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A round-up of classic and cozy Italian fare 

As a child, Kristen DeFranza recalls climbing the stairs to her family’s apartment in Dobbs Ferry, New York, her mouth watering from the smell of her grandmother’s cooking that lingered in the stairwell. Sometimes the aroma of red sauce simmering on the stovetop was coming from her family’s second-story apartment complex, other times it was wafting up from her grandmother’s restaurant below. 

Those memories, as well as her grandmother’s recipes, have shaped the restaurant Kristen now owns with her sister, Nicole DeFranza. Carmella’s, an Italian Bistro in Appleton is named after the DeFranza sisters’ grandma who taught her family how to cook the cuisine of their homeland in Italy’s Campania region. 

“I remember watching her make scampi butter and her having these muscley arms. I remember the movements of her hands,” Kristen says. “Now when I make it, I think of her and just hope I’m doing right by her. I hope she’s proud.”

You don’t have to be Italian to have fond memories of the country’s cuisine. Italian food has assimilated so deeply into American culture that it’s easy to forget pizza and pasta didn’t originate here. And it’s not just in the United States –  Italian food is the most popular national cuisine in the world, according to an international YouGov study of more than 25,000 people in 24 countries. 

“In everyone’s mind, when you think of Italy you think about food,” Nicole DeFranza says. “It’s the family aspect, it’s the from-scratch process. It also has to do with the love that goes into making the food.” 

Lucky for us, Italian restaurants offer tastes of Italy right here in the Fox Cities. 

“There’s not a lot of Italian people here, so to bring a little of who we are to this area and to be able to carry on the traditions that my grandmother taught my father is pretty special,” Nicole says.

Old World Favorites 

Chicken Scarpariello

From marsala to saltimbocca, Carmella’s, an Italian Bistro offers a full lineup of traditional Italian entrees. One of Nicole’s personal favorites is the chicken scarpariello, which translates to “shoemaker’s chicken.” This Italian staple is prepared slightly different by each family who makes it, but at Carmella’s it starts with a chicken breast topped with Italian sausage and brings a little heat with the addition of hot cherry peppers. It’s served on a bed of linguine with lemon butter and seasonal vegetables. “The point of Italian food is to keep it simple, so we source the best ingredients we can from local businesses and our own backyard,” Nicole says. Local sourcing from small family farms is important to the DeFranzas, who utilize Haen Meats and Lamers Dairy for many of their meat and dairy products. The pasta at Carmella’s is made fresh in small batches by RP’s Pasta Company out of Madison. Carmella’s recently celebrated 11 years in business, a testament to their consistency and quality. “We just settled into being comfortable with who we are,” Nicole says. “Our family food has been such a centralizing force in our lives.” Keep an eye out for some new outdoor dining options at Carmella’s throughout the winter. 

Pappardelle Bolognese 

Savvy diners may recall that when Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant opened in 1995, it was billed as an Italian cafe. Over time, the restaurant evolved to highlight various styles of cuisine, but earlier this year Fratellos returned to its roots with a new Northern Italian-inspired menu. Director of Operations Scott Roekle says one of the most popular new menu items is the pappardelle bolognese. “It’s comfort food with a twist,” he says. “Pappardelle is an interesting pasta and has an unbelievable texture with the bolognese.” Roekle describes pappardelle as a wide, flat noodle similar to fettuccine. The meat bolognese is topped with locally-sourced burrata cheese and fresh basil. In addition to an assortment of new pasta dishes and artisanal pizzas, old favorites have gotten the Italian treatment too. The pan-seared walleye is topped with house-made olive tapenade and the popular salmon entree comes with pancetta and a Tuscan garlic butter sauce. Roekle says that while the menu will continue to change seasonally, diners can expect it to stay true to its Italian style. “Italian will always be a foundation for us,” he says. “We have found a home there.”

Neapolitan-style Pizza

No roundup of Italian cuisine would be complete without pizza. At Christianos Pizza in Appleton, Neapolitan-style pizza is the star. Co-owner Sean Wise says the family-owned restaurant’s traditional margherita pie is inspired by the pizza that originated in Naples. It features simple ingredients – vine-ripened tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil and parmesan – and a distinct crust. Each pie is baked in an imported Italian oven at high temperatures (think 800 degrees) to achieve the legendary crust which is chewy with crackly bits of char from the high heat. Pizza dough is handmade from scratch daily before fermenting in a cooler for an additional couple of days to achieve a more nuanced flavor. “Our technique is very similar to the technique of Naples, where we hand-knead and stretch the dough,” Wise says. “It’s how they have made pizza for hundreds of years. It’s a very fresh and light pizza rather than a thicker pizza with a lot of sauce and cheese.” Wise suggests starting your meal with the stracciatella – creamy, fresh mozzarella topped with salt and hot honey, served with warm focaccia bread on the side. Christianos has locations in Wautoma, Green Lake, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, and menus vary by location.

Worth the Drive: Trattoria Stefano 

A pilgrimage to Sheboygan’s Trattoria Stefano is a must for anyone seeking authentic, fresh Italian cooking. The restaurant and bar has gotten national recognition in publications like Food & Wine Magazine, Bon Appetit and Chicago Sun Times. Chef and owner Stefano Viglietti, a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist, is half German and half Italian, and learned his way around Italian cuisine by traveling there often. 

“Italy has been my school,” he says. “The most important part of learning Italian cooking is going there, to see how they value food and the importance they give it.” 

Viglietti says his extensive travels to Italy have shown him the necessity of local sourcing, something Italian cooks do by default, yet remains a challenge for chefs in the states. 

“If you want something to taste as good as it does in Italy, you must have a pristine product,” he says. “Italian cooking is very simple. It’s not about heavy sauces and reductions, it’s about the ingredients.” 

It isn’t always easy to get arugula picked from the fields by morning on the dinner plate by night, but there are benefits beyond taste and freshness that have become even more evident during the pandemic. 

“This kind of sourcing doesn’t get interrupted. You insulate yourself from the problems related to production and shortages that come through the traditional food chain,” Viglietti says. “I haven’t run out of one thing because all my [ingredients come] from right here.” 

At Trattoria Stefano, and many Italian restaurants, the menu is divided in sections. A traditional meal would begin with antipasti, which means “before the meal,” with something like bruschetta or carpaccio – thinly sliced rare beef with parmigiano shavings, lemon, olive oil and arugula. 

Next comes the primi piatti (first dishes), which is the pasta or risotto course, of which several are ordered to share with the table. This is followed by the secondi piatti (second dishes), or entree, that is often served without sides like in the United States. 

For a fundamental taste of South Italy, Viglietti recommends the rigatoni con mozzarella with San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and parmigiano. Another favorite is his grandmother’s Casarecce Della Nonna – short, rolled pasta topped with a ragu of house made Italian sausage, grass-fed ground beef, oregano, red wine and San Marzano tomato.

“Italian food is about simplicity, the ingredients and letting those things shine.”

Italian at Home

If you want to try your hand at creating an Italian meal at home, Appleton-based Dalla Terra Pasta is the place to start. 

Dalla Terra’s artisan pastas come in a variety of intriguing flavors and colors – such as green spinach garlic pappardelle, orange tomato lasagna and even black squid ink tagliatelle. The vibrant colors are achieved using whole food vegetable purees and spices as opposed to powders or dyes. 

Liam Connolly, who owns the business with his wife Kithara, says Dalla Terra is Italian for “from the land” and reflects the company’s mission.

“Our mission is to provide a product that honors the land and the farmers who make the products we use,” he says. “It’s not easy to process fresh foods the way we do. That’s what makes us different.” 

Dalla Terra makes two main types of pasta (in addition to ravioli): straight styles and shaped styles. Straight styles include tagliatelle, spaghetti, pappardelle and lasagna sheets. Shaped styles include radiatori, fusilli, casarecce and canneroni.

Once the dough is prepped and mixed, it’s either made into sheets to be cut into straight styles or it goes through the extrusion process in which the dough is pushed through bronze dies that mold it into the desired shape. The result is pasta with a distinct, coarse texture that adheres well to sauce. 

After the pasta is shaped, Kithara explains that they use the traditional Italian method of slow drying at low temperatures to maintain the best flavor and integrity. “The drying process takes between 48 and 96 hours depending on the shape and style of the pasta,” she says.

While Dalla Terra pastas can be enjoyed with a variety of sauces, Liam says at home they like to keep things simple. “We like to use olive oil, parmesan and aged balsamic vinegar which helps bring out the flavor of the pasta without overwhelming it,” he says.

Home cooks will find that Dalla Terra Pasta cooks faster than commercial brands because of its freshness. Three to five minutes is all it takes for an al dente pasta. Find Dalla Terra products at the Downtown Appleton Farmers Market and retailers like Breadsmith, The Olive Cellar and Simon’s Cheese, among others, as well as online. 

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