area independent farms that often aren’t able to move smaller cuts and is able to train cooks on properly cutting and cooking big meat cuts.

“It’s honest cooking—a whole rack of lamb or a double-cut smoked pork chop,” he says. “There are ways to make it beautiful. We do a lot of slicing, and I work a tremendous amount with my cooks. It’s a lot of pressure cooking all these huge cuts. We don’t do sous vide; it’s cooking proteins from raw and properly resting them.”

This approach allowed The Progress to make whole-animal cookery a way of life rather than fleeting trend—not unlike convening around a deep bowl of ragu.

“Large-format is considered more of a trend, but I think it’s a very important way to dine, especially in this day and age when we’re glued to our devices,” Brioza says. “If you put a platter in the center of the table, it becomes the nucleus of life there.”

Feature, Menu Innovations, Sapore