By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Talk about upping your game.
Italianni’s – the nationwide Italian restaurant chain that started off 20 years ago as a mediocre take-out pizza joint with service to rival the likes of United Airlines back in 2017 when it had its henchmen drag a 69-year-old off a flight out of Chicago in order to make space for a crew member on an overbooked flight, and eventually evolved into a quality family-style eatery with mega portions, affordable prices and nearly 100 locales and franchises across Mexico – has just taken its first step toward joining the fine-dining establishment.
As part of a concerted effort to revamp its image and cater to a better-heeled, more discerning clientele (specifically, millennials), Italianni’s (part of Mexico’s Alsea multi-brand food-service operator that includes fast food, casual dining and cafeteria-style diners) has just launched a two-month gourmet festival of stuffed pasta delicacies that could give Tuscany’s renowned three-Michelin-star Enoteca Pinchiorri a run for its money.
The festival – which includes five classic epicurean dishes from different regions of Italian – is intended to give customers an authentic sampling of haute cuisine italiane (as well as a glimpse of the new direction the restaurant is heading).
Under the careful supervision of Italianni’s corporate chef Giuseppe Viteritti – a graduate of Torino’s esteemed Istituto Alberghiero Formont – the restaurant has spared no expense to ensure that the dishes are as faithfully Italian as possible, even going to the trouble to import all of the pasta directly from Rome.
The stuffed pasta menu includes three ravioli dishes and two tortellini options.
The Ravioli Caprese, the least-caloric choice on the festival menu, is, as the name implies, a faithful interpretation of a recipe from Italy’s southern Island of Capri, with steamed spinach and sweet ricotta cheese enveloped between two thin squares of semolina pasta and dressed not in a sauce, but rather a tossed salad of uncooked cherry tomatoes, diced red onions, basil leaves and tiny mozzarella cubes.
The subtle balance of the tangy sour spinach and honeyed ricotta pasta with the unblemished natural goodness of the raw ingredients gives this dish an airy, summery lightness that makes it a splendid production.
The second option on the menu is also based on spinach and ricotta-stuffed ravioli, but this time in a northern Italian-style robust salmagundi of grilled sausage, roasted mushrooms and red pimiento peppers stewed in a delightfully capsaicin chili pomodoro sauce.
This hot and hardy creation, generously garnished with bits of gorgonzola cheese that seem to intensify the amalgam of flavors, couldn’t be more succulent or more satiating.
The third and last ravioli option – also build around a base of spinach and ricotta cheese-stuffed pasta squares – is a venerable baked casserole topped with a piquant pomodoro and smothered in a runny, gooey-good gratin of melted mozzarella and grated parmesan, as classic an Italian dish as you find this side of the Atlantic.
The last two dishes are positioned around stuffed tortellini pasta instead of ravioli.
Tortellini, little crescent-shaped stuffed pastas, are indigenous of Italy´s northeastern regions of Emilia and Romagna, where the inevitable influence of traditional French cookery has left its mark.
The delicately aromatic basil pesto stuffing in the festival’s Tortellini Liguria is heightened by the creamy richness of a pungently musty sage Alfredo sauce and bits of barely steamed fresh broccoli and tiny cherry tomatoes.
The other tortellini dish is composed of basil pesto stuffed semicircle pasta bathed in a luscious gorgonzola cheese and ground walnut paste and crowned with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, a delectable infusion of Franco-Italian gastronomy.
During a press preview of Italianni’s stuffed-pasta menu, chef Viteritti said that festival is slated to run through mid-May, but because the pasta and many other ingredients were flown in from Italy, high demand and limited quantity may lead to a shortening of the gastronomic fair.
But, no worries, he said, because at least some of these tantalizing ravioli and tortellini dishes on the stuffed pasta festival menu are destined to be incorporated into in Italianni’s ever-more-upscale, ever-more-gourmet standard bill of fare.