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Fast & Fresh Italian The booming fast-casual segment is primed and ready for simple Italian fare

A top-seller at Romano’s Kitchen Counter, the Chicken Caesar Calzonetto is an easy meal of grilled chicken, tomatoes, spinach, oregano, Parmesan, mozzarella and Caesar dressing.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

A top-seller at Romano’s Kitchen Counter, the Chicken Caesar Calzonetto is an easy meal of grilled chicken, tomatoes, spinach, oregano, Parmesan, mozzarella and Caesar dressing. photo courtesy of romano’s kitchen counter. The fast-casual segment continues to grow at an impressive rate: According to Technomic’s 2014 Top 500 chain restaurant report, sales in this segment grew by 11 percent and store count increased by 8 percent in 2013. The NPD Group shows an 8 percent rise in guest count at fast-casual concepts while quick-serve’s guest count stayed flat in 2013. Although Asian and Latin cuisines are the current stars in this segment, Italian is primed to move into the spotlight.

“Italian items are easily customized and easily accommodate fresh and/or healthy ingredients,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “They can also be updated and upgraded based on the ingredients and inclusions. Fast-casual Italian is the obvious next step.”

The Time is Now
Why is Italian fast-casual the obvious heir apparent? First, there’s no learning curve with Italian. It’s practically a native cuisine to the American consumer. That comfort level allows for exploration beyond the familiar lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese.

Second, the search for authenticity is satisfied with well-executed, modern Italian fare. Cast aside the tired Italian sub and welcome in a street-food-inspired piada, an Italian thin-crust wrap. Columbus, Ohio-based Piada Italian Street Food, now with 20 Ohio-area units, has embraced the opportunity presented by customizable, on-the-go Italian handhelds—along with fresh-made salads and pastas. The piada is described as “Italian thin crust dough baked on our stone grill then hand-rolled with a Grill Item (including sausage, steak, chicken, salmon and calamari, all with Italian seasonings), housemade sauce or pesto, cheese and fresh vegetables.” Or look to the Foldini, made with a thin flatbread and sauce at Capishe! Bold Italian Kitchen, a new concept in development by the Salsarita brand.

Taking the street food idea even further is Vapiano, now with 11 restaurants in the United States. It features various food stations in a modern, sleek environment, where chefs custom prepare fresh, authentic Italian fare including pizza, antipasti, salads and nearly 20 varieties of pasta dishes. Food-hall concepts like Eataly have helped remind consumers that Italian dishes can be fresh and authentic, and they’ve nudged this cuisine toward more exposure and opportunity. In Atlanta, Little Italia is a casual food hall of Italian concepts with authentic offerings ranging from Neopolitan pizza, an Amalfi chicken concept, a gelateria, aperitif bar and even a Nutella crêperie bar.

Pizza is of course a huge player in fast-casual, where concepts like Blaze, 800 Degrees and PizzaRev are gaining share. It’s so big that it takes up its own category in this segment, outside of Italian. The opportunity that we’re seeing in fast-casual is for Italian fare like piadas, pasta bowls and salads—concepts not limited by fast-casual bounds.

“While we’ve seen a slew of Chipotle-inspired fast-casual concepts—in Mediterranean, like with Roti, or healthy, as with Freshii—this build-your-own format is perhaps best suited for Italian,” says Justin Massa, CEO of Food Genius. “With its bevy of sauces, veggies and platforms, it’s a natural fit. We expect to see much more of this in the coming years.”

Italian fast-casual invites simple, fun variations, such as the BMT Piada at Ciao Piada in Miami, which gets a punch of flavor from dry tomato pesto, mortadella, turkey, salami and mozzarella. photo courtesy of ciao piada.

We Have Liftoff
Romano’s Macaroni Grill went national in October of last year with its fast-casual concept called Romano’s Kitchen Counter. Tested for four months at a Cleveland shop, it’s now housed inside more than 130 Macaroni Grill units. With counter-style ordering, it guarantees a quick, less-expensive lunch ($7 in under seven minutes) from a limited menu featuring 10 to 12 handcrafted dishes. “The test market results have been compelling,” says John Gilbert, president of 167-unit Macaroni Grill and now 135-unit Romano’s Kitchen Counter. “We’ve seen a vast improvement in traffic, sales and profit. In the casual-dining category, where we usually reside, traffic is hard to come by at lunch.”

Leveraging the fixed asset of a counter, present in most locations, Macaroni Grill decided to turn that existing space into a functioning lunch counter. Menu boards are now positioned over the counter, displaying choices like sandwiches, salads and pasta dishes. The menu boards also help define the Kitchen Counter as its own concept.

“We had concerns over how that might look in the restaurant, but it fits right in, looking like an Italian market,” says Gilbert. He says bestsellers so far include the Chicken Parmesan Sandwich and the housemade sausage rigatoni. Interestingly, the number-three seller, Chicken Caesar Calzonetto, was inspired by contemporary Italian street food that Gilbert’s team discovered on a research trip to Italy. It’s a handheld “pocket” stuffed with grilled chicken, tomatoes, spinach, oregano, Parmesan, mozzarella and Caesar dressing and baked in the brick oven.

Why the move into fast-casual? “We’re reversing a decades-long decline at Macaroni Grill,” says Gilbert. “We have our work cut out for us. Consumer needs have changed, and we were becoming irrelevant, especially at lunch and weekday dinners. Consumers are driving everything we do, and they are shifting away from full service to counter service—but they don’t want to sacrifice quality.” The brand is now testing dinner at Romano’s Kitchen Counter in its Cleveland location for $9 in under nine minutes. “Italian food is so broadly integrated into our everyday lifestyle, it was just such a terrific opportunity for us,” he adds.

Casual concepts are keeping a close eye on progress here, as Macaroni Grill’s challenges are not unique in the world of casual dining. It has an advantage in Italian fast-casual, naturally, as it already lives in that world. The same holds true for Fazoli’s new Italian fast-casual concept, Venti-Tre (which translates to 23 in English, the number of toppings available at this chain), which currently has two units in Maryland.

Small independent concepts are taking cues from über-hot ramen bars, with an emphasis on simple, quality Italian pasta dishes. In New York City, Pasta Shop has a focus on casual but quality Italian pasta dishes like cacio e pepe and rigatoni alla carbonara, all in the $10 to $15 range. In Seattle, Il Corvo is a no-frills lunch-only establishment with diners lining up for chef Mike Easton’s daily menu of three pasta dishes, freshly made and seasonally inspired. At $9 each, selections might include torchietti with artichoke, kale, Meyer lemon and butter; pasta misti with arugula-walnut pesto; and rigatoni with a delicate squash and sage cream sauce.

In another fast-fresh format, chef Mark Ladner of New York’s Del Posto has created a mobile, gluten-free Italian pasta pop-up concept. “He’s using the familiar Asian noodle bar concept with authentic Italian flavors and techniques, and it’s a hit,” says chef T.J. Delle Donne. The concept, Pasta Flyer, promises “a soulful, Italian-style bowl of pasta to a hungry customer’s belly as fast as a bowl of Japanese ramen, for under $10.”

Authenticity and high-quality ingredients matter here, and Italy has no shortage of culinary inspiration and accessible imports. photo courtesy of lupo verde.

New York-based Bellini’s Italian Eatery added a fast-casual concept called Bellini’s Counter, where guests can choose made-to-order pastas, salads and flatbread wraps that range from $7 to $10. “We’ve operated an upscale casual concept since 1959,” says Joe Marrello, owner of Bellini’s Counter and CEO of Marrello Restaurants & Catering, in Loudonville, N.Y. “We started to see the opportunity in fast-casual, where we could introduce our food in the under-$10 range.”

Following a Chipotle model, customers customize their meals, choosing from a base of salad, flatbread or pasta. They add proteins, like grilled salmon or housemade meatballs, and choose from a hot or cold sauce, and finally they choose from toppings like spinach and kale or Gorgonzola.

“We’re reaching a whole new customer now, and competing with any other business that offers the experience in the $8 to $12 range,” says Marrello. The key to success here, he says, is the homemade ingredients, proven recipes, price point and speed of service.

That speed of service is the golden ticket for fast-casual. But to be successful today, it must be inextricably linked to quality, freshness and transparency. This is especially true of Italian cuisine, which is known in America to have an inherent link to authenticity. It’s important to consider authentic techniques and/or ingredients here, because as Food IQ’s Mindy Armstrong points out: “Americans are so familiar with made-at-home Italian cuisine. The concept must be authentic to some degree, as to not let down consumer expectations.” An emphasis on quality ingredients is essential, from pasta to cheeses, allowing for an elevated experience. From Asiago and pecorino cheeses to Calabrian peppers and touches of truffles, authentic impact ingredients solidify the connection to Italy.

“It is the simplicity of Italian cuisine that makes it a favorable fast-casual dining option, but the focus has to be on quality of ingredients,” says Spencer Cole, culinary director of KOR Food Innovation. “As with other cuisines, we’ve circled back to establish a foundation for authentic preparation and execution. It’s clear that Italian food is progressing to a new level to accommodate the masses without losing quality or, more importantly, its authenticity.”

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.