Authenticity. It’s one of those words people love to throw around when talking about what they look for in a restaurant. And it’s something restaurants love to claim. But how can you tell? What does it mean?
There’s no mathematical formula for discerning how much authenticity a place has, but there are some clues. One might be the accent of the person putting together your meal.
Luigi Criscuolo is Italian. The chef at Las Olas’ Talento Restaurant is originally from Napoli and came to the US not much more than half a decade ago. He’s got nothing against the noble spaghetti and meatball or a hearty plate of lasagna – but when he’s talking about Italian food, he’s talking about something more.
“If you go to Italy, Italian food is really different from what you can find here,” he says. “The menu is so different in so many ways. Flavors change over the year.”
Talento opened last June.The décor is more cozily modern than achingly Old World – it looks like a nod to that hip, modern side of Italy, the one that churns out so much cool fashion and industrial design. Criscuolo’s menu tends to go the same way.
“I want to mix new and old school,” he says.
That means a menu that’s not entirely unfamiliar. There’s a section devoted to pizzas, and the dinner menu includes an eggplant parmigiana, linguine with clam sauce and rigatoni. But he’s also included some dishes that, though popular at home, do not in his experience tend to get as much of a look in Italian restaurants in America.
Take strozzapreti. The shrimp-and-zucchini pasta dish is traditional in Italy, but not so much here. “This dish is really one of my favorites ever,” he says. “It’s a great classic – you can have this dish at many occasions. It’s not so heavy.”
Another more modern addition is a section of menu devoted entirely to vegetarian and vegan dishes. Vegan dishes in particular are perhaps not the first thing that springs to mind in an Italian restaurant, but this is one of the areas where Criscuolo wants to bring in the new.
“I don’t want to be stuck on fish and meat,” he says, noting that he’s reacting to what more and more restaurant patrons want. “Every day there are more people that are looking for it and can’t find it on many menus.”
He doesn’t turn up his nose at this food, either – and he believes he can make vegetarian and vegan meals that even staunch meat-eaters would enjoy.
“It’s fun,” he says of the food. “The colors are beautiful.”
Also fun is his restaurant’s location.
“Las Olas has a great vibe,” he says. “Walking down Las Olas you can find everything, many kinds of restaurants.”
Talento also has a busy bar, and Criscuolo wants it to be the kind of place where you can drop in for some happy hour wine and shared plates in addition to a big, sit-down meal.
“At happy hour, you don’t need to have cheap food on your table,” he says. “And we love wine, as Italians.”
Italians, he notes, go out for meals or drinks at all hours. He wants his restaurant to be that kind of place – the sort of spot that works for a big family meal, a full-on party or a light, weeknight bite. Italians want good food no matter what the situation. That’s authentic.
The Dish: Strozzapreti (Old Fashion Short Pasta, Carabinero Shrimp & Zucchini)
- Strozzapreti, 320g
- Zucchini, 300g
- Red prawns (carabinero shrimp), 300g
- Shallot, 50g
- Fresh liquid cream, 100g (Can also make dish without)
- White wine, 50g
- Extra-virgin olive oil, 40g
- Black pepper, 1 pinch
- Salt, up to 1 pinch
Clean the shrimp, removing the carapace and the internal thread, and cut some of them into 2 parts; chop others. Wash the zucchini, then slice and grate them using the large hole side of your grater. Peel the garlic clove and remove the inner core; chop ¼ of onions.
Once you have all the above ingredients ready, you can start cooking the pasta. Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water, while preparing the sauce.
Heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet. Stir-fry the garlic and onions for a few minutes until they get brown, but not burnt.
Remove the garlic from the saucepan and sauté zucchini for around 10 minutes. Help yourself with a spoon and crush some, then add the shrimp and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you’d like, you may now add a touch of heavy cream.
Drain the pasta al dente and sauté in the sauce to get a creamy effect: if necessary you can add a couple of tbsp of the water in which you cooked the pasta so that the starch in it will enhance the creamy effect. Add parsley/basil and serve.