The classic category's future features lighter dishes, homemade pastas, and seasonal ingredients.
For all its versatility, Italian cuisine often comes down to basics. Its simplicity is what first captured the attention of Gina Marinelli, partner and chef at La Strega in Las Vegas.
“The first time I actually went to Italy and saw the simplicity behind the dishes,” she says, “that’s when I fell in love with it.”
Over the course of her career, Marinelli has worked with a handful of noteworthy chefs, including three-time James Beard Award winner Scott Conant. But after cooking for years in Las Vegas, she yearned to better understand Italian cuisine and decided to go on a self-guided gastronomic tour.
While traveling to places like the Amalfi Coast and Bologna (a city known as the “belly of Italy”), Marinelli saw first-hand how much Italian chefs and even home cooks relied on fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Chef Eric Rivera of newly opened Ravello Ristorante in Montgomery, Alabama, also cites the Amalfi Coast as his favorite source of inspiration. Like Marinelli, he is drawn to the straightforward, minimalist nature of Italian food.
“It’s all about maximizing a few flavors,” he says. “It allows you to really highlight the ingredients.” He adds one of the best things about Italian food is that a mere four or five ingredients can feel like a symphony of flavors when used with the proper technique.
When Marinelli returned stateside, she was determined to apply that same philosophy to her new restaurant, La Strega, which opened in 2019.
“I really try to just celebrate the traditions,” she says. “Things like getting a beautiful fish and using the best olive oil, using the best cooking techniques. Things they would do in Italy.”
Handmade pastas are a cornerstone of La Strega’s menu, including a bucatini with spring pesto, chanterelles, and Grana Padano cheese and an orecchiette with chile, truffle, and maitake mushrooms. Marinelli isn’t the only chef embracing the pasta extruder; she says handmade pasta is becoming one of the next big things in Italian dining.
“There are so many [pasta] shapes now that people are creating and coming up with,” she says. “People are having fun. They’re taking classic shapes and putting their own twist on it.”
Rivera shares this opinion, predicting that lesser-known shapes like scialatielli (a short, thick pasta) will take the place of more common cuts like penne and angel hair. He takes it a step further, adding that pasta colors will also broaden thanks to natural dyes like squid ink.
“The art of making fresh pasta is definitely a huge trend,” Rivera says. “Coming up with different shapes of pasta, weaving in different colored pastas—there’s so much that can be done with pasta right now.”
Just as chefs crave freshness in their ingredients, so too do guests. For this reason, Marinelli believes certain Italian dishes could become more interactive. After all, it worked with tableside guacamole at Mexican restaurants.
“When we first started doing tableside pesto, people went crazy for it,” she says. “We use a mortar and pestle, and people were amazed. We have the opportunity to really showcase the ingredients and show off at the same time.”
In terms of ingredients, Marinelli also anticipates spices and flavors from other regions to work their way into Italian cuisine. Spices such as za’atar and sumac bring flavor notes from the Middle East and North Africa to staples like pasta, pizza, and bread.
Summertime also offers an opportunity to showcase lighter fare featuring produce like melons and tomatoes. Both Marinelli and Rivera see heavy cream and butter-based sauces giving way to oil-based ones.
“You have to lean down the menu completely,” Marinelli says. “No one wants to eat a big bowl of pasta when it’s 125 degrees outside. So, we’ll pull back on things like steak and instead celebrate the vegetables and the produce. Even the wine-by-the-glass offerings are changed.”
Fish crudo is one uncommon dish that could finally take the spotlight this season. Similar to a ceviche, the crudo takes raw fish and marinates it in citrus—a process that lightly cooks it.
Ravello serves a tuna crudo with Calabrian chili, kumquat, and saffron, and Rivera thinks more Italian restaurants will start incorporating similar dishes into their menus.
“That’s definitely not something we’re accustomed to here in the South,” he says. “Having those crudos gives people something very light, clean, and highlights our fish. A lot of higher-end Italian restaurants are really pushing the crudos.”
Dishes like crudo also underscore an oft-overlooked side of Italian cuisine, namely its health halo. Lasagna, ravioli, chicken Parmesan, and other indulgent dishes are commonplace in the U.S., but traditional dishes extend beyond hearty fare. Italy sits on the Mediterranean and is one of the core influences behind the popular diet of the same name, which features a bounty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (particularly seafood), legumes, nuts, and whole-fat dairy.
Another healthy characteristic of authentic Italian cuisine could also work its way onto more menus. Rivera says Americans eat roughly one pound of pasta per sitting, often because it’s the entrée. In Italy, pasta is only part of a meal, which often includes a salad and protein, too.
“With fresh pasta, you’re looking at 4–6 ounces, max. And that’s cooked weight,” he says.
Whether extruders, crudos, global spices, or smaller portion sizes catch hold, one trend that’s almost certain to permeate the Italian category is a shift to more seasonal dishes.
“It’s how they do it in Italy,” he says. “It’s a good representation of the type and style of food.”