On Trend: Regional Italian

What previous generations of Americans have identified (and loved!) as Italian food is in reality just a tiny portion of what the cuisine from the country has to offer; after all, Italy is a collection of 20 regions, each of which vary in climate, culture, and cuisine – and each reliant and enlivened by the foods grown there.

Generations of Italian immigrants brought their beloved recipes to our shores, and these quickly became Americanized. A prime example: the pizza available to most of us is a distant cousin to what is traditionally served in Italy. For a long time Americans have contented themselves with spaghetti and meatballs, cheesy baked dishes like lasagna, and of course pizza, but now – prompted by everything from restaurants willing to branch out (upscale spots as well as national chains), to the popularity of food TV – we are looking for more, and realizing just how diverse Italian cuisine has always been.

Not to mention how healthy. Regional Italian cuisine, because it depends on local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients, was on-trend before the healthy-green trend even existed. It’s the cuisine most consumers – 56%, in a report commissioned by Barilla and conducted by Mintel – say they want to see more of at restaurants. That preference is even higher among Millennials, that cohort of Americans in their 20s and 30s, at 64%.

At its origins, Regional Italian food is fresh, local, healthy and varied. Put as simply as possible, Regional Italian can be defined as the kind of food Italians actually eat in Italy.

The different geographic regions of Italy rely on ingredients they can find, raise, fish from the sea, or grow in abundance locally. The warm climate and rich soil in the South means you’ll find more citrus fruits and other fresh produce. Seaside regions will rely more on fish and seafood. Cooler mountainous regions in the North mean more grains and dairy products. The various regions also gain influence from the cultures around them (remember, Italy’s only been a country since 1861). For example, Sicilian cuisine retains the influence of the various nearby cultures that have dominated it, from Greek (think olives and pistachios) to Arabic cultures from North Africa (saffron, couscous).

What does the Regional Italian trend mean for foodservice operators?  The key to differentiating your Italian food from the competition lies in taking generic Italian food to the next level of authenticity, to a regional level. Michelle Loftus, executive sous chef for retail operations at the University of Montana in Missoula, says that any food service pro should be taking a long and loving look at regional Italian dishes.

“I’ve cooked Italian and other Mediterranean food most of my career, and I can tell you that people are looking for healthier, more sustainable food. The nice thing is that Italian food has never really gotten away from that,” says Chef Lotus.

In the University’s outside catering business, people are looking for different choices, says Lotus. “They most often request custom menus, which comes from a more sophisticated sense of what’s out there,” she adds. Commercial vendors, too, are finding that delving into Regional Italian, having more to offer, will help them stand out, as well as remain competitive with restaurants.

So what is Regional Italian? Taking a tour from the North of the country on down, you’ll find richer, more deeply flavored dishes in northern regions, such as Piedmont. Think: creamy sauces; grains such as rice and polenta; pork sausages and cured hams; and earthy mushrooms. Central regions, such as Tuscany, are known for pasta made from semolina flour; lentils and chickpeas; pork and lamb. Down South (Calabria, Sicily), fresh produce is key – tomatoes, peppers, lemons, artichokes, garlic and eggplant. This is where you’ll also find that North African influence in spices like bergamot and saffron. And, of course, plenty of fish fresh-pulled from the surrounding seas.

The key is authenticity, and today’s diners seek regional dishes that go beyond the generic. Italian food is at its core a fresh, local cuisine,” says Lorenzo Boni, Corporate Chef for Barilla America. “Ingredients that grow or are raised in an area will be found on the plate.”