How chefs use sauces and oils to build the perfect dish.
Americans love Italian food. According to 2015 data from the National Restaurant Association, Americans prefer Italian over all other ethnic cuisines.
And while the average customer might enjoy a particular kind of homemade pasta or a chef’s signature seafood preparation, their return visit to an Italian restaurant is often based upon how much they want to lick the plate clean of its sauce. No matter how tender the ravioli or how succulent the shrimp scampi, a lousy bolognese isn’t going to bring anybody back for second helpings.
Like the French, the Italians have some authentic and classic—or “mother”—sauces that the best Italian chefs know should be mastered. Lorenzo Boni, executive chef at Barilla, classifies these into three main categories: tomato based, from amatriciana (with pork cheek and pecorino) to arrabiata (with garlic and red chili) and puttanesca (with anchovy, olive, caper, and garlic); extra-virgin olive oil (evoo) based, such as aglio e olio (garlic and oil) or vongole (with clams, clam juice, white wine, garlic, and parsley); and cream or dairy based, such as carbonara (with egg, cheese, and pork).
The last category, Boni says, also includes the little known besciamella, which all lasagnas in Italy have as their base. But it does not include Alfredo sauce, which he calls “an entirely Italian-American creation.” (Alfredo is actually an American’s misinterpretation of pasta bianco, which is simply pasta with a little butter and grated cheese.)
As for pestos, Boni says, they “could have their own category; they are olive oil–based, but are endlessly variable and blend well with other sauces as well.”
Indeed, pesto is Fabio Viviani’s favorite sauce to make. “I love the bright flavor and the bright green color,” says Viviani, who is chef and partner of several Italian restaurants in Chicago and California. “The marriage between the cheese and roasted garlic makes pesto sauce an amazing palate pleaser.” Viviani often uses it to enhance non-pasta and protein dishes such as potatoes.
In fact, pesto can even be added to soups, deepening the flavor of a broth with one easy swirl. Products like La Malva Rosa Pesto Genovese, which is sold by Bottega Mediterranea, a company that sources artisanal goods from small producers, can be kept shelf stable for these occasions if fresh pesto isn’t a regular part of a restaurant kitchen’s routine.
In general, Boni says, the trick to making a good sauce (or soup, for that matter) is that there is no trick. “All Italian sauces, simple or complex, are built by layering flavors, one on top of the other,” he says. “Typically we sweat either onions or garlic (almost never both) in EVOO, brown and caramelize meat or vegetables, sometimes deglaze with wine, and simmer slowly to develop the flavors. The goal is to create a good flavoring base for what comes next.”