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Authentic Italian food a cause for celebration

With seasonal Italian ingredients hard to have all year long, U.S. restaurants save authenticity for special occasions

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final chapter in a three-part series examining how American restaurants interpret Italian cuisine. The first two installments discussed southern Italian food and the cuisines of northern and central Italy.

Italian food’s focus on local, seasonal produce makes it nearly impossible for American restaurants to serve authentic dishes from the country year-round.

A freshly picked artichoke from Umbria, for example, is going to taste different from one from California.

As a result, many restaurants in the United States take a different tack. For most of the year, they interpret Italian food to adjust to available produce and the tastes of their customers. They reserve attempts at authenticity for special promotions.

That’s what the ‘21’ Club in New York City does with its Table Travels program.

• IN DEPTH: The March 21 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News examined the evolution of Italian food in U.S. restaurants. Subscribers can access the article “Keeping it real: Chefs balance authenticity, practicality when serving Italian cuisine.” Subscribe today.

The ‘21’ Club is owned by Orient Express, and from time to time it has chefs from the company’s other properties visit for weeklong promotions. Recently, for example, the visiting chef was Luca Orini from the Grand Hotel Timeo and Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina, Sicily.

“Table Travels is a unique program that allows chefs to showcase their local cuisines at sister Orient-Express properties around the world,” said ‘21’ Club marketing manager Avery McClanahan. “We like to incorporate a cooking class experience into the visit and an educational wine program with a vendor from the chef’s region.”

The menus are created by the visiting chefs, but ‘21’ Club executive chef John Greeley said he makes suggestions if there are ingredients that he can’t source reliably for a weeklong promotion.

“We always try to keep the dishes 100 percent authentic,” he said.

La Tavola Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in Atlanta, has two festivals celebrating regional cuisine — La Grassa in late winter, featuring the cuisine of Bologna and other parts of Emilia Romagna, and Abbondanza in the fall, celebrating Tuscany and Umbria.

For La Grassa, chef Craig Richards makes a classic creamy lasagna Bolognese, layered with béchamel. He also usually makes a bollito misto — a sort of Romagnola pot au feu or pot roast — and some sort of stuffed pasta, such as capeletti, in clear broth.

“And all kinds of meat ragùs,” he added.

“I try and have more traditional dishes or concepts, and then mix in something a little more creative,” he said. “You want to pay homage to the region, but a lot of these dishes have been done over and over again, so I don’t want to do a completely traditional menu.”

Richards also said he needs to offer some seafood, and he hasn’t seen a lot of that from Emilia Romagna.

For the most recent La Grassa, he offered grouper with steamed clams and radicchio braised with pancetta. He drizzled the dish with 12-year-old balsamic vinegar, an ingredient from the Emilia Romagna city of Modena. Richards said that, although grouper isn’t an Italian fish, it is a local fish in Atlanta, making his use of it Italian in spirit.

Richards calls Abbondanza a celebration of central Italy, “so we can get away with using some other regions.”

The chef has grown particularly interested in Umbria, which he visited for the first time in 2009. He has found products from there such as beans from Castelluccio, outside of Norcia. “They’re like French green lentils, but ten times better,” he said.

Like Tuscany, Umbria’s known for its gnocchi and beans, but also for wild boar and black truffles.

Richards said the 10-day celebrations like La Grassa and Abbondanza suit the restaurant better than one-night wine dinners, since the small kitchen isn’t really suited to serving 80 people at once.

“We strategically placed them at times of year that are normally a little quieter,” Richards said.

La Grassa stirs up interest during the post-Valentine’s Day lull, before the market-driven spring menu can be implemented. Abbondanza acts as a bridge between the summer and fall, he said.

Riccardo Ullio is celebrating the 12th anniversary of his restaurant Sotto Sotto in Atlanta with 12 four-course prix-fixe wine dinners, one per month, each one inspired by a different Italian region.

“I do what I see as signature dishes, paired with wine from that region.”

So for Piedmont he made a risotto with Barbera wine, and a classic fritto misto from the region.

In some other parts of Italy, a fritto misto is battered, fried seafood, but Piedmont is landlocked, so Sotto Sotto’s version includes different cuts of fried veal, including brains, sweetbreads, liver and top round, as well as battered, fried amaretti cookies and apples, all fried in clarified butter.

“It can be sweet polenta cakes, spleen, all kinds of things,” Ullio said. “But usually it’s a mix of sweet and savory and involves a lot of offal.”

“Usually it’s for people who want something a little different,” he added.

For the dinner celebrating his native Lombardia, Ullio made crostini with house-cured lardo, seasonal vegetable soup, braised veal shank with saffron risotto and gremolata and, for dessert, a nougat semifredo.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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