Steeped in tradition and popular beyond measure, Italian cuisine and its beloved icon – pasta – have beguiled the American palate and appetite for generations.
But Executive Chef Lorenzo Boni at Barilla America’s Chicago headquarters and the research chefs at the famed Academia Barilla in Parma, Italy – the educational, research and culinary training center for Barilla – say a “new age of discovery” is transforming Italian fare. Both American and Italian chefs are tinkering with flavor combinations, food ingredients and cutting-edge cooking techniques that grandma would hardly recognize, yet alone condone.
Take Adam Lambert, executive chef of Bar Cento, a Roman-style restaurant in the Ohio City section of Cleveland.
Lambert describes what he is doing in the kitchen as “cooking traditional food in a nontraditional way without bastardizing the old.”
To that end, he is serving a number of dishes that take advantage of technology and locally produced harvests to satiate his guests with creative Italian dishes that tweak traditional recipes into the modern age.
In one practice, he is using the vacuum-sealed cooking technique known as sous-vide to cook pig and cow tongues to such tenderness that they form the essence of a Bolognese sauce that combines garlic, heirloom tomatoes and fresh herbs. The sauce does double-duty with Lambert’s homemade strozzapretti – elongated pasta that resembles cavatelli and, which legend has it, was popular with priests after Sunday mass.
Boni says Lambert’s use of sous vide is popular in Italy among his peers.
“In Italy, while the molecular gastronomy wave has largely passed, you see some techniques like sous-vide are now widely used and almost mainstream,” says Boni. “They’re even using sous-vide at Eataly in New York City to keep the mozzarella at the proper temperature.”
Lambert is borrowing molecular gastronomy techniques to prepare a vegan dish that turns pureed squash into a noodle reminiscent of spaghetti.
In this case, pureed squash is piped into the vials of a centrifuge and spun until the clear liquid separates from the pulp. The liquid is chilled and added to agar – a colorless, heat-resistant gelatinous binder made from seaweed – and later squeezed out of a large syringe into long, orange-colored threads, with the look and texture of spaghetti.
When held-over squash sauce is poured over the plate from the original puree, the guests not only taste a richer, nuttier flavor of squash, but their mouths experience a mixture of heat and cold because agar does not break down in heat.
If that level of DIY technique isn’t for you, Barilla now sells a line of “veggie” pastas made with 25 percent fresh vegetable puree, including a version with pureed carrots and squash.Anthony Daniele
In Rochester, N.Y., molecular gastronomy is playing a role in a couple of appetizers at the 17-year-old, 220-seat Mario’s Italian Restaurant. There, celebrated chef and cookbook author Anthony Daniele has concocted a balsamic vinegar caviar that’s chilled in dry ice and ends up with the texture of a gelato and is served bruschetta. It also goes well with Barilla farfalle, rigatoni or any other bite-sized pasta.
But Daniele, who notes the dish is about “as edgy as we get,” relishes using familiar, crowd-friendly dishes with different flavor combinations in an attempt to wean his guests off of Americanized thick sauces.
“When you talk pasta, it denotes comfort food that people immediately warm up to, so it makes it easy to try some different ingredients because of the classic comfort connotation,” he says. “We have been able to steer people away from the Americanized thick pastas and Alfredo sauces – the so-called Sunday sauces – that are, in my opinion, a bastardization of real pasta.”
Perhaps nothing speaks more to Daniele’s culinary imagination than his invention of “Pretzellini Pasta Sticks.” It’s cooked Barilla linguine pasta, deep fried in grape seed oil, dusted with sea salt and served as a snack food at the restaurant and also in specialty food stores and some supermarkets.
“It’s hugely popular up here in Rochester,” Daniele beams.
But staying in touch with what modern diners want doesn’t have to mean going all-in with edgy techniques and technology. Take Scarletti’s, a 100-seat restaurant in Downer’s Grove, Ill., about 25 miles west of Chicago where the new age of discovery of Italian food is in full bloom.
What makes Scarletti’s stand out from the crowd is that the restaurant allows guests to expand their culinary horizons by selecting toppings and sauces for their own dishes, reports Pam Kellam, who operates the restaurant with her husband. “Modern diners – especially in the U.S. – expect to be able to customize and make their own choices,” notes Boni, “and pasta is a versatile platform to allow that.”
The way it works at Scarletti’s is that the menu includes a “Create Your Own Pasta” section that lists dozens of Barilla pasta cuts and shapes, scratch-made sauces and additional items. Diners tell the waiters what they are interested in and, like a pizza-parlor order in which price rises incrementally with each additional topping, the base entree price of $8.75 at Scarletti’s increases in increments of $1.95 per each additional item.
As a restaurant that cooks everything onsite, the make-your-own pasta amenity is the restaurant’s way of allowing guests to be experimental, Kellam says.
“We operate a scratch kitchen,” she says. “Pasta dishes are very creative, but we are not a traditional restaurant and I wouldn’t call us edgy either. I think the best way to think of us is that the restaurant reflects the way we cook at home when we have people over.”
Rochester’s Daniele, who traces his family tree back to the Abruzzo region of Italy, takes his entire staff over to the old country regularly in search of new ideas. Those pilgrimages have taught him that all of the new technology, new-fangled cooking techniques and daring flavor combinations with pasta and Italian food are no replacement for what makes Italian food exceptional: simplicity.
“There is an art and a complexity to Italian food, but it’s all based on simplicity,” Daniele says. “With a fine quality olive oil, fresh garlic and fresh vegetables, you’ve already got the beginning of a great dish.
“Turning a dish into something that is flavorful and satisfying is the art of true Italian pasta—not a thick sauce, not a lot of sauce, just very simple and flavorful.”