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Italian sauces and oils can define a chef and his restaurant.

Sauces and Oils Help Italian Chefs Build the Perfect Dish

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How chefs use sauces and oils to build the perfect dish.

By Jen Karetnick June 2016

Americans love Italian food. According to 2015 data from the National Restaurant Association, Americans prefer Italian over all other ethnic cuisines. 

And while the average customer might enjoy a particular kind of homemade pasta or a chef’s signature seafood preparation, their return visit to an Italian restaurant is often based upon how much they want to lick the plate clean of its sauce. No matter how tender the ravioli or how succulent the shrimp scampi, a lousy bolognese isn’t going to bring anybody back for second helpings.

Like the French, the Italians have some authentic and classic—or “mother”—sauces that the best Italian chefs know should be mastered. Lorenzo Boni, executive chef at Barilla, classifies these into three main categories: tomato based, from amatriciana (with pork cheek and pecorino) to arrabiata (with garlic and red chili) and puttanesca (with anchovy, olive, caper, and garlic); extra-virgin olive oil (evoo) based, such as aglio e olio (garlic and oil) or vongole (with clams, clam juice, white wine, garlic, and parsley); and cream or dairy based, such as carbonara (with egg, cheese, and pork). 

The last category, Boni says, also includes the little known besciamella, which all lasagnas in Italy have as their base. But it does not include Alfredo sauce, which he calls “an entirely Italian-American creation.” (Alfredo is actually an American’s misinterpretation of pasta bianco, which is simply pasta with a little butter and grated cheese.) 

As for pestos, Boni says, they “could have their own category; they are olive oil–based, but are endlessly variable and blend well with other sauces as well.”

Indeed, pesto is Fabio Viviani’s favorite sauce to make. “I love the bright flavor and the bright green color,” says Viviani, who is chef and partner of several Italian restaurants in Chicago and California. “The marriage between the cheese and roasted garlic makes pesto sauce an amazing palate pleaser.” Viviani often uses it to enhance non-pasta and protein dishes such as potatoes.

In fact, pesto can even be added to soups, deepening the flavor of a broth with one easy swirl. Products like La Malva Rosa Pesto Genovese, which is sold by Bottega Mediterranea, a company that sources artisanal goods from small producers, can be kept shelf stable for these occasions if fresh pesto isn’t a regular part of a restaurant kitchen’s routine.

In general, Boni says, the trick to making a good sauce (or soup, for that matter) is that there is no trick. “All Italian sauces, simple or complex, are built by layering flavors, one on top of the other,” he says. “Typically we sweat either onions or garlic (almost never both) in EVOO, brown and caramelize meat or vegetables, sometimes deglaze with wine, and simmer slowly to develop the flavors. The goal is to create a good flavoring base for what comes next.”

At TiramesU, a restaurant that has thrived for 25 years in Miami’s South Beach, chef Fabrizio Pintus also believes that there are no shortcuts. If he needs beef stock for his rabbit or wild boar ragù, he’ll start it with bone marrow three days before and keep cooking until it’s the right, rich flavor and consistency. If it’s a rich bisque for a seafood pasta dish, he’ll simmer it slowly with the shells rather than whip up a roux with flour. “Come in first thing in the morning,” he says, “and you’ll see a big pot every day with something reducing.”

Once the sauces are cooked, there are numerous ways to highlight them in a dish. Just as a sauce should be started with a fine EVOO, it should also be finished that way. Jose Mendoza, owner of Bottega Mediterranea, advises that chefs “top or finish sauce with premium extra virgin olive oils.” He also recommends employing “the finest single-estate and single-variety EVOO … as a condiment; drizzled over fish, meat, steamed vegetables, [or] baked potatoes; in salad dressings; as a bread dipper; as the base for mayonnaise and uncooked sauces; or rubbed on a piece of bread.”

TiramesU’s Pintus lengthens the palate life of his sauces, such as the one that coats his pasta e legumi, with Calabrian chili oil. Adding an herbed or spiced oil is a robust way to brighten a dish, he says. 

Pintus also manages to watch his quality control at the same time by pouring the original chili oil into a new container and blending it with more EVOO. “The imported chili oil is actually too spicy for Americans,” he says, “so I make it less so and get more of it.”

Boni also likes using crushed red pepper or pepperoncino “to bring the heat,” he says. But if you’re going for subtlety with finished sauces, he advocates the use of fresh herbs over dried, and sea salt over table salt. “Sea salt allows me to use less salt and has a nuanced flavor that improves a dish,” he says, adding, “A little bit of intense dried mushrooms like porcini to complement fresh ones, or just to add depth, can also go a long way.”

Still, balance is important. So is restraint. No matter how good your sauce or how fine your EVOO, going overboard can have consequences. “Sauces and oils are used to enhance a flavor of a dish,” Viviani says. “If too much or too little is used, it’ll ruin the dish. But if you have the perfect amount, then you’re in luck.”