The Italian Restaurants

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Of the hundreds of types of ethnic restaurants in the United States, Italian restaurants, including pizza chains, boast the largest number. They also offer an array of opportunities for would-be franchisees and entrepreneurs and the possibility of coming up with a concept modification. Italian restaurants owe their origins largely to poor immigrants from southern Italy, entrepreneurs who started small grocery stores, bars, and restaurants in Italian neighborhoods in the Northeast. The restaurants began serving their ethnic neighbors robustly flavored, familiar foods in large portions at low prices.

The foods were based on home cooking, including pasta, a paste or dough item made of wheat flour and water (plus eggs in northern Italy). Spaghetti, from the word spago, meaning ”string,” is a typical pasta. Macaroni, another pasta, is tubular in form. In the north of Italy, ravioli pasta is stuffed with cheese or meat; in the south, it may be served in a tomato sauce without meat. Pastas take various shapes, each with its own name. Pizza is native to Naples, and it was there that many American soldiers, during World War II, learned to enjoy it.

Pizza eventually made John Schnatter a millionaire; his Papa John’s chain has made hundreds of small businesspeople wealthy. Although independent Italian restaurant owners typify the Italian restaurant business, chain operators are spreading the pasta concept nationwide and selling franchises to those qualified by experience and credit rating. The range of Italian-style restaurants available for franchise is wide, from stand-in-line food service to high-style restaurants where the guest is greeted by a maitre d’hotel, seated in a plush chair, and served with polished silver.

 A Romano’s Macaroni Grill costs upward of $3.5 million to build, equip, and open. As is true in upscale Roman restaurants, guests get to review fresh seafood, produce, and other menu items as they enter the restaurant. An extensive menu lists more than 30 items, including breads and pizza baked in a wood-burning oven. The Olive Garden chain, with more than 547 units, is by far the largest of the Italian restaurant chains. As might be guessed, many Italian-style restaurants feature pizza and might be properly called stepped-up pizzerias.

 Pasta House Co. sells a trademarked pizza called Pizza Luna in the shape of a half moon. An appetizer labeled Portobello Frito features mushrooms, as does the portobello fettuccine. Spaghetti Warehouses are located in rehabilitated downtown warehouses and, more recently, in city suburbs. Paul and Bill’s (neither owner is Italian) sells antipasto, salads, and sandwiches for lunch, then changes the menu for dinner. The sandwiches are replaced by such items as veal scallopini with artichokes and mushrooms in a Madeira sauce. Osso bucco (veal shank) is another choice. Potato chips are homemade, and a wood-fired oven adds glamour to the baked breads and pizza. Fazoli’s, a Lexington, Kentucky, chain, describes itself as fast casual dining.

 Guests place their orders at a counter, then seat themselves. A restaurant hostess strolls about offering unlimited complimentary bread sticks that have just been baked. The menu lists spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, chicken Parmesan, shrimp and scallop fettuccini, and baked ziti (a medium-size tubular pasta). The sandwiches, called Submarinos, come in seven varieties. Thirty percent of sales come via a drive-through window. The chain franchise has some 400 units and is growing. Italian restaurants based on northern Italian food are likely to offer green spinach noodles served with butter and grated Parmesan cheese. Gnocchi are dumplings made of semolina flour (a coarser grain of wheat).

Saltimbocca (”jumps in the mouth”) is made of thin slices of veal rolled with ham and fontina cheese and cooked in butter and Marsala wine. Mozzarella cheese is made from the milk of water buffalo. Risotto, which makes use of the rice grown around Milan, is cooked in butter and chicken stock and flavored with Parmesan cheese and saffron.

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