Cuisine Focus: Italian

Sarah Jacotine explores cuisine trends and challenges in Italian food

A risotto from Primavera, in Ritz-Carlton Bahrain.
A risotto from Primavera, in Ritz-Carlton Bahrain.

Is Italian cuisine still as popular as ever in the region?

Francisco Javier Martín Romo, manager, Casa Mia, Dubai: Italian cuisine will always be very popular. In my opinion, this is because it’s light and can be eaten more than once a day. The Mediterranean diet is enjoyed by many in the Middle East, as it was created to be eaten and enjoyed in a warm climate, which it is here throughout the year.

Alfonso Ferraioli, head chef, Primavera, Bahrain: Italian cuisine is popular around the world and particularly in this region. Italian cuisine has developed through centuries of social and political changes, with roots dating back to 4th century BC. Italian cuisine has been influenced by the cuisine of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Byzantine, Arabia and Normandy. Important changes occurred with the discovery of the New World and the introduction of ingredients such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and corn, now fundamental in the kitchen but introduced in quantities only in the eighteenth century.

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Francesco Guarracino, executive chef, Roberto’s Abu Dhabi: Italian cuisine is as popular in the region as it is around the world because of its easy to understand flavours and textures for every palette — and it continues to grow in popularity due to its healthy and fresh nature, which, at the same time, does not compromise on the taste.

Christian Carrieri, head chef, Matto: Italian is one of the most popular cuisines worldwide, however, it is the culinary genre most misused. We have seen many restaurants claim they serve genuine Italian fare but dishes such as pasta with chicken and white sauce do not exist in Italian gastronomy.

Mauro Altea, head chef, Simply Italian, Dubai: Italian cuisine is still very popular in the region. There are two elements that will always keep it current; nostalgia and the sharing aspect of Italian food that creates a bond between diners.

Has Italian cuisine’s growth been challenged by the availability of other cuisines across the region?

Romo: All the ‘authentic’ cuisines of every nation are competitors of Italian food. One thing that makes Italian food different from other cuisines is that we try to prevent recipes from straying from the original ones used in regional and family traditions. There are recipes that were brought to the US over 100 years ago by Italian immigrants, which are still very popular. The same recipes in Italy are becoming less popular due to new ideas and interpretations but they will never fade completely as there will always be families continuing to pass the recipes down through generations.

Ferraioli: Italian cuisine is known for its diversity, abundance in taste and seasoning with international inspirations make Italian cuisine very appealing. With the growth of offerings in the region, the key to Italian cuisine’s popularity is its unique taste and composition. The success of any Italian dish is the freshness and originality of its ingredients [and] the extreme simplicity of the recipes.

Guarracino: A few years ago, Italian and French were the most popular cuisines. In the last decade we have seen many international cuisines entering the industry like Japanese, Peruvian, Mexican, Thai... which have become popular with consumers. But this has only pushed Italian restaurants to be better and more innovative in terms of flavour and concepts. We have to provide the best products made with best ingredients, technology and latest cooking techniques to have a recognised position in the current market.

Carrieri: These last years, Italian cuisine has been somewhat sidelined as cuisines such Peruvian, Japanese, fusion, Indian have grown in popularity and had the spotlight placed on them. We feel that the winds of change are in the air in Dubai and people are choosing to go back to basics. Italian food is genuine, authentic and superbly rich in flavour. Our main objective [is] to make genuine Italian cuisine accessible to all, while adopting a more casual feel.

Altea: There has been a boom of fusion food in the region but I think that Italian cuisine will never go out of fashion. It is not a trend, but rather a source of comfort to be able to taste food that has been passed down from generation to generation.

What is the latest trend in Italian cuisine?

Ferraioli: Organic ingredients are the newest trend for the culinary map, and we are seeing more restaurants investing in backyard gardens for sourcing. This is particularly important for Italian gastronomies as the key element is freshness. We grow a variety of our ingredients at the hotel [Ritz-Carlton Bahrain] and we work closely with farmers.

Guarracino: Today it is all about clean flavours. It is more about experiencing the essence of each ingredient than their combination. The concept is minimalism — both in terms of ingredients and presentation.

Carrieri: Going back to the roots of our food and bringing authenticity to each dish. We are reworking our mothers’ and grandmothers’ dishes, and adapting them to modern day flavours. When it comes to dining, expectations are high. However, people [are] craving simplicity and authenticity.

Altea: Italian cuisine is moving to a more health conscious mind-set. With the growth of vegans and vegetarians there is a focus on organic vegetables and natural products. In my opinion a current trend is to bake various kinds of artisanal bread with natural yeast and organic flour.

What challenges do you face in offering Italian cuisine?

Romo: The challenges are when we get requests to transform original Italian food in something completely different by the customer.

Ferraioli: My dishes come with an identity that is not very common to the general perception of Italian cuisine — a combination of a traditional dish with a modern touch. It comes with its advantages and disadvantages, and a few guests, at times, find it courageous.

Guarracino: Right now every authentic Italian restaurant faces the challenge [of] fake Italian products in the market. These products are sold at a cheaper price and have become very popular amongst the consumers. The challenge is to educate the consumers about the quality they are getting.

Altea: The challenge is being able to offer the authentic recipes and dishes of the Italian cuisine that has been overshadowed by commercialised Italian cuisine.

How’s the supply stream?

Romo: Italian cuisine would not be complete without the use of quality Italian ingredients. The supply chain works well in providing what we need. However, there is a huge range of fresh ingredients available in Italy, that are not available here, such that sometimes I struggle with supplier quality.

Ferraioli: Our vegetables, fish and fresh ingredients are sourced locally, complemented by imported supply from Italy.

Altea: Definitely the choice of different suppliers is very big; some of them are very professional, from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing and delivering the end product. [The] competition is an advantage for us chefs — we can get any cheese, fish, and vegetable from Italy in three days’ time. That’s very impressive.

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