Some caterers seem to have bid arrivederci to Italian food, but studies suggest that this beloved cuisine is worth revisiting
By Deanne Moskowitz
Despite the rapid acceptance of evermore exotic cuisines by American diners, recent studies still rank Italian as the most preferred or second-most preferred food in America. It may not be the hottest global cuisine, but it is beloved for its comfort, familiarity and perceived healthfulness (perhaps thanks to its Mediterranean underpinnings). But some caterers, judging from their menus, seem to have given Italian food the boot, limiting their global offerings exclusively to trendier imports such as Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian.
In a March 2019 international study of 25,000 panelists in 24 markets by the online survey company YouGov, 88 percent of U.S. residents surveyed rated food from Italy second only to American food among cuisines that they had tried and liked. What’s more, Italian cuisine was named America’s number-one preferred ethnic cuisine in Technomic’s 2017 Consumer Trend Report.
While Italian may not be new, it is evolving. California-based SupHerb Farms, a supplier of fresh-tasting ingredient solutions for foodservice operators and food manufacturers, published a white paper concerning Italian food last year. Entitled “New” Italian, the March 2018 report, based on an exclusive study of 1,000 consumers by Technomic, revealed a growing interest in regional Italian foods and ingredients. In a study sample swaying heavily toward millennials and Hispanics, almost half (48%, more women than men, and more Southerners than those from other U.S. regions) said that they seek different regional Italian cuisine experiences, and one-third (33%, more men than women, and more Northeasterners) claimed to know the culinary differences among Italy’s regions. Among ingredients said to be gaining momentum were Calabrian chilies and Sicilian salmoriglio, a sauce combining olive oil, lemon, garlic and oregano.
Authenticity in global cuisines often is cited as a priority among millennials and Gen Z consumers, but SupHerb’s director of marketing, Peggy Castaldi, has found that some foodservice operators incorporate upcoming ethnic flavors into more familiar Italian formats as a way to introduce new tastes to consumers unfamiliar with them, or to appeal to those who are more traditional in their food and flavor preferences. For example, she suggests stirring a tablespoon or two of Thai green curry into basil pesto for a bright twist on the classic, highlighting the bold ethnic flavors that “consumers are actively seeking.”
Updated Italian dishes versus classics also prevail on the menus at the three catering companies profiled here, each of which translates Italian in its own way. These pacesetters are giving Italian food a prominent place on their menus, and their clients are eating it up.
When a reader asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning, late food journalist Jonathan Gold, then a columnist for LA Weekly, to recommend a source for takeout lasagna that could even impress an Italian party guest, he lavished his highest praise on Lasagna Cupcakes, available for delivery and on the event menu of Los Angeles-based caterer Heirloom LA. Describing the “capsules of fresh, saucy pasta, compact enough to eat with your hands” and then stuffed with everything from roasted root vegetables to lamb ragu with fresh mozzarella, Gold proclaimed that they packed “more flavor than lasagna 20 times the size.” Developed by co-owners Executive Chef Matt Poley and Tara Maxey (then the pastry chef) in 2008 as a solution to keeping lasagna warm and visually appealing on the buffet, Lasagna Cupcakes are still an enormously popular signature dish at Heirloom LA. They now boast such fillings as white cheddar mac-and-cheese, grass-fed short ribs with sweet-and-sour onions, and Mary’s Farm Turkey Bolognese, and lead a multi-dimensional menu that gives a lot of attention to Italian food.
That’s not surprising, since Chef Poley was classically trained by Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles, and then interned at the two-star Vissani restaurant, near Orvieto, Italy. Armed with a deep understanding of the authentic approach followed by his mentor, Poley spins fresh interpretations of Italian. Maxey (focusing now mostly on marketing and operations) terms the approach “California Italian.” She notes as one example the company’s wildly popular Crostini Station, offering colorful, gorgeously arranged platters that are “basically charcuterie but California-style, not just meats but also the finest seasonal produce—pickled, roasted, raw and made into spreads.” They’ve even done entirely vegetarian versions.
In Italy, Poley learned the value of seeking out small farms and humanely raised livestock for the ingredients in his dishes, a philosophy that Maxey shares, but Heirloom LA doesn’t import anything from Italy. The company sources 90 percent of its ingredients from California and the rest domestically, and derives inspiration from whatever its small farmers deliver. For instance, Heirloom LA serves “a lot” of fresh pasta, according to Maxey, all made with heritage flours milled in the state. Noting the simplicity of pasta stations (“all you need is a Bunsen burner on a table and a good cook”), she touts their outsized appeal: “Brown some butter with sage, and the aroma will have guests lining up at your station even if they are trying to avoid gluten.”
Pizza is another Italian specialty important at Heirloom LA. Garlic-rubbed, grilled pizza flatbreads, listed on the catering menu and sold wholesale to several restaurants, appear in variations to please carnivores and vegetarians. There’s even a vegan option made with cashew burrata. Among the topping choices are house-cured meats, peppers, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese; and roasted mushrooms, sautéed garlic spinach with lemon, fresh ricotta cheese and Parmesan.
In addition, deep-dish pizza is a possibility, although it is more of a “secret menu item,” offered at full-service events, where appropriate. It was a big hit last year at an event for 2,000 guests hosted by a tech company, whose event planners requested it because they had tasted it and loved it.
Together & Company
Although its expansive menu reflects many areas of the world, Together & Company is “inspired” by the Italian approach to entertaining, with its focus on “big family-style meals that bring lots of people together to interact,” says Carly Ziemer, director of sales. It’s an idea that “inspires the way we sell and engage our clients,” she adds. In fact, Together & Company recently changed its name from Two Caterers to one that, among other aims, highlights its mission to bring people together.
Lots of Italian-American families come to the caterer if they want to do a dinner with family-style dishes, including weddings, Ziemer reports. Unable to “replicate dishes that are served in Italy,” Ziemer says, “We ask: What can we do to make it feel like home to them but with our own twist?” Familiar and approachable comfort food, Italian also appeals to people who are not of Italian extraction for social occasions, and “simple applications” show up on casual corporate menus.
Culinary Analyst James Sanderson, who handles purchasing for the kitchen and works closely with the chef on menu development and costing, explains the company’s tactic. People have come to expect what classic dishes taste like, so while a dish “doesn’t necessarily have to be the traditional thing…it has to remind them of what it is. We try to capture the spirit of Italian food in what we do.” The emphasis is mainly on northern and central regional cuisines, since Midwesterners aren’t big on spicy dishes, he says. For example, Asiago Chicken—breaded breasts treated to a cheesy cream sauce—is the company’s twist on chicken Alfredo.
Highlighting Ohio’s “great local ingredients,” a priority at Together & Company, is another intrinsically Italian idea, Sanderson says. Among dishes celebrating the area’s seasonal tomatoes are Bruschetta Chicken—pan-seared breasts coated in Italian bread crumbs and topped with grape tomato relish and balsamic drizzle; panzanella salad with fresh tomato, sourdough and basil, served as a side or as a passed hors d’oeuvre; and roasted tomato tart—puff pastry topped with a slice of heirloom tomato, oregano and other herbs.
While Together & Company makes small, flatbread pizzas that are great for hors d’oeuvres, they do larger ones only when clients insist, feeling that they don’t have sufficient space to do them as well as the experts. Among other Italian specialties, risotto and pasta stations, where guests can customize their dishes, are the two most popular on the menu.
One of the items selected to represent the company’s 22-year history at a dinner that Together & Company hosted recently to commemorate its rebranding was Limoncello Pasta, which emerged as the standout among the six courses. To make it, the company partnered with Columbus-based Pasta Ditoni’s, which produced the fresh-made linguine, and created the cream sauce without cream by combining Limoncello Classico (from Tessora Liqueurs in New Albany, Ohio) with sautéed onions, garlic and fresh herbs. Seated with the 60 guests comprising top vendors, longtime company friends and clients, Ziemer and other executives overheard people pondering what was in the dish and raving about its flavor.
Diane Gordon Catering
The emergence of regionally focused Italian restaurants may be fairly recent, but Diane Gordon, the owner of this 25-year-old eponymous company, can’t remember a time when she hasn’t cared about the regional derivations of the Italian dishes she offers, a preoccupation that is often reflected in their names. Gordon, whose work experiences include cooking at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy, travels extensively and does a lot of culinary research to shape her globally inspired menu, which she says is why “if I say caponata, I like to tell people where it’s from; I think it is very evocative to say ‘Sicilian caponata.’”
People don’t generally request, for example, a Sicilian or Sardinian dish, she points out. But Gordon adds: “I think that regional cooking is becoming more interesting to people, and I have been adding regionally representative popular dishes on a regular basis in the last couple of years.” Pasta with Trapanese pesto and the use of Calabrian chilies are new in the last two years. And she speculates that Sardinian fregola, a long-time favorite, may resonate with people who peruse the menu “because they’ve just returned from Sardinia.”
Most of the Italian offerings are in the form of passed hors d’oeuvres, because 80 percent of Diane Gordon Catering’s business is in stand-up parties, a format dictated by the space limitations common in New York, she says. The company’s listing of Italian specialties is long and drawn from northern to southern Italy. Among the exquisite-sounding selections is Venetian-Style Chicken in Phyllo with Exotic Spices; Prosciutto di Parma and Balsamic Syrup Drizzle on Fig Blinis; Chestnut Honey-Roasted Duck Beggar’s Purses Tied with Chive Bows; Swordfish and Marinated Vegetable Spedini; House-Cured Baccala Fritters with Roasted Garlic Aioli; and Fried Zucchini Blossoms Stuffed with Ricotta Cheese and Rosemary.
Exemplifying central and southern regions, live pasta stations, cooked to order by professional chefs, and the Tuscan Primi and Antipasti Station are popular, too. Varying according to the season, the latter consists of bruschetta with such toppings as vine-ripened tomato with mozzarella and basil; braised cannellini beans with thyme, goat cheese and Ligurian olives; and ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes, as well as mini frittatas and various room-temperature canapes. Among southern specialties, pizza is missing, because Gordon believes that its tendency to suffer in quality when it is rewarmed makes it a bad choice for off-premise catering.
Despite her serious appreciation for the heritage of her menu, she tends to update dishes, rather than always adhering to classic recipes. For example, Parmesan Frico Baskets Filled with Sicilian Eggplant Caponata is a combination of two classic dishes; Risi e Bisi, traditionally a soupy risotto from Venice, is thickened and turned into Risi e Bisi Arancini, retaining the classic flavors but in a new form; and French toast was updated for an all-passed Italian-themed breakfast by substituting focaccia for brioche. It was “so delicious,” Gordon reports, that focaccia may become her French toast “bread of choice.”
Italian desserts sometimes are done with a difference, too. Instead of using the usual cocoa in tiramisu, the company prepares a fresh berry version that is a sensation in summer. And seeing little interest in classic panna cotta, they tested a blackberry version that is garnering a lot of attention. Bombolini, pastry-cream-filled donuts from Tuscany, and cinnamon apple crostata, which originated in Lombardia, are other dessert favorites.
Italian food is “very important” and becoming more so at the company, which Gordon suspects is because it is comforting, delicious and considered healthy by her older clientele (late 40s and up), who she claims may be even more health- and diet-concerned than millennials. Not only do Italian-American organizations and private clients request Italian dishes, explains Gordon, but private clients who are not Italian-American “sometimes specifically ask for Italian dishes or menus just because they like them.”