Columbus Day this year marked 520 years since Italian culture first hit the shores of the Americas. It may surprise you that in 2014 Italian is still the #1 ethnic cuisine in the US by a wide margin. Menu incidence is more prevalent for Italian than the next five ethnic cuisines combined, including Mexican and Chinese.
Better still, it’s the cuisine most (63%) consumers say they want to see more of at restaurants. That preference for more Italian food when dining out holds true across all income levels and ethnic backgrounds, and is up seven points since 2012. As a positive sign for the future, Italian food preference is even higher among millennials at 66%.
It’s clear that Italian food resonates with American diners across the board. The key is in finding ways to differentiate your Italian food from the guy next door, and making it fit the particular tastes of your customers and style of your concept.
- 63% of consumers indicate they want to see more Italian food at restaurants
- Millennials index higher than other generations for Italian preference (+2-5%)
- Unique, Spicy and Authentic are consumers’ top three reasons to try a new food or menu item
“Restaurant operators don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel if they want to stay on trend for new flavors and cuisines. Instead, restaurants can differentiate themselves with authentic ethnic flavors.”
– Katrina Fajardo, Foodservice Analyst, Mintel
Why Authentic, Regional Italian Works
Despite the prevalence of Italian food in America, much of what’s known here tends to be a small set of “Americanized” dishes from the southern part of Italy, where many first wave Italian immigrants hailed from. The ubiquitous “red sauce,” “alfredo sauce” and other dishes have roots in Italy, but are not actually authentically Italian. In short, there is much room for discovery, innovation and excitement in the regional cuisines of Italy!
When asked what they look for in trying new foods at restaurants, fresh preparations and ingredients, spicy and authentic are some of the top drivers for consumers. By nature, regional Italian cuisine leans heavily on seasonal and local produce and fresh preparation methods. Some regions – notably in the South of Italy, including Puglia, Sicily and Calabria – are known for their spicy fare and indigenous peppers.
Where We’re Seeing It: Authentic & Regional Italian
Noodles & Co: Asparagus di Parma – a (spring) seasonal side dish featuring fresh asparagus, white wine butter sauce, mushrooms and tomato tossed with spaghetti noodles. Served with Parmesan-crusted chicken breast and finished with a lemon wedge and a dusting of Parmesan cheese.
Rialto, Boston MA – Chef Jody Adams’ acclaimed restaurant changes their menu monthly to revolve around a particular region. This October, it was Campania, including Rigatoni Alla Campania with tomatoes, capers, Gaeta olives, basil, caciocavallo and olio santo.
Boot & Shoe Service, Oakland CA – features a rotating focus on a particular region of Italy each month. The latest slate at this hip Oakland spot includes Umbria, Piedmont, and Alto Adige.
Regional, New York, NY – This entire independent restaurant is built around the concept of Italian regional cuisine. Each dish on the menu identifies the region it hails from. Salute!