EDITOR'S NOTE: In a three-part series, NRN examines how American restaurants interpret the cuisines of different parts of Italy. In today’s installation: Southern Italian food.
Italian cuisine ranks as the most popular “ethnic” cuisine in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association and just about anyone else you might ask.
And with most of this country’s more than 15 million Italian-Americans having roots in the five southernmost regions of Italy — Campania, Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily — southern Italian food would seem to occupy a dominant position in the hearts and palates of the country.
Well, in theory if not exactly in practice, anyway.
• IN DEPTH: Check out the March 21 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News, which examines the evolution of Italian food in U.S. restaurants.
Los Angeles-based restaurateur Celestino Drago, a native of Sicily, said the southern Italian food most Americans were raised on was made by immigrants who needed to work.
“Some would do shoe shining or construction; some got into cooking,” he said.
But that didn’t mean they knew how to cook. And even if they did, the ingredients in the United States were completely different than those they were familiar with in Italy. As a result, true Italian food had to be modified to accommodate its new surroundings — an evolutionary process that is still going on today.
In the 1990s Drago attempted to introduce Angelinos to authentic Sicilian cuisine with the opening of L’Arancino, named after a deep-fried Sicilian rice ball.
“The menu was written in Sicilian dialect with English translation,” Drago said. “I would research a lot of old dishes and bring a lot of ingredients from Sicily, from fresh seafood to bottarga [pressed mullet roe].”
The restaurant didn’t survive, but Drago doesn’t blame its closing on the restaurant’s authenticity.
“We were doing very well, but it was a little too small, and I kind of became a slave of the restaurant because it’s hard to train people in that kind of cooking,” he said.
Nevertheless, that was the last time Drago went for 100-percent authenticity.
At his current Los Angeles restaurants, Drago, Enoteca Drago, Il Pastaio and Drago Centro, he offers authentic Sicilian menu items. But even those aren’t necessarily presented to American diners as they would be in the old country.
For example, brioche with granita is served as a breakfast item in Sicily. The granita, made with lemon, orange or fig, is a wholesome way to start the day.
“There’s not one day I don’t have it in Sicily,” Drago said.
But in Los Angeles, he serves it as a dessert, often topped with cream and pieces of brioche.
Also on the dessert menu is a warm ricotta tarte with orange zest and rosemary ice cream. The flavors are Sicilian, but you wouldn’t find it on Sicilian menus.
“It’s a little bit too avant-garde,” Drago said. “But we love to play with herbs; why not in ice cream?”
Drago also has served tuna carpaccio with bottarga, olive oil, lemon and grated lemon zest. You wouldn’t see that in Sicily, “but it represents the food and ingredients and the history of Sicily,” he said.
Other combinations are quite traditional, like pasta with sardines, which he serves two ways: simply with tomato, or with bucatini baked with saffron, raisin and pine nuts.
As a rule “we adjust dishes for people here, not merely to make them different, but because some people want to eat a little bit differently — lighter, for example,” he said.
Farther north in San Francisco, Shelly Lindgren said she and her partners picked Naples, the capital of Campania, as their inspiration for restaurant A16, named for the highway that connects Naples with Puglia’s capital, Bari.
Lindgren said she and business partner Victoria Libin and opening chef Christophe Hille originally had wanted to open a pizzeria and wine bar.
“Then as the menu started evolving we were just blown away by the beautiful culture of food and wine. We decided to keep it very focused on the region,” straying as far as Puglia for inspiration, but not beyond it, she said.
The San Francisco Bay Area climate, similar in many ways to that of the Mediterranean, helped, she said, as did the area’s emphasis on local and seasonal food, which is Italian in spirit.
So while A16 imports some Italian products — 00 flour and San Marzano tomatoes for the pizza, for example — the meat and fish are local. So is the burrata, a specialty of Puglia prepared by stuffing fresh balloons of mozzarella with shredded mozzarella and cream.
“We also have a tuna conserva on the menu,” she said, referring to tuna preserved in oil. “But right now it’s a local albacore tuna.” And when accompaniments like basil and tomato, or fava beans and dandelion greens, are in season in the Bay area, she uses them.
“We try to keep our focus on the style [of Campania] but we interpret it with local ingredients,” she said, viewing the Bay Area as though it were a region of southern Italy.
“Most of the creative interpretation starts with the ingredients,” she said. “When we can get the local sardines, we get them, and they’re beautiful. So we make our salsa verde with the herbs that we want, and that’s a slight variation [on how it would be made in Campania].”
Likewise, their dish of gnocchi made with nettles and ricotta and served with pheasant is a Campanian dish in spirit, even if it wouldn’t actually be found in Campania.
That approach works for them, she said, adding, “Over the year’s we’ve made many relationships with our friends in Italy, and when they come to our restaurant they tell us they feel like they’re at home.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].