Food & Drink

Lasagna sucks: chefs reveal the most overrated & underrated Italian dishes

Italian cuisine is consumed so frequently here that most Americans bleed marinara. But how much do you really know about Italy's dishes, beyond the exotic pronunciations? We asked a bunch of lauded chefs at Italian joints to give us the overrated meals you should give a rest and the underrated stuff you need to try next. And if you're looking for a place to test these new entrees, well, they can help with that.

Mike Isabella, chef/owner 

Graffiato (address and info)
Washington, DC

Overrated: Arancini
"Arancini is difficult to make well. Lots of places serve arancini, but not many places do it right. Flavor and texture are key. It's all about making the risotto taste better in the arancini than it would standing alone, but many places fall short on flavor."

Underrated: Pasta with red sauce
"It's a simple dish, but when it's done right, this is one of my all-time favorites. If you take time to make the sauce flavorful and give love to each element on the plate, there is nothing better than a plate of pasta and red sauce."

 

Joel Hough, chef

il Buco (address and info)
New York, NY

Overrated: Vitello tonnato
"Maybe it's my sensitivity to heavily sauced dishes, but spreading a mayonnaise-based sauce on cold sliced meat just doesn't do it for me."

Underrated: Spaghetti aglio e olio
"Simple, understated, and delicious. It's made using fundamental pasta techniques that I have every cook practice when they start for me."

Jordan Wallace, head pizzaiolo

Pizzeria Locale (address and info)
Denver, CO

Overrated: Pizza fritta
"In Naples, some pizzerias make pizza fritta, which is basically a deep-fried calzone stuffed with prosciutto, ricotta, and mozzarella. This sounds delicious, but what you end up with is a greasy gut-bomb that burns your mouth. These deep-fried pizzas are also notorious for ruining shirts and pants."

Underrated: Chicory salads 
"Chicory salads are eaten all over Italy and are commonly associated with being really bitter. It's true that some chicory varieties can be extremely bitter, but with the right combination of olive oil and vinegar, as well as other ingredients such as nuts, the bitterness can be balanced. What you are left with are really beautiful, crisp greens and a lot of flavor."

 

Ethan Stowell, chef/owner

Ethan Stowell Restaurants (address and info)
Seattle, WA

Overrated: Caprese 
"It's not that the dish is bad, it's actually great done properly. But the fact that it can be one of your best-selling dishes in the middle of December is pretty weak. We do not have it on the menu at all anymore because it seems to be a very cliche restaurant dish at this point."

Underrated: Bigoli in salsa 
"This is one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes, but it's not the best-seller. Pasta, anchovies, onions, extra-virgin olive oil, and garlic -- such a simple and amazing dish! I do variations of this dish all the time at work and at home, and I always will. This might be my 'last meal before you die' dish."

Jared Gadbaw, chef de cuisine

Marea (address and info)
New York, NY

Overrated: Risotto
"One dish that I consistently avoid would have to be risotto. There are two reasons for my aversion. The first is that I don't like to eat the same bite over and over again, but the main reason is that it is rarely prepared as it should be."

Underrated: Sardines
"Something I feel is underrated in Italian cuisine, at least in America, would be sardines. Something like sardinas en saor. The fish itself is packed with flavor and lends itself so well to being grilled. Serving it with a sweet and sour combination of onions, raisins, and pine nuts is a flavor profile that spans many cultures across the globe."


Walter Pisano, executive chef

Tulio (address and info)
Seattle, WA

Overrated: Fettuccine Alfredo
"The original Italian version was made simply with Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and fettuccine noodles. But when the dish made its way to America, people began adding cream -- like butter and cheese need more fat -- and other items to make it even more appealing to the American palate. Heavy cream sauce is not something you typically see in Italy. If so, it’s a tablespoon at the end of a ragu or similar dish. It’s meant to bring the dish together, and you aren’t meant to taste it."

Underrated: Baccalà
"Baccalà is salt cod and is a celebrated dish in many cultures around the world. It’s extremely popular in Venice and is very versatile. Living in Seattle, we have access to local cod and it’s incredibly simple to make on your own. We have a regular who will call two weeks in advance to reserve this dish so we have time to prepare it for his arrival."

Jasper Mirabile Jr., chef

Jasper's Restaurant (address and info)
Kansas City, MO

Overrated: Bruschetta
"Restaurants make such a big deal about it, and they charge so much for it. All it really is is garlic bread toasted and topped with tomatoes, onion, and an olive oil vinaigrette. I have customers sit down and actually scream out 'bruschetta for the table'. Really? Are you serious? How about my scampi Livornese or crispy polenta with seared scallops or, perhaps, a platter of prosciutto ham and artisan salami instead?"

Underrated: Arancini
"These little orange-shaped rice balls filled with meat and cheese are such a flavorful and wonderful dish. Just recently, I am beginning to see them on more menus across America and especially in some modern American restaurants. I have been eating them since I was a child and there are so many different recipes, but the traditional [version] is still my favorite."

Suzette Gresham, co-owner/executive chef

Acquerello (address and info)
San Francisco, CA

Overrated: Lasagna
"With all due respect to the lasagna lovers out there, this isn't the only baked and layered pasta dish in Italy. In fact, it has become quite American. The variations are endless, and, okay, I love it too. But I think we should use this dish as a springboard towards other dishes."

Underrated: Timballo
"While not a common term here, timballo is a favorite all over Italy. It’s similar to lasagna, but it's much more complicated than that. In particular, timballo al' termano has 16 layers of paper thin crespelle (crepes). Each layer is dressed with a fresh tomato-vegetable sugo, fresh mozzarella, grated Parmesan cheese, and painfully small meatballs made of veal and pork. If I hadn't watched an Italian family from Abruzzo make it, I might not have believed it myself. But I can tell you, the mere mention of its name now has me salivating."
 

Filippo Gozzoli, chef

A Voce Columbus (address and info)
New York, NY

Overrated: Traditional meatballs
"Meaning the ones made with ground beef and pork. They've become the most common and popular in America."

Underrated: Mondeghili meatballs
"Originally from Milan, these meatballs are made with mortadella, ground pork and ground beef, Parmesan, parsley, and breadcrumbs -- and then they're deep-fried. The addition of mortadella to the meatballs makes them very tender, and deep-frying them creates a crispy exterior. They are best when served with a spicy tomato sauce."

Paul Bartolotta, chef/co-owner

Bartolotta Restaurants (address and info)
Milwaukee, WI

Overrated: Balsamic anything
"The Italians hardly even know what balsamic vinegar is. Everywhere you look in the US, there is balsamic something -- dressing or vinaigrette -- on the menu. For goodness sake, people are even drizzling or drenching a perfectly good or average-quality mozzarella with the stuff. Shameful! Nearly all are bastardized versions of the two true originals, Aceto Balsamico 'Tradizionale' di Reggio-Emilia and Aceto Balsamico 'Tradizionale' di Modena. Try the real deals. Yes, I know, they are not cheap. Quality has a price."

Underrated: Spaghetti
"It's the most American of pastas. So why is it underrated? Well, it's underrated and underappreciated in its perfect form and use. Spaghetti should not be treated with the deference of pizza. I've never met a slice of pizza I didn't like. Pasta, on the other hand, specifically spaghetti, is only magical when it is correctly cooked in sufficiently salted water. The simplicity of perfectly cooked spaghetti with garlic and olive oil (spaghetti aglio e olio), spaghetti with anchovies, spaghetti with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, or spaghetti with clams (spaghetti alle vongole) is underrated and sadly underappreciated."

Kristin Hunt is a food/drink staff writer for Thrillist, and doesn't know how she's supposed to feel about arancini. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.