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Comfort Classics

Pizzas with unique toppings and artisan touches are further evidence that Italian comfort flavors are enjoying renewed popularity. Photo courtesy of alaska seafood marketing institute. Consumers cling to retro favorites that are modernized for the times

By Rita Negrete

In one way or another, comfort foods are always on-trend, but even the classics change with the times.

During the recession, there was a predictable resurgence of interest in meatloaf, mac and cheese and old-fashioned desserts like cupcakes. But now that the economy is beginning to recover, consumers’ durable hunger for traditional comfort foods has turned more playful.

This new appetite for slightly tongue-in-cheek retro fare is expressed in many ways. Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, for instance, turn the frugal Depression-era lunch on its head with artisan breads and upscale cheeses. Another expression of this new mentality is ethnic comfort food — from multicultural sandwiches to retro Italian fare. There’s also a growing interest in updated versions of down-home American regional cuisine, particularly Southern.

On the dessert menu, the same urge is showing up most prominently in witty, gourmet versions of kid-friendly treats, from doughnuts to popsicles. The retro sensibility is also a major trend on the adult beverage menu; we’re seeing more “Mad Men”-era cocktails, high-cachet gin and bourbon, craft beers and punch.

Here, we’ll take a look at the comfort categories Technomic data finds to be showing the most growth and upgrades on multi-unit menus.

To nobody’s surprise, the comfort-food revival has meant an upsurge of interest in pasta dishes. Both Italian and non-Italian restaurants have introduced traditional Italian-style pastas, many of them featuring strongly flavored proteins such as Italian sausage, bacon or salmon along with a variety of Italian cheeses. Recent pasta debuts include:

> Homestyle Baked Pastas: Italian, Veggie Primavera and Chicken and Bacon Carbonara — Pat & Oscar’s
> Pasta Creations including Salmon Limone (fettuccine topped with roasted artichokes, capers, Alfredo sauce, grilled salmon and lemon olive oil) and Spicy Italian Sausage (whole-wheat penne, Italian turkey sausage, marinara sauce, spinach and basil) — Cafe Express
> Florentine Ravioli with Chicken and Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs with Fettuccini — Applebee’s

These introductions also include new family-size takeout meals:

> Square Bowls including Penne Rosa, Pesto Cavatappi, Pasta Fresca and Whole-Grain Tuscan Linguini; each serves four to six — Noodles & Company
> Family Bakes: Meatball Bake: penne with Alfredo and marinara sauce, meatballs and mozzarella; Italian Meat Bake: Italian sausage, pepperoni and penne with marinara sauce and mozzarella; and Chicken Alfredo Bake with penne pasta; each serves five — Mazzio’s Italian Eatery
> Spaghetti and Meat Sauce: Part of the new Family Meals to Go line; serves three to four —  Bob Evans

Paralleling the rise of these hearty pastas is a resurgence in Italian-style rustic or artisan pizzas. Bertucci’s Italian Kitchen overhauled its entire menu to spotlight brick-oven preparation of pizzas and other dishes. Mazzio’s launched a line of artisan pizzas prepared with fresh-made dough topped with a blend of mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, Asiago and Romano cheeses, baked with a choice of three toppings and finished with garlic butter and a dusting of toasted herbs.

New Italian-style pasta dishes like Hard Rock Cafe’s Baked Pasta Pie satisfy body and soul, with cellantani pasta a perfect carrier of hearty flavor from layers of marinara sauce, seasoned meats and mozzarella. Photo courtesy of barilla.
CiCi’s Pizza unveiled a line of crispy, thin-crust Italiano Pizzas made with hand-stretched dough and a rustic tomato sauce. Pizza Inn rolled out limited-time Rustic Italian Pizzas, featuring a crust brushed with rosemary- and garlic-infused oil.

The back-to-Italy movement has also been evident in pizza toppings. A promotional menu at Bravo! Cucina Italiana featured Pizza di Salumi, topped with a daily selection of Italian meats along with roasted artichoke, kalamata olives and imported tomato sauce. And California Pizza Kitchen’s Four Seasons Pizza is topped with imported Italian tomatoes, oven-roasted artichoke hearts, salami, mushrooms, onion, mozzarella, herbs and Parmesan.

In contrast to the emphasis on large-portion pastas, pizza introductions include a number of petite versions. The Cheesecake Factory added a line of personal-sized Pizettes, football-shaped pizzas with topping combinations such as mozzarella, tomato and basil or shiitake mushrooms, asparagus and bacon. Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pastas rolled out personal flatbread pizzas, rectangular pies available in versions such as pepperoni, chicken Alfredo or cheese.

Gone are the days when grilled cheese automatically translated to American cheese between two pieces of plain white bread; operators are offering a plethora of artisan breads, gourmet cheeses and premium toppings for a new, dressed-up spin on the classic sandwich. A few recent examples:

> Four Cheese and Tomato Panini with fire-roasted tomato soup — Bruegger’s
> Grilled Cheese Deluxe with cheddar and Brie cheeses and fresh basil — Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group, Minneapolis
> Grilled Cheese with Gruyère, Comté and bacon, served with fresh-made tomato soup —Woodward at the Ames Hotel, Boston
> Tomato and Fennel Soup with Mini Grilled Cheese Sandwiches of mozzarella, prosciutto and basil —The Capital Grille

One recent twist in the gourmet grilled-cheese fad is the rise of the grilled-cheese-sandwich/cheeseburger. CKE Restaurants’ two burger chains, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, both rolled out versions of Grilled Cheese Bacon Burgers: charbroiled beef, two slices of American cheese, two slices of Swiss cheese and bacon on grilled sourdough. Friendly’s introduced a Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt, a 100 percent Black Angus Big Beef burger topped with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise and served between two whole grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Another development is the proliferation of niche grilled-cheese-sandwich restaurants (as well as food trucks and carts) that focus on doing one thing and doing it better than anyone else. The Grilled Cheese Grill in Portland, Ore., offers a wide menu of specialty grilled-cheese sandwiches as well as create-your-own options; a side of creamy tomato soup can be ordered with any sandwich.

San Francisco’s Toasty Melts street cart features seven varieties of grilled-cheese sandwich, including a popular version with apple, bacon and cheddar cheese; the sandwiches are served with a house-made tomato dipping sauce instead of soup.

Sandwiches in general are a comfort-food classic. In addition to updated versions of grilled cheese, sandwich menus increasingly highlight ethnic variations on breads and fillings.

Asian cuisines and ingredients are driving much of the ethnic sandwich trend, with Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches leading the way. At California-based Lee’s Sandwiches, bánh mì are prepared with such ingredients as grilled chicken, pâté, head cheese, sardines and shredded pork skin, all served on a fresh French baguette.

Korean and other Asian influences are also finding their way to popular sandwich chains. Charley’s Grilled Subs recently reprised its Spicy Asian BBQ sandwich limited-time offer, a Korean-inspired version of the Philly cheese steak featuring steak marinated in pears, green onions and Asian spices.

Asian and Latin flavors are turning up on mainstream sandwich menus with offerings like this grilled Cubano, with satisfying layers of turkey, ham, cheese, pickles and sliced pears. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest Canned Pear Service. Like bánh mì, Mexican torta sandwiches engage diners with unexpected ingredients, but in a familiar form. Taco Bell recently offered a variation on the torta with its Tortadas — grilled chicken and other fillings folded and grilled inside a flour tortilla.

El Pollo Loco added two tortas featuring its signature citrus-marinated chicken breast along with shredded lettuce and pico de gallo on a grilled telera roll. Baked and griddled tortas are the specialty at Xoco, chef Rick Bayless’ latest concept in Chicago.

More Latin and Asian influences are evident as Cubanos, South American arepas and Indian naan sandwiches come into vogue.

Yet more sandwich innovation: a mini-trend to sandwiches featuring meatloaf or meatballs, particularly minuscule treats such as Boston Market’s trio of Meatloaf & Cheddar Sliders and Winking Lizard Tavern’s Mini Meatball Subs, topped with marinara and melted provolone.

Like the next-generation grilled cheese or ethnic sandwiches that showcase unusual breads and toppings, new variations of meatloaf feature alternative meats, unusual combinations of other ingredients and surprising sauces. Some recent examples:

> Buffalo Meatloaf: Topped with sautéed mushroom gravy and served with Parmesan mashed potatoes and spiced pecan green beans — Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
> Maker’s Mountain Meatloaf: Flame-grilled and covered with Maker’s Mark bourbon mushroom gravy, served with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables — Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant
> HH Famous Meatloaf with roasted red peppers, fresh spinach and smoked mozzarella — Hash House a Go Go, San Diego

Paralleling the new attention to old-style ethnic fare is a growing interest in regional American cuisine, particularly Southern homestyle dishes. In addition to a proliferation of regional barbecue items and concepts, this trend is expressed in entrées such as:

> Smoked Rock Shrimp Biscuits & Gravy with tasso ham and roasted corn biscuits  — Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen, Dallas
> Shrimp & Grits — Boscos Brewing Co.
> Blackened BBQ Catfish served with garlic toast and dirty rice — Famous Dave’s
> Andy’s Sage-Fried Chicken & Bacon Waffle Tower, drizzled with hot maple reduction and fried leeks — Hash House a Go Go

While popular comfort foods emphasize carbs and, to a lesser extent, traditional proteins, the retro trend extends to the salad menu as well. Some examples of self-consciously old-fashioned offerings:

> Turkey Chopped Salad Circa 1971: Smoky bacon, tomatoes, avocado and blue cheese — La Grande Orange
> Waldorf Salad, served with cup of soup — Not Your Average Joe’s
> The Amazing Colossal Lettuce Wedge, topped with blue-cheese crumbles, tomatoes, chopped jalapeño bacon and blue-cheese dressing, served with a cornbread muffin — Famous Dave’s

From grilled-cheese sandwiches and classic salads to old-school Italian and Southern fare, comfort food is brightening up as consumers start to anticipate better economic times ahead.

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