The appeal of Italian cuisine is undeniable. For many, very few things satisfy like a plate of pasta, a pizza, or a caprese. After years of mass emigration, globalization, travel and political upheaval, much of “Italian” cuisine outside of Italy has become unrecognizable.
Over the years we've found a number of places where the chefs are trying to reclaim some dishes while also appealing to their guests. Chefs the world over are balancing the need for constant inspiration and respect for tradition. They are using local ingredients and, when possible, authentic ones from a specific region to retain the integrity of the dish.
In New York, LA, and San Mateo, CA, here’s where to savor a true taste of Italy.
Dish: PizzaThe ubiquitous pizza, this wonderful, prized simple item that represents the soul of Naples, is trying to come full circle, attempting to regain its proper place in the culinary canon. The pizza Napoletana that one enjoys while walking through historic “spacca Napoli,” is the real thing with pristine ingredients that honor the place of origin: mozzarella di bufala, basil, tomatoes and olive oil. Any other flat bread topped with various ingredients is not pizza Napoletana.
A few spots stand out for making pizza Napoletana as authentically as possible and one is the original San Matteo on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The owners are from Salerno, their mozzarella is made in house and the pizzaioli seem to have been born with a peel in hand. The saucing is minimal and the basil fragrant. Excellent pizza Napoletana, full stop.
Dish: PestoThe fragrant pesto Genovese should be made with garlic, basil (young, small leaves are best), olive oil, a bit of grated Parmigiano and if handy, some toasted pignoli. Any other version—say with parsley or kale—is a saucy, wonderful paste and can be utterly delicious, but should it be called pesto?
At The Factory Kitchen in Los Angeles, the menu leans towards Liguria and offers such beauties as the focaccina calda di Recco al formaggio and a special of zembi con l’arzillo (fish stuffed ravioli), two very Ligurian dishes. Home in on the mandilli di seta with Ligurian almond-basil pesto. From the thick and floppy sheets of pasta lovingly and correctly dressed with a creamy almond-basil pesto, to the heady fragrance, everything about this dish is enjoyable.
Dish: AranciniThe arancino is not an orb of leftover rice stuffed with a variety of ingredients and deep fried. This amazing item, which has been reduced to a way for kitchens to repurpose leftover rice, is an unfortunate misinterpretation. The rice should be cooked in stock, dressed with a knob of butter, saffron and bound with eggs. The saffron infuses the rice with a warm marigold color. Its cavity should be filled with sugo di carne, peas, provola cheese and then formed into an orb (or a pinecone shape), breaded and deep fried. What many restaurants list as an arancino is closer to the Roman supplì al telefono.
One restaurant that has managed to make the arancina (as it is referred to in the Western area of Sicily) exceptionally well is Norma Gastronomia Siciliana in Manhattan. From the classic meat sauce-stuffed orb to the squid ink-permeated rice stuffed with a seafood ragout, these are indimenticabili. The chef hails from Trapani and also offers busiate alla Trapanese, and if you are lucky sarde á beccafico, two dishes only found on the island.
Region: Lazio e Roma
Dish: GuancialeReal guanciale is difficult to find in many areas of the United States and often replaced with pancetta (or bacon) in simple, classic Roman pasta dishes such as gricia, carbonara and amatriciana. It is unfortunate, since the sweet, salty fatty pork that is guanciale is unique. There are a few spots that are curing their own guanciale, and none do it as deliciously as Pausa in San Mateo, CA, thanks to chef/owner Andrea Giuliani. When a diner orders the Brussels sprouts or the poached duck egg with mixed chicories, those sweet bits of pork are indeed guanciale. The array of charcuterie made in house here is mind-blowing and includes porchetta, that juicy, heavenly, crisp-skinned rolled pork roast which a diner can choose to have added on an array of delicious dishes or take home.
Dish: TortelliniWaverley Root dedicated over 100 pages to this region in The Food of Italy. Emilia-Romagna is the culinary heart of Italy, and tortellini, those spectacular little “belly buttons” are one of its treasures. Done properly, they are light, heady, and perfect, sealing a memory that is impossible to forget. The classic filling is simple, each should be as light as air and just gently bathed in a sauce of parmigiano.
The one spot where these tiny pockets of heaven are made spectacularly well is the US is Gucci Osteria by Massimo Bottura in Beverly Hills. This kitchen dream team presents three tortellini with just a bit of crema di parmigiano. One taste and the world around you disappears.
Hero image: Norma Gastronomia Siciliana's arancino
© Salvatore Fraterrigo Garofalo/Norma Gastronomia Siciliana