If chefs want to be authentic to Italian cuisine, then local sourcing will have to play a role on the menu.
The Italian cultural heritage of local food sourcing—olives from your neighbor’s vines, cheese from cows or goats in your uncle’s pastures—is common among the country’s most decorated chefs and their dishes. Why, then, shouldn’t American Italian restaurants embrace that heritage in their cooking, too?
The American foodservice industry has, after all, embraced farm-to-table sourcing in the last decade. The U.S. has seen a significant expansion of farmers’ markets popping up across the country and a refreshed focus on “eating local.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking farmers’ markets in 1994, and the number of markets grew from 1,755 that year to 8,144 in 2013.
This kind of interest in farm-to-table sourcing, paired with restaurants’ efforts to be more authentic, has made local and regional food the star of Italian eateries across the country.
Look, for example, at Ava Gene’s, a Portland, Oregon, restaurant with a self-described “Roman-inspired” menu that emphasizes using local produce and meats grown and raised by Pacific Northwest farmers and ranchers. “We source 100 percent locally when it comes to vegetables and meat,” Ava Gene’s spokewoman Jenna Winkler says. “If we can’t source it locally and it isn’t in season, it doesn’t go on the menu.”
To achieve that goal, the restaurant has cultivated relationships with local farmers and producers to get anything from local corn for polenta to locally grown, edible flowers to add color to the restaurant’s “giardini” menu.
For restaurants using local ingredients like Ava Gene’s, seasonality is one of the biggest keys to keeping a menu fresh and local; produce can’t typically be grown out of season outdoors.
“There is a lot more variety and menu changes during the spring and summer because of the access to more produce, but again, it’s all coming locally,” Winkler says. “Our chefs have quite the relationship with the local farmers—there is constant communication so they know what is coming into season.”
Another Italian restaurant with a penchant for local food is Arugula Ristorante in Boulder, Colorado. The restaurant is inspired by both Northern Italy and Colorado’s farm-fresh ingredients, says owner and chef Alec Schuler.
Arugula’s menu is reprinted twice a week, which Schuler says allows the restaurant to rotate foods in and out as they’re in season; in the height of the summer, Arugula gets more than 30 percent of its food from local farms, pastures, and producers. A summertime Arugula favorite, Schuler says, is a fried local squash blossom stuffed with local herbs and goat cheese, seated on a bed of shaved local zucchini.
Of course, the winter in Colorado makes it difficult to keep a variety and abundance of local items on Arugula’s menu during that season, aside from root vegetables and some meats and cheeses, Schuler says.
“By printing a menu like this, we can just incorporate whatever local food is available at the time,” he says. “We get emails from our local farmers a couple times a week ... and then we buy something that’s on the menu the next week.”