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.”