What's the first thing that pops to mind when you think of authentic Italian food? Is it spaghetti and meatballs? If that's the case, you're probably not alone.
"From Italian chain restaurants such as the Olive Garden or Carrabba's, to small, family-owned restaurants like Zaffiro's, Balistreri's or Alioto's, Italian cuisine in general, no matter how authentic or Americanized, has always had a firm footing in the Milwaukee area," says Vita Fugarino, general manager at Wild Earth Cucina, Milwaukee's newest Italian restaurant.
In pulling together the concept for Wild Earth, Potawatomi took numerous factors into consideration, including the demand expressed by consumers, indicating that they'd like to see Italian food at the casino.
But, what does it mean when a city makes the demand for more Italian food within its boundaries? For many, it creates the expectation of more pastas and pizzas. But, what about the more "authentic" side of Italy? Is there a place in Milwaukee for the real deal?
On the one hand, specialty Italian grocers like Glorioso's are seeing a growing awareness of authentic Italian products and their place at the family dining table.
"The advent of the food networks has made a phenomenal difference in our business," says Michael Glorioso, whose father Teddy started the business with his brother, Joe, in 1946. "We didn't sell a lot of things like truffles or truffle oil in the past, but now with the education of the people, they're coming in and supporting the purchase of those products. We now have 18-year-old college students coming in and asking for Prosciutto di Parma or Parmigiano-Reggiano."
On the other hand, chefs and restaurateurs often find that perceptions about Italian food get in the way of really rolling out a truly authentic Italian concept.
"When Graffito first started, we envisioned a higher-end Italian place," says Chef Joe McCormick of Ryan Braun's Graffito. "But, people want what they want – the spaghetti, the bolognese, the alfredo. It's a comfort food thing, people know what they want and they stick with it."
But, the perception that "Italian food" is one gigantic homogeneous menu, consisting primarily of pastas with red sauce, couldn't be further from the truth. Italy is intensely regional, and a dish considered one city's signature will be unheard of even just a short distance down the road. Italy's regional cuisine is varied and diverse – ranging from savory meat-heavy dishes like porchetta in Umbria, to fresh anchovies in Liguria, and ribollita, a bread and vegetable soup served primarily in Tuscany.
But, despite these variations, one aspect of authentic Italian food remains constant -- a focus on high-quality, seasonal ingredients – and the simplicity of the recipes.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with spaghetti and meatballs; in fact, I really like them! However, real Italian cuisine is entirely different," explains Juan Urbieta, executive chef at Ristorante Bartolotta.
"We've had the fortunate opportunity to do it successfully at Ristorante Bartolotta for the past 10 years. I started with authentic preparations and then introduced incredible ingredients that are common in Italy but rarely used here such as squid ink, bottarga, truffles, lesser known cheeses and soon."
You'll sometimes hear that every great Italian dish has only three ingredients. While that's often an exaggeration, you're unlikely to find complicated dishes in most of the country's family restaurants. Instead of complex combinations of ingredients or fussy processes, Italians choose instead to use the best fresh ingredients they can find – meaning what's in season and available locally – and they pull together dishes that are deliciously simple, allowing the quality of the ingredients to shine through.
Urbieta says that food, wine and service are the three main elements that make up a great (and authentic) Italian restaurant. He points to "real authentic preparations with no more than three or four ingredients" such as handmade pasta with a simple veal ragu and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
"The biggest challenge is that people have their mindset of what they expect Italian food to be," McCormick notes. "People tend to expect to see the dishes they know and love. One of the big questions in doing Italian right is: How do we get people to break out of their shells and try something new?"
McCormick notes that it's also a challenge competing against Italian-themed chain restaurants like Maggiano's, Olive Garden and Bravo Cucina.
"What are we doing at Graffito to try to get people to spend $15 on a bowl of spaghetti when you can get a similar dish at a chain for far less?"
Urbieta agrees. "Unfortunately, the best ingredients, especially those that come from Europe, are not inexpensive. What I love about our guests is they get excited about ingredients and oftentimes ask to see products. I absolutely love bringing items to the table for guests to read the label and really understand that what we are using, and what they are paying for, is the real deal."
At Ristorante Bartolotta, Urbieta takes an informative approach to the food, educating guests about dishes they may have never heard of, and ingredients they've never come upon, in a respectful and approachable way.
"It all starts by conducting a staff tasting both of food and wines and extensively talking about products, what's special about them, what makes them unique, where they come from," Urbieta underscores. "Then the server's job is to bring that knowledge and enthusiasm to the table and to the guest."
Urbieta points to Italian restaurants like Trattoria Stefano in Sheboygan, a restaurant nationally renowned for its casual Italian food, the simplicity of which reveals a passion and respect for authentic Italian ingredients and flavors. Chef and Owner Stefano Viglietti, who believes that firsthand knowledge cannot be overrated, selects members of his staff to accompany him on an annual trip to Italy to learn more about Italian culture and cooking. Over the years, roughly 40 staff members have made the trip to gain firsthand knowledge.
It's the sort of attention to detail that matters, Urbieta notes as he tells me about his ideal Italian experience. "For example, I rarely go out for Italian but when I do, I'm really looking forward to it. I get immediately turned off when I start reading a menu in which the Italian names for the dishes don't
make sense and don't mean what they're supposed to. A little bit of research goes a long way."
But, you don't have to spend hours researching material before going to dinner. Here are five suggestions for making your way toward more authentic options at Milwaukee Italian restaurants.
1. Don't be afraid to ask if a restaurant makes its own pasta. Family-owned restaurants like Mia Famiglia in Hales Corners offer homemade ravioli, along with house-made, gluten-free pasta. Many Italian restaurants also bake their breads fresh daily.
2. Keep your eyes out for fresh, seasonal and local. For example, ask to see the Chef's Seasonal Menu at Ristorante Bartolotta, which showcases the seasonality of both domestic and imported products.
3. Look for imported or house-made Italian charcuterie, like the duck prosciutto featured in Graffito's pappardelle with duck ragu.
4. Scan the menu for quality imports: San Marzano tomatoes, Italian truffles, regional olive oils and artisan cheeses.
5. Don't stick to the same old dishes. Try something new. Even better, test out the knowledge of your servers by asking them for unique, regional specialties.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.