Hey, Baltimore, in the mood for Italian tonight? How about a nice veal piccata or chicken parmigiana with linguine?
Instead we have pork cheeks with mashed celeriac and pea shoots, local melon salad with peaches, red onions and brioche croutons, and mixed spinach tagliatelle to blue crabmeat and…buttery popcorn.
Welcome to the new Italian gastronomic landscape.
Of course, you can still find the classics in Baltimore, both in and out of Little Italy. But Baltimore is seeing a new kind of Italian restaurant. Some of these new places, like Bottega – Adrien Aeschilman’s white-hot micro-restaurant in the Charles North district – are obviously not Italian restaurants at all.
Reclaimed barn wood and jars of Bottega preserves are more reminiscent of farm-to-table than trattoria, and the weekly-changing slate menu lists dishes like duck breast with blueberries and peppers and rabbit stuffed with black-eyed peas.
“A lot of people ask us if it’s Italian,” said Aeschilman, whose family vacationed in Italy every summer when he was a teenager. “It’s Italian because that’s what I grew up cooking, it’s my past. I cook what I know, and so I consider it Italian.”
This new take on what “Italian” means is happening not just in Baltimore but across the country, said Izabela Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation, a New York nonprofit that celebrates America’s culinary heritage.
“It’s a whole new kind of Italian-American cuisine. I would call it Italian-American.” said Wojcik. “It’s really a product of the current way chefs cook.”
Besides Bottega, other new Italians include Aggio, the sleek new restaurant of nationally renowned chef Bryan Voltaggio, and Pazo, the former Spanish but now Italian restaurant of the Foreman Wolf restaurant group.
Others are Hersh’s, a bar in southern Baltimore where the small-plate menu is inspired by chip shops in Rome, and Birroteca, a “modern and rustic Italian” tavern where one of the specialties is Locavore, a Neapolitan pizza. topped with market cheese. fresh vegetables.
The biggest influence on the new Italian restaurant is farm-to-table movement, which emphasizes local sourcing, regional traditions and simplicity.
That’s what real Italian food is, said Aeschilman. “We were always commenting on the quality of the food in Italy, and it was really because they used fresh ingredients. It wasn’t a huge repertoire of food. People did pasta very well, they did cuts of very simple meat with a few ingredients.”
This culinary philosophy appears on Bottega’s menu, which usually lists a dozen dishes in total – a few starters and pastas, four main courses and one or two desserts. Almost everything is scrupulously sourced, and Aeschilman has cultivated relationships with local suppliers, even occasionally visiting area farms to pick the crops himself for his menu.
It’s no surprise that Italian cuisine and local cuisine are starting to converge, said Christin Fernandez, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, which conducts annual surveys of American chefs to track culinary trends.
For starters, Italian is a longtime favorite among table service menus in the United States, she said. But local sourcing, the backbone of farm-to-table meals, is top of mind for diners.
“Meat, seafood and local produce are our #1 and #2 table service trends for 2014,” Fernandez said. “Local sourcing has remained in the top 20 for the past five years, making it a real trend rather than a passing fad for table service concepts.”
If the main influence on the new Italian restaurant is farm-to-table, the second is the public’s interest in chef cooking.
Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation said Italian cuisine provides the perfect setting for enterprising chefs.
Restaurants are “trying to make their businesses gathering places where you appreciate the craftsmanship that goes on in the kitchen,” Wojcik said. Italian cuisine “never gets old because there are so many interpretations”.
Voltaggio, who rose to national prominence as a “Top Chef” contestant, said diners who come to Aggio looking for culinary fireworks won’t be disappointed.
The food at Aggio absolutely carries the inventive beauty and visual drama that diners crave in chef-led restaurants like Volt, its flagship restaurant in Frederick. But Voltaggio said people will always recognize Aggio as Italian and he’s not interested in confusing their expectations.
Wojcik said what Voltaggio is trying at Aggio is what chefs are doing all over America, and not just with Italian cuisine.
It’s a matter of personal cachet, she says.
“It’s not about chasing authenticity,” Wojcik said, “it’s about using authentic flavors as an influence. I think it’s all-American to do that.”
And Aggio also thinks locally when it comes to the menu.
Instead of basing the menu on a particular region of Italy, Aggio will draw inspiration from the mid-Atlantic region.
Aggio’s minestrone is not what you find in an Italian restaurant in Italy; it has blue crab with roasted shellfish, streaky spaghetti, and is topped with a crispy chickpea flatbread called scoca. Eventually, Voltaggio said he wanted to get Aggio’s tomatoes from the mid-Atlantic region instead of importing San Marzano tomatoes from Italy.
“It’s fine to break with tradition as long as you stick to the original,” Voltaggio said.
How far can Italian cuisine go before diners no longer feel like Italians?
Aeschilman said a few diners were openly annoyed that Bottega’s food wasn’t more Italian.
“We suffered a bit from being [labeled as] Italian,” he said. “We had people [angry] that we don’t have what they expect, but the majority of people get it,” he said.
Get the inside scoop on this new restaurant, find out about chef changes and discover your new favorite recipe. All your Baltimore food news is here.
At Pazo, which recently changed its menu from Spanish to Italian, executive chef Julian Marucci relies on his experience at another (Italian) Foreman Wolf restaurant, Cinghiale, to help him know how far go for Pazo’s southern Italian-influenced cuisine.
Both Pazo and Cinghiale set out to create authentic versions of Italian dishes, but their cuisine comes from regions less familiar to American diners. At Cinghiale, where the menu is inspired by the cuisines of central and northern Italy, diners sometimes revolted when a dish didn’t resemble the Americanized version they were used to.
“Risotto should have a good surrounding liquid; it should be cooked al dente,” Marucci said, but some diners thought the risotto was undercooked because the liquid hadn’t been absorbed. “The risotto always came back to the kitchen because it was not cooked enough”
Finally, the guests understood. “A few months later, we were fine,” Marucci said.
Back at Bottega, Aeschilman said he had an answer for diners wondering if this is really an Italian restaurant:
“We just try to make food that we want to eat.”