What ethnic cuisine do you feel like eating tonight? If you said ‘Italian’ then you’re in the menu majority.
Sixty-one percent of people polled by the National Restaurant Association said they choose Italian food at least
once a month when dining out, followed by Mexican and Chinese. While Italian
American classics such as huge portions of cheese-laden lasagna and chicken Parmesan are still popular, many menus have been modernized to reflect the style of dishes enjoyed in Italy.
After all, Italian ingredients including olives, olive oil, whole grains, seafood and vegetables are at the very heart of healthy Mediterranean diets.
“It’s great news that restaurants are lightening up Italian menus and featuring more authentic Italian dishes,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a non-profit food and nutrition education organization. “Now, Americans will get the true and healthy tastes of Italy and the Mediterranean Diet.”
Case in point is Carrabba’s Italian Grill. With over two hundred restaurants nationwide the restaurant chain recently introduced twenty new menu items. “It was time for a different way to approach Italian food,” said Jay Smith, head chef for Carrabba’s. “It’s lighter and brighter.”
So joining the classic chicken Parmesan is a new option called ‘Parmesan-crusted chicken arugula” which sautéed chicken breast crusted with panko bread crumbs and topped with fresh arugula, tomatoes and shaved Parmesan cheese with a lemon vinaigrette.
During a visit to the test kitchens of Carrabba’s in the Tampa headquarters of parent company Bloomin’ Brands, I had the opportunity to taste some of the new dishes, many of them featuring fresh vegetables.
Additions include wood-grilled salmon topped with tomato, cucumber and dill. Grilled chicken with a Chianti sauce is served with an arugula salad tossed with apples, grapes, and toasted hazelnuts.
“We wanted to find new ways to add vegetables to the menu,” said registered dietitian Maria Caranfa, who works on recipe development with Bloomin’ Brands’ chefs. “There’s grilled asparagus now wrapped in prosciutto and other small plates such as chicken with vegetables served in romaine lettuce wraps.”
Italian dining doesn’t have to be a special occasion feast. “Over fifty percent of the menu items at Carrabba’s are under 600 calories so guests can feel good about eating here on casual nights out,” said Katie Knight of Bloomin’ Brands.
Many dishes are served with a grilled lemon half so guests can up the flavor without adding calories. Small plates and platters meant for sharing have been added to the menu including a tomato caprese with fresh burrata mozzarella.
“You don’t have to be in the mood for pasta to enjoy Italian,” said Justin Cross of Carrabba’s.
But if diners are in the mood, chefs take pasta seriously here where it’s imported from Italy and cooked to order. “We are passionate how pasta is cooked,” said Smith.
They’re available now, but chefs were reluctant to put whole grain or gluten free pastas on the menu until they found acceptable products.
New school Italian it seems is moving closer to old world demand for quality.