Few people are aware of how much debate, tasting, arm wrestling, cooking/throwing out/re-cooking, arguing, pouting and general angst goes into adding or subtracting items from the menu of a busy restaurant. Eight or 10 items may be presented for consideration by owners, managers, kitchen personnel and sometimes even servers and bus people, but only two or three might make the cut. Rehoboth restaurants don’t get much busier than Touch of Italy in Shore Plaza, so kick up the above-captioned list by a factor of 10.
I have the honor of being the only “outsider” to be included in Touch of Italy’s twice-yearly menu meetings. The average 100-plus emails I receive daily from locals and vacationers give me what might be considered a unique perspective on what people are liking and what they are not liking. On a more global level, we might refer to that as the zeitgeist of beach dining.
Last week’s roundtable discussion (well, the table was rectangular, but y’gotta love the metaphor) included Touch of Italy co-owner Bob Ciprietti, Rehoboth Beach General Manager Sal Cascone, chefs Martin Masisak and Brian Goldfarb, longtime Rehoboth cheesemonger Bill Wilson, and yours truly. Orbiting the table were the pizza guy, a couple of line cooks and several servers providing water, clean plates and stacks of silverware for each course.
The playing field (aka the table) was completely filled with contenders, each one worthy of a Food & Wine magazine layout. As we grabbed our forks, Chef Martin warned us to stay away from the pasta with speck, onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes. “I want to see how long it can sit without clumping,” he said. There is a big difference between the way dried pasta and fresh pasta cook, and sometimes the more absorbent fresh pasta can turn to cement as the dish cools. The resting time of this dish would determine the final recipe.
So we started with the Italian shrimp and grits. “Italian,” because the grits part was actually polenta (same thing as grits, just a finer grind). The chorus of sounds that ensued suggested that this creation (packed with sautéed shrimp and Italian sausage) was already a frontrunner. The pasta dish continued to wait quietly on the sidelines.
“But how long will it take to make?” intoned Ciprietti. It is not unusual for Touch of Italy to serve over 1,000 dishes a day, and if something takes longer than five (or so) minutes to make, it might not make the cut. “Five minutes max,” said Goldfarb. “Assuming everything is prepped, of course.”
A frenched pork chop (frenched means that the rib bone is stripped of meat) had been pounded out to receive the popular Touch of Italy parm treatment: A quick fry with seasoned breading to be quickly enrobed in creamy cheese and marinara. The presentation was spectacular. The onslaught of forks sounded like a fencing match. Suddenly I was gripped with fear: “This isn’t going to replace your chicken parmesan, is it?” I warned. “The villagers WILL gather outside with torches and pitchforks.” “Relax, Bob,” said Ciprietti. “We’d never take that off. It’s one of our best sellers.”
We each took a bite of the linguini with clam sauce, recoiled and said in unison, “Wow! Waayyy too much garlic!” All eyes fell on Chef Martin. “I like garlic,” he said quietly. The talented chef bowed to the pressure (there’s strength in numbers). Back to the drawing board - providing the drawing board is a little farther from the garlic.
It was time to put the pasta dish into play: Martin was the first to dip into the cooled plate. “Check it out,” he smiled. The fresh pasta was still moist. Success! No cement here. The guy knows his stuff.
Ciprietti turned and barked instructions to the pizza guy: “Cut a regular dough in half and make a very thin pizza using what Bill Wilson’s going to give you.” The resulting flatbread (guilt-speak for “thin pizza”) was shockingly delicious, with Nduja sausage (a spicy, Calabrese-style salami) and creamy mozzarella. “It’s too spicy,” warned Goldfarb. “No,” I pleaded. “Don’t give in to the wimps. Just call it spicy on the menu! Oh, and would you pass me another slice, please?” Little did I know that Ciprietti had made a second one for me to take home. Waaayyy better than a 1099.
And so it continued. Tastes, comments, occasional hurt feelings, people going back to previously tasted dishes again and again; arguments over how things should be presented on the menu, color combinations, and what should be served on the side. And surprisingly few fork wounds. As the meeting broke up, changes were put into motion, decisions were made, and Touch of Italy customers will be the better for it. I was sworn to secrecy, so keep an eye on the menu at Touch of Italy in the next month or so. Mangia!
Bob Yesbek is a serial foodie and can be reached at byesbek@CapeGazette.com.