Italian restaurants in the UK seek balance

Authentic Italian food and local taste: Italian restaurants in UK struggling to attract customers in an always challenging market. The examples of The Margherita and L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele

Knowledge of authentic Italian food is growing among British people, but restaurants have to strike a balance between offering traditional Italian dishes and catering to the tastes of locals if they want to attract customers in an increasingly challenging market, owners say. Frequent trips to Italy, greater discovery of the range of regional food and appreciation of Italian fresh ingredients are helping many Britons to recognize authenticity when they eat out at Italian restaurants and pizzerias. You have more and more people who are interested in food, but you’ve also still got people who have this idea that Italians live only on pizza and pasta, said Jean-Pierre Lormant, whose family run La Margherita restaurant in Cambridge. You have to try to find a balance, giving some authentic dishes but also offering what people expect, he said. Diners in Britain have a wide variety of Italian restaurant options to choose from, ranging from big brands including PizzaExpress, Carluccio’s, Bella Italia and Jamie’s Italian, to independent family-run businesses, all of whom are grappling with rising costs and weak consumer morale amid uncertainty over Brexit.

Traditional options

Like other Italian restaurants in the UK, La Margherita offers some dishes that British people have traditionally associated with Italy or that suit their tastes, such as Carbonara cooked with cream, or pasta with ‘Bolognese’ sauce. But they also have a range of traditional options and their kitchen is willing to cook dishes like Carbonara in a classic Italian way if customers prefer that. Serena Sarnataro, who runs L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in London’s Stoke Newington and sticks to a simple menu like the famous pizzeria in Naples, said she saw British people becoming choosier in terms of what they eat, and starting to notice the taste of fresh ingredients. Most people remark on how the tomatoes taste nice and fresh, and we import them from Naples. They are growing accustomed to these kinds of flavours, and more selective, she said. As an increasingly number of people in Britain are opting to become vegans or vegetarians, more are discovering how vegetable-rich classic Italian and Mediterranean diets are, encouraging them to explore menus beyond pizza and pasta. The restaurant chain Carluccio’s said its menu for Autumn/Winter had been created in response to ever-growing demand for vegetarian and vegan options. No longer just humble sides, vegetables are now the main event in many of Carluccio’s new dishes, it said in its promotional material for the new range.

The vegetable choice

Dishes include sautéed mushroom and kale in garlic and chili on ciabatta bread, and roasted butternut squash and vegetables with pine nuts. Some of the most popular options on its traditional menu are also vegetarian, such as penne with spinach balls and mushroom risotto with chili and truffle oil. Lormant from La Margherita said they were also offering more vegetable dishes such as aubergine rolls, or involtini, which are becoming popular and helping people to discover the central role of vegetables in Italian food culture. Traditionally, people in the South did not eat meat very often, it was a poor area, so there was a lot of vegetables, and a lot of beans, said Lormant. As you have got more and more people going vegan, then obviously those are things we can offer, he said.

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