The term “Northern Italian” has long been more of a marketing tool rather than an accurate descriptor of a restaurant. It is term that is supposed to denote some level of sophistication, at least in regards to the typical Italian restaurant. At least that is how it has been used for much of the past thirty-five or forty years when “Northern Italian” first began to appear on marquees, menus, advertisements and reviews.
But, I thought that it would be fun to test the accuracy of the assertion of “Northern Italian” by testing one restaurant’s menu. The one selected is Rossini’s in Manhattan, “Northern Italian Cuisine since 1978” about which even the Zagat editor noted its “Northern Italian” cuisine. Rossini’s just happened to appear on the first page of search results for “Northern Italian restaurant.”
A past dinner menu from Rossini’s is shown below with comments. I removed the specials that are not specifically identified on the menu. A score showing the percentage of dishes from one of the northern Italian regions – simply defined as anything north of Rome for this – is shown at the end of the article.
- Melanzane Rippiene, $10, Eggplant slices stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses – Southern Italy.
- Vongole al Forno, $12, Clams baked with a zesty breadcrumb topping, garlic and virgin olive oil – A version of the classic Clams Casino, which is from New York and actually has no Italian antecedents.
- Prosciutto con Melone, $12 – Prosciutto di Parma draped over ripe seasonal melon or figs – Though the main popular proscioutto this does come from northern Italy, Parma in the region of Emilia-Romagna, this dish is attributed to Naples.
- Mozzarella di Bufala, $14 – Fresh mild curds of mozzarella cheese served with prosciutto di Parma,sliced tomatoes and roasted peppers – Mozzara di bufala is a specialty of Campania, the region of Naples, whose production know includes Molise and at least one region of northern Italy.
- Zuppa di Cozze di New Zealand, $16, Large green lipped mussels served in a white wine broth with olive oil and garlic – Derived from a dish from the Naples area, though similar dishes exist throughout much of coastal Italy where mussels can be found.
- Salmone Affumicato, $15, Smoked filets of salmon with all the trimmings – Americans like smoked salmon. Scotland.
- Gamberi Freddi, $16, Four jumbo pieces of icy shrimp served with a zesty cocktail sauce – This all-American treat has been on Italian restaurants in America for a century, at least. United States.
- Frutta di Mare, $18, Fresh seafood salad dressed with a light vinaigrette dressing – A Neapolitan favorite even in misspelled form. Naples.
- Calamari Fritti, $16, Tender morsels of squid lightly fried and accompanied by a mild or fiery tomato sauce – Also from the greater Naples area, though fried cuttlefish is found throughout coast Italy.
- Insalata Tre Colori, $10, Three colored salad with radicchio, arugula and Belgian endive – Like most green salads found on menus, this as American roots. United States.
- Insalata di Spinaci $11, Fresh spinach salad served with a warm bacon dressing – Same story as above. United States.
- Insalata alla Cesare, $11, Traditional Caesar salad with fresh Romaine lettuce topped with tangy anchovies, garlic, egg and cheese dressing – This Italian restaurant staple is from Tijuana, Mexico, courtesy of Italian immigrants and popularized in California.
- Insalata di Fagiolini, $14, Baby string bean salad topped with red onion in a balsamic vinaigrette dressing with Vermont goat cheese – From the northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia (or the former Yugoslavia next door) with an American goat cheese.
- Stracciatella alla Romana, $10, The Classic Roman egg drop and spinach soup – Rome, in fact.
- Orzo in Brodo, $10, Tiny pasta in a flavorful chicken broth – Pasta in broth is found throughout Italy. A few years ago, I had pasta, strands of fresh pasta, in broth a couple of times during a trip to the region of Friuli.
- Spaghetti alla Marinara, $22, Traditional Neapolitan zesty tomato and garlic sauce – Naples
- Tortellini alla Rossini, $23, Stuffed pasta in a cream based sauce with an accent of meat and sherry wine – Tortellini is originally from Bologna, but the cream and sherry are likely a remnant of the heyday of “Continental” restaurants.
- Rigatoni al Filetto di Pomodoro, $22, Tubular pasta in a zesty pancetta and onion tomato sauce – Naples
- Gnocchi Bolognese, $23, Potato dumplings dressed with a traditional Northern Italian meat sauce – I’ll assume that this is a version of the famous ragù developed in Bologna.
- Linguine al Pesto, $23, Flat pasta enveloped in a creamy basil sauce – Pesto is from the Ligurian coast, though a creamy version seems to be an American restaurant adaptation. Liguria.
- Fettucine Alfredo, $22, The Roman classic presented in the traditional manner – Rome. And, long an American restaurant staple.
- Spaghetti alla Carbonara, $23, Pasta bathed in a delicious combination of pancetta, prosciutto, onions and parmigiano reggiano cheese – This is a cucina povera dish from the Lazio region and has long been a popular trattoria dish in Rome.
- Linguine con Vongole in Bianco, $25, Flat pasta in a rich clam broth with roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil – Naples.
- Capesante sauté Meuinere, $28, Tender sea scallops sautéed in white wine, lemon and butter – A French treatment, actually. France.
- Calamari Casserola, $27, Tender pieces of squid poached in an aromatic tomato and wine based sauce – The tomato gives this a Southern Italian provenance. The Naples area is a good guess for its origin, though there are likely similar dishes throughout the coastal areas where tomatoes are used, including the Tuscan coast.
- Gamberi alla Rossini, $35, Rossini’s special presentation of shrimps in a champagne sauce – Likely some French influence from when “Continental” was a selling point for a restaurant. France.
- Gamberi Fra Diavolo, $35, Shrimps in a spicy marinara sauce with roasted garlic and olive oil – New York.
- Gamberi Oreganata, $35, Jumbo plump shrimps topped with zesty bread crumbs and baked in an olive oil and garlic sauce – Likely developed in New York, as a takeoff from the traditional Cozze Oregenata from Naples.
- Zuppa de Pesce, $39, Combination of various sea delicacies in a fragrant and tangy tomato and wine sauce – Fish soup is found all along the coasts in Italy, but with tomato sauce, this probably has some roots in Naples or Neapolitan America.
- Pesce Del Inglitera, Market Price, The finest Dover sole sautéed in a light wine and butter sauce or broiled to perfection – This seems to be a classic French preparation, but I actually had filet of sole – not Dover sole – cooked in a champagne sauce at a trattoria in Liguria. It was terrific.
- Petto de Pollo Parmigiana alla Rossini, $25, Batter dipped chicken breasts served in a herb scented white wine sauce then baked with mozzarella cheese – Chicken Parmesan is an American creation derived the Neapolitan-originated Eggplant Parmesan. United States.
- Pollo Scarpariello, $25, Breast of chicken sautéed with white wine, lemon, garlic and rosemary – Naples area.
- Spezzato di Pollo, $25, Small pieces of chicken and mushrooms sautéed in a white wine and sherry demiglace sauce – The demiglace and sherry point to non-Italian heritage. France.
- Pollo Fiorentina, $25, Batter dipped breast of chicken sautéed in a light wine and butter sauce draped over spinach and topped with fontina cheese – Though “alla fiorentina” or “fiorentina” has come to mean a dish with spinach, Ada Boni’s Italian Regional Cooking in 1969 has a recipe for Pollo alla Fiorentina featuring dried mushrooms, garlic, ham, onion, tomatoes, parsley and white wine, and no spinach around. Of the five other “alla fiorentina” recipes, only features spinach, the Uova alla Firontina, Florentine Eggs. United States.
- Vitello alla Rossini, $25, Scallops of veal sautéed with a delicate wine and mushroom sauce accented with prosciutto and onions – Ada Boni attributes somewhat similar veal preparations to Modena and Parma, respectively. Emilia-Romagna.
- Vitello alla Francese, $27, Batter dipped veal sautéed with white wine, lemon and butter – New York. These dish might have developed on a cruise ship during the 1950s or before, but it gained resonance in New York area restaurants.
- Saltimbocca di Vitello alla Romana, $27, Scallops of veal sautéed in a wine demiglace sauce topped with prosciutto and presented over a bed of spinach – Rome.
- Vitello alla Pizzaiola, $27, Slices of veal sautéed and enveloped in a light tomato sauce with mushrooms and peppers – Naples. Naples is the birthplace of the pizzaiolo (and pizziola), and those dishes that take their name after the sauce and spices used by the pizza-maker.
- Bistecca alla Toscana, $38, New York shell steak marinated in wine and herbs then grilled to your choice in the traditional Tuscan style – United States.
- Filetto di Manzo alla Rossini, $38, Medallions of Filet Mignon served in a hearty wine sauce accented with prosciutto and mushrooms – One of the delights of an upscale Italian-American restaurants. United States.
- Costoletta di Maiale Grigliata, $38, Tender pork chops marinated and grilled to your taste – United States.
- Costoletta di Agnello Grigliata, $40, Lamb chops grilled with light Italian seasonings – Lamb is grilled in much of Italy; too often over-grilled, in my experience. This is certainly much better than what you would typically find in Italy.
- Costoletta di Vitello Milanese alla Giardiniera, $40, Milk fed rib of veal chop breaded and topped with tre colori salad – Likely a robust American version of a dish from Milan.
Only eight of the forty-four dishes on this menu might be considered northern Italian. That’s less than 20%. None too northern, but if diners enjoy it….