Chefs Return To Italian Roots

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When Carmelo Rago opened Edmonton’s first Sorrentino’s restaurant in 1979, customers asked for ketchup with their egg-based spaghetti carbonara and rebelled when his Italian chef finished a dish with a few drops of “greasy” olive oil. They also complained the chef used too much garlic. Today, a garlic festival is Sorrentino’s most anticipated event, and the deep-fried arancini (rice balls) Rago couldn’t sell 15 years ago appear on trendy Italian menus across the country. Yet, he clearly remembers the backlash as recently as 2006 when another Italian chef dared to garnish steak with raw arugula leaves.

Yes, it’s safe to say Rago has always been ahead of his time, but the former teacher is delighted with how far his customers have come in understanding and appreciating the food of his homeland. Thanks to him, and other veteran Italian restaurateurs who made Canada their home, along with keen young chefs of all stripes fixated on authenticity and quality, diners can now enjoy some of the finest Italian ingredients, some flown in weekly, and discover dishes prepared as authentically as possible — all without buying a plane ticket.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Rago, whose Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group now comprises 16 restaurants and cafés. “As people have become more educated, they’re willing to try new things, giving our chefs more opportunities to cook dishes we couldn’t do 18 years or even eight years ago. It’s a pleasant change for us in this business.”

According to Toronto-based market research firm NPD Group, Canada, Italian food ranks well ahead of Thai and Greek food, the other top “ethnic” choices identified in its recent “Full-Service Dining Report and Full-Service Restaurant Chain Menu Tracker.” Italian also scored higher than regional American menu items. “The bottom line is, Italian menu options continue to have broad appeal,” says Joel Gregoire, foodservice analyst for the firm.

Topping the Italian hit parade are pasta and pizza. Of the hundreds of pasta shapes available, spaghetti and its slender cousin spaghettini rule Canadian menus, says Kristin Menas, assistant editor at the Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc. The research firm’s MenuMonitor database uncovered pasta dishes at both ends of the price spectrum, from spaghetti topped with a chunky smoked meat sauce at Quebec-based Nickels Grill & Bar ($14.49) to spaghettini al bisonte, thin pasta strands garnished with bison-truffle meatballs, wild British Columbia mushrooms and a light Parmiggiano Reggiano-based cream sauce ($28.88) at elegant La Terrazza in Vancouver.

In late October, Gennaro Iorio, executive chef and co-owner of La Terrazza, who grew up between Italy and B.C., replaced his popular bison dish with yet another tweak on tradition. The newcomer features spaghettini in an emulsified egg carbonara sauce with butter-poached Atlantic lobster, green peas and double-smoked bacon instead of pancetta ($28.88). Like all Iorio’s pastas, it’s served in a $100 porcelain bowl.

The French-trained chef with a passion for pasta has also gentrified classic eggplant parmigiana ($15.88). “We needed to make it more appealing, a notch above,” he says. He fills specially designed ring moulds with layers of battered and fried eggplant, fior di latte (fresh mozzarella) and ultra-creamy buffalo mozzarella flown in from Naples, his father’s birthplace. Napped with fresh tomato sauce, the dish is fresh, not oily, he says, and it’s cooked a short time so the ingredients retain their flavours.

Lorio admits he wasn’t always focused on his roots. When he opened La Terrazza in 1998 with two partners, global flavours were all the rage. “It was a confusing time,” he recalls. “Customers wanted Italian food, but they also wanted miso soy sablefish, so I put those things on the menu.” In 2000, however, he decided to create a menu using only the finest Italian and local ingredients. “Vancouver has a real hunger for good food,” he says. “If you’re not using quality ingredients, people won’t support that.”

British-born chef Andrew Richardson agrees. “There’s so much to Italian food — it’s incredible,” says the executive chef at Vancouver’s CinCin restaurant on busy Robson Street. “We’re trying to evolve from red sauce over everything and introduce different styles with a heavy emphasis on quality ingredients, as local as possible. That’s the way it’s meant to be. In North America we lose track of that — we want to elaborate on everything.”

Richardson used trips to Italy and to London’s River Café, with its simple family style food, as insight for his “Italian-inspired” menu items at CinCin. Reviewers rave about his homemade ravioli stuffed with goat’s milk ricotta and scented with summer truffles ($16.50). Ricotta gnocchi with wild chanterelle and cauliflower mushrooms and truffled boschetto cheese ($16.50) is also popular. Mains include a 16-oz. certified Angus T-bone steak fiorentina style ($44), served simply with tomatoes, arugula and extra virgin olive oil.

Like Edmonton’s Sorrentino’s, CinCin has hired a young Italian pizza maker, or pizzaiolo, to man the wood-fired oven in its open kitchen, bringing new ideas direct from the source. Then there’s Luigi Petrella, who named his Toronto pizza parlour Pizzaiolo after his grandfather, who owned a pizzeria in Italy in the 1940s, and his father who flipped pizza dough in Toronto in the 1960s. Petrella opened his first restaurant in 2000, selling pizza by the slice for takeout, and now he owns 28 stores with plans to expand into cities and suburbs west of Toronto.

Petrella credits Pizzaiolo’s success with his streamlined menu and use of quality ingredients, from the white and whole-wheat dough made daily to the tomato sauce freshly made from San Marzano tomatoes. Customers can choose up to 24 varieties of pizza, ranging from vegan and veggie to the Gianni Ola with dry-cured pepperoni, mushrooms, bacon, mozzarella and tomato sauce. All slices are priced at $3.99. “We do everything ourselves,” he says. “We cut and grill our zucchini, cut up our green peppers and tomatoes and cook our chicken breasts. Keeping it fresh is cheaper than buying processed food, and you can taste the difference.”

Meanwhile, market leader Pizza Pizza, with 600 restaurants across Canada, is equally proud of the ingredients in its new personal 10-inch pizza on an ultra-thin whole-grain crust. It launched at the end of September after a year and a half in development. “People are fascinated with different tastes, profiles and toppings,” says Pat Finelli, chief marketing officer. “We figured let’s have more product for our walk-in customer with fewer toppings and less cheese — more of a light pizza.”

Finelli is quick to highlight the new pizza’s quality toppings such as cipollini marinated in balsamic vinegar from Italy, “homestyle” tomato sauce from California and kalamata olives from Greece. 

Of the 10 new pies, which start at $4.99, Finelli favours the Bianca, made with thin-sliced potatoes, extra virgin olive oil, a four-cheese blend and cipollini.

Alternatively, Boston Pizza has gone global — blending pizza’s Italian roots with new ideas to stay ahead of the curve and give “guests truly memorable and unique dishes,” says Michael Gray, culinary director and executive chef.

One of Gray’s 26 new menu items features all the flavours of a smoked meat sandwich on a pizza — from the meat to the mustard and pickles. There’s also a butter-chicken pizza and another featuring smoked B.C. salmon. “These are flavours people know,” he says, “delivered in a new and exciting way.” The new items, which include s’mores dessert pizza, have already exceeded expectations and been a hit with customers, he says.

At Boston Pizza, hand-pressed pizza dough is made fresh daily in each store where pantries are stocked with Genoa salami, marinated artichokes and fire-roasted portabello mushrooms to impart “a sophisticated flavour,” Gray says. And, like every other Italian restaurant in Canada, it seems, he offers gluten-free pizza and pasta, though Iorio at Vancouver’s La Terrazza found less demand for it this year compared to last year.

While Gray goes global, the highly anticipated opening of Pastizza in 2013, from veteran restaurateur Paolo Paolini, co-owner of Toronto’s beloved high-end Mistura, promises simple, satisfying authentic dishes, starting with his mother’s lasagna recipe, all for under $23. Even his pizza dough will celebrate the past, rising slowly with less yeast over several days, banishing the fashionable Neopolitan crusts he finds wet and limp. They’ll be whisked from the hottest (800˚F) new oven from Italy, a Moretti Forni with electric elements embedded in the stone.

“Italian food will evolve a little,” says Paolini, who, like Rago in Edmonton, has been educating fine-dining customers for close to 40 years. “Today, things Italians used to do out of necessity, like using every part of the pig, have become trendy. But how much pork belly can you eat?”

“I often crave a good pizza, a simple plate of pasta and a nice roast chicken,” he says. “It’s comfort food done with the same attention you would [give] in a fine-dining restaurant. That’s the secret — not using the American fast-food approach. You want it quick, but you want quality.”

image courtesy of John Sherlock

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