Grocery stores across the country usually carry more Italian (imported and domestic) food products on their shelves than any other type of culturally identified items. One of the fastest-growing Italian food staples is pasta sauce, which easily can consume an entire aisle inside a mega-store. Less than a decade ago, most manufacturers produced only four pasta sauce types: marinara, mushroom, Alfredo and meat (ground beef). Now, most produce their own version of authentic Italian sauces, such as Arrabbiata (dried chilies, crushed garlic, olive oil, tomato sauce, salt and pepper); Tomato Basil (minced onions, crushed garlic, olive oil, diced tomatoes, red pepper flakes, parmesan cheese, freshly chopped basil, salt and pepper) and Roasted Garlic (roasted chopped garlic cloves, olive oil, crushed tomatoes, dried red pepper flakes, salt and pepper).

Chef Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia restaurant (Chicago) serves some of the best Italian cuisine in the country. Like any fine dining restaurant, ingredient quality and menu creativity is key to Spiaggia's success. Mantuano was the James Beard 2005 winner for best Midwest chef. Receiving an award from the James Beard Foundation is like receiving an Oscar in the food industry. Winners are chosen by their professional peers in the industry.

Two of Mantuano's signature dishes on Spiaggia's menu are wood-roasted sea scallops with porcini mushrooms and shavings of parmigiano-reggiano, and Buffalo ricotta-filled pasta with fava beans and mint, served with a cup of warm chocolate espresso with whipped cream and a raisin pasticcini. Mantuano's Italian masterpieces can be found in his new cookbook, The Spiaggia Cookbook: Eleganza Italiana in Cucina.


American consumers' culinary palates have become more refined, meaning food and beverage manufacturers will be challenged to develop more restaurant-quality products that are easy to prepare and use. Italian Vodka and Puttanesca sauces are examples of how food manufacturers are producing products tailored to such consumer needs and demands. Vodka sauce is made of crushed tomatoes, onions, tomato paste, vodka, cream cheese, basil, olive oil, salt and pepper, while Puttanesca sauce is made of crushed tomatoes, garlic, anchovy filets, olive oil, chopped black olives, capers, parsley and red chili peppers. Not long ago, Vodka and Puttanesca sauces could be enjoyed only in fine Italian restaurants, family-style Italian eateries or cooked homemade at home. Now, nearly every pasta sauce manufacturer has a Vodka and Puttanesca variety on the market.

Labor-intensive ingredients such as grilled bell peppers can be bought frozen, not just canned. Grilled peppers are used in many signature Italian dishes. Trader Joe's (Monrovia, Calif.) sells its own brand of frozen red and yellow grilled bell peppers. They undergo the individual quick frozen (IQF) process within 12 hours after being harvested, and can be used as a topping for pizza, served on sandwiches or baked alongside chicken or pork.

Panini sandwiches (a.k.a. Italy's street food) have taken off like wildfire across America. Countertop appliance manufacturers such as Krups, Cuisinart, Sirman, Villaware and Hamilton Beach have their respective versions of the panini machine, as do food chains. Einstein Bros. Bagel (Golden, Colo.), for example, recently introduced a spinach and bacon breakfast panini made with eggs, fresh spinach, smoked bacon and mozzarella cheese, featuring a spread made with roasted tomatoes, garlic, basil and a chile garlic sauce on ciabatta bread. Einstein claims it put this sandwich on its menu to attract more male customers to its eateries for breakfast.

Italia Foods (Schaumburg, Ill.) has been making pasta for about 30 years, using fresh eggs and 100% durum flour in its products. The basic line includes cheese ravioli, meat ravioli, lasagna, manicotti, cheese tortellini, meat tortellini and jumbo round ravioli. A new range of products targets carb-conscious consumers, including a low-carb lasagna (11g of net carbohydrates, per serving).

Close Shave

White truffles have been popular in Italy for many years, often served thinly shaved over pasta or a simple green salad. Boscovivo (Italy) makes a white truffle butter, Burro e Tartufi Bianchi, made of butter, white truffle, salt and spices. Burro e Tartufi Bianchi can be eaten as a spread, and milk or cream can be added to create a sauce that can be heated and served over gnocchi or risotto.

ll Mongetto (Italy) produces a sauce called Bagna Cauda, which is rapidly gaining popularity among Italian American chefs. The zesty sauce is made of garlic, salt, anchovies, extra virgin olive oil and milk. Bagna Cauda is warmed before being eaten, and can be served as a dipping sauce for fresh carrots, fennel, celery or bell peppers.

Risotto is one of those Italian dishes that is both tricky and time-consuming. Risotto is a short-grain rice (Arborio or Carnaroli rice) cooked with olive oil, dry white wine, chicken or vegetable stock, salt, pepper, unsalted butter and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. It usually takes 25-40 minutes to prepare and cook.

Several manufacturers have their own version of frozen prepared risotto in the grocery stores. Famed chef and cookbook author Wolfgang Puck has teamed with ConAgra Foods (Omaha, Neb.) to produce a line of gourmet products, including a frozen entrée of risotto with smoked chicken. Also, grocery chain Safeway (Tempe, Ariz.) has a frozen mushroom risotto that has proven successful in its stores.

Pizza remains one of America's all-time favorite foods; however, it continues to reinvent itself, be it with cheese-stuffed crusts or as mini frozen appetizers. Annual pizza expos in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas draw about 20,000 manufacturers, chefs and restaurateurs per city. Many cutting-edge trends and creative ideas come from these expos, which eventually may trickle down to the grocery store shelves of the frozen food section or on a local pizzeria menu. Some trends to consider include diverse varieties of pizza toppings such as black olive and brie pizza, chipotle pizza sauce, Greek pizza and eggplant parmigiana pizza.