When it comes to Italian cuisine, Ashley Shelton isn’t afraid to play with tradition.
“It’s kind of already been perfected,” said Shelton, who is executive chef at Sardella in St. Louis, a seasonal restaurant with a nod to Italy.
“I look at old-world Italian recipes, find out what’s [at the] core … what can I do with it, what can I take and add, to tell our own story.”
Currently on the menu at Sardella is brisket agnolotti, a surf-and-turf riff on the stuffed pasta. The dish is made with beef brisket cooked lobster broth spiced with hot sauce and Old Bay seasoning.
Shelton’s newest addition to the menu is circular ravioli filled with beet and goat cheese and served with pistachio-mint pesto, the Egyptian spice blend dukkah, and tahini.
“Modern Italian is not changing everything or conforming to certain rules,” Shelton said. “[We take a] traditional pairing that we know works and twist it up a bit.”
Paolo Marchi, founder of Identità Golose, an international culinary organization based in Milan, shares a similar philosophy.
“While Italian cuisine is deeply rooted in Italian tradition, its branches extend in every direction. The new/modern Italian chef does not view traditions as dogmas, but more like stories that can and should be enriched by personal experiences from different regions of Italy and nations of the world,” Marchi said. “And most of all, he adds something personal to all of his dishes.”
In October, Identità Golose will explore modern Italian cuisine, highlight current food topics and showcase dishes from renowned local and national chefs during its annual events in New York, Chicago and Boston.
Also offering unique takes on Italian classics is Tony Conte, chef and owner of Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Md.
For instance, while an authentic prosciutto pizza at a pizzeria certified by the True Neapolitan Pizza Association might have Parmesan cheese, arugula and prosciutto, Conte uses sweet roasted corn and baby cherry tomatoes to add a sweet kick.
He also serves burrata, a rich and creamy ball of mozzarella filled with cream, with unexpected ingredients such as watermelon, maple vinegar and candied watermelon rind.
“Subbing out an ingredient for something else with a similar texture or color, but an entirely different flavor, is unexpected and exciting to patrons of our restaurants,” Conte said. “These breaks in tradition are what keep our customers coming back for more. They want to experience something new, and we’re always going to give it to them.”
Similarly, at Le Farfalle, a regional Italian restaurant in Charleston, S.C., chef Michael Toscano uses Low Country ingredients combined with Italian classics and techniques to create singular dishes.
The spaghetti for his cacio e pepe replaces semolina with local buckwheat to add a nutty aroma. And his sorghum pappardelle is made with the southern grain.
“I have been inspired by the Low Country's bounty and its pride in indigenous ingredients,” Toscano said. “It's my job as a chef to draw parallels from regional Italian dishes to the Low Country and use the best local ingredients possible.”
The movement also extends to drinks.
Italian liqueurs, wines and beers are the focus of the cocktail program at Otto Mezzo in Chicago, which aims to use predominantly Italian ingredients.
“The concept of our ‘Classic Cocktails Italian Style’ portion of the menu is not really about innovating Italian classics, but more so about reinterpreting classic cocktails through an Italian lens,” said Brandon Phillips, lead barman and partner at Otto Mezzo.
The Last Word is a Prohibition-era cocktail traditionally made with equal parts gin, Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice. But Phillips replaces Chartreuse, which is French, with an Italian liqueur from Enrico Toro distillery called Centerba 72, which he said plays off the maraschino liqueur.
Bigger chains are also jumping into the trend. Fazoli’s, the Lexington, Ky.-based fast-casual Italian chain, is inspiring diners to put a personal touch on an Italian favorite with its Create Your Own Lasagna limited-time offer. Diners choose their sauce and up to three toppings — Parmesan-roasted broccoli, garlic-roasted cremini mushrooms, caramelized onions and chopped bacon. The lasagna is baked to order.
Part of Fazoli’s new Naturally Italian initiative, the offer is one of several new items on the chain’s updated menu, featuring premium ingredients. Fazoli’s said Create Your Own Lasagna has been one of the chain’s best-performing limited-time offers ever.