By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC
Italian dishes are a perennial favorite when it comes to global cuisine. According to the National Restaurant Association, Italian is among the top three cuisines for familiarity and frequency of eating, making innovating Italian favorites for carryout a win-win for your restaurant. Italian menu items are easily customizable and can be offered in fresh and healthy ways. Results from the Harris Poll®, insights and analytics from New York-based market research ﬁrm, indicate respondent’s methods for getting food on the table included picking up restaurant carryout on their way home (23 percent), having food delivered (15 percent), and using a meal delivery service (about 7 percent, but a big draw for millennials). Here’s how to capture that customer base and maintain the integrity of your Italian takeout dishes.
STARTERS AND SUPER SALADS
Set the tone for meals at home with intriguing appetizers. Let customers put a personalized spin on what your restaurant has to offer with an item like bruschetta. Instead of the traditional basil and tomato topping, try more creative options such as a ricotta-pea spread or burrata and spicy soppressata drizzled with locally harvested honey. Think high-quality, locally based products framed in an Italian context. For salads, wilted, limp greens will damage your reputation. Package your dressings apart from your greens and put toppings such as chickpeas, nuts, olives, and meats in separate containers Or try heartier greens that can survive traveling time such as kale.
By providing premium ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions, entrées are big-ticket items that drive carryout sales. While they may want to dine at home, customers still desire a top-quality experience. Offer favorite Italian entrées for carryout such as Picatta, Parmigiana, or chicken marsala. Even grand dining room classics like Saltimbocca, a dish of veal cutlets layered with prosciutto and fresh sage, are in bounds in the new meal delivery arena. Pair your Italian entrées with signature sauces and classic side dishes such as risotto, Caprese salad, or seasonal vegetables. To maintain the integrity of these takeout items, separate proteins such as chicken from any sauce or side.
Nothing is worse than coming home to a container of soggy pasta. Whether it’s long-simmered marinara, sage cream sauce, or Bolognese, always package the pasta and sauces separately. Filled pastas such as ravioli and cannelloni should also be packaged separately from the sauce. Offer extruded or fresh pasta along with cooked vegetables, sauces, and other components for easy assembly. Make sure assembled baked pastas such as lasagna are ready to reheat or pop into the oven to finish the last few minutes of cooking. Pasta such as tortellini en brodo (in broth) is easily packaged for carryout; just keep the par-cooked or cooked pasta separate from the broth. Offer house-made sausage or meatballs on the side and Parmesan to sprinkle on top.
Pasta also provides an excellent opportunity for customization. Allow customers to build their own dishes with a choice of noodle, sauce, and topping options from caramelized onions and bacon to more traditional sausage and Parmesan. Bake to order or provide ready-to-cook entrées.
Pizza chains are the pioneers of customizable takeout; it’s no new concept for consumers to order pizza to their perfection with the toppings they’re craving. Set your restaurant apart from the traditional pizzeria by upgrading the quality and variety of your pizza options Allow diners to choose from crusts such as whole wheat, gluten-free, and various flavor options. Pair this with a red or white sauce and an assortment of Italian toppings such as arugula, oregano, garlic pesto, or prosciutto.
Another way to distinguish your operation is by offering custom par-baked pizzas that customers can pick up and finish cooking at home. This option grants customers the convenience of a take-and-bake meal with the added benefits of cooking it when they please and enjoying fresh toppings and restaurant-quality ingredients. Par-baked pizzas improve the longevity of your product, and since they are partially baked, they also cook quickly, making these pizzas crisp and ready for customers to devour in minutes.
Sandwiches continue to be an Italian staple because of their convenience and customization potential. Your Italian sandwiches can easily be transformed into approachable, simplified takeout meals for home dining. Wrap sandwiches in brown craft paper to maintain their integrity, increase presentation appeal, and provide ease for eating on the go. Whether it’s for an office during lunchtime or a large gathering for a super bowl party, Italian sandwiches also lend themselves to bulk orders.
To differentiate your signature sandwiches from the competition, adapt popular Italian street food to your menu such as piadinas, a famous Italian ﬂatbread found in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Fill them with the classic combination of prosciutto, arugula, and cheese, or use them as a platform to showcase your restaurant’s creativity. Another favorite Italian street food is the calzone; like piadina, these pocket sandwiches can be stuffed with high-quality imported Italian ingredients as well as local, handcrafted products and are ideal for grab-and-go.
THE WHOLE PACKAGE
With today’s eco-conscious consumer, packaging will be key in attracting and retaining customers. Traditional to-go materials such as Styrofoam™ come with a high environmental cost, a turnoff for diners who value sustainability. At the same time, these customers are willing to pay more for products they perceive as premium, environmentally friendly, and mission-driven. Aside from recyclable cardboard, consider eco-friendly alternatives such as products made from renewable sources such as corn, sugarcane, and biomass. Especially if you are individually packing sauces, starches, meats, and vegetables, sustainable products will be crucial to the success of your takeout program. Intentionally selecting such products will build not only your brand but also your customer base.