Dishing on Italian Classics

Italians do it better, especially when it comes to these beloved items.
Tiramisu with an espresso martini from Mama’s on Main.

Photograph by HATSUE

Here’s the lowdown on some of the most iconic and classic dishes you’ll find and almost any Italian restaurant.



Illustration by Sarah Becan

In Italian, gelato means “frozen,” and is a type of ice cream. However, it only contains 6 to 9 percent butterfat whereas ice cream contains 10 to 25 percent. It’s softer than ice cream and has more milk and less cream, meaning overall it’s healthier than American ice cream. The gelato and sorbet we love today dates back to the 1550s, when Cosimo Ruggeri created the flavor fior di latte (“flower of milk”). Nicola’s (1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-721-6200) makes its own gelato and sorbettos, including seasonal flavors. Italian-Argentinian restaurant Alfio’s Buon Cibo (2724 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-321-0555) hand rolls its gelato while the house-made salted-vanilla gelati at Sotto (118 E. Sixth St., downtown, 513-977-6886) comes as an affogato.


Illustration by Sarah Becan

Every culture seems to have its version of a dumpling, and gnocchi is Italy’s contribution (it’s been around since Roman times). The dough’s made from wheat flour, egg, and potato and shaped into small bites. Once boiled, the gnocchi’s dressed with herbs, cheese, and other ingredients. Via Vite (520 Vine St., downtown, 513-721-8483) makes it by hand, resulting in a crispy gnocchi with fonduta, chive, and truffle. The version at Nicola’s is also handmade but zhuzhed up a little more—crispy potato gnocchi with four-cheese fondue, chives, and Italian truffle shavings.


Illustration by Sarah Becan

Invented in Southern Italy, burrata became popular in the 1950s. Italians use buffalo milk to make the mozzarella-like casing. But unlike mozz, a pouch is formed and filled with cream. Opening the pouch results in the rich cream oozing out, a total delight of sweet cream and cheese. Nicola’s makes lobster and burrata ravioli, and Rosie’s Italian Kitchen (300 E. Seventh St., downtown, 513-381-1243) adds aged balsamic. Forno Osteria & Bar (9415 Montgomery Rd., Montgomery, 513-231-5555; 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-818-8720) gets fancy with basil pesto, and pomodoro in gelatina, served with housemade focaccia. Alfio’s Buon Cibo generates a tomato, olive, and thyme fondue and places it inside pulled mozzarella.


It’s unclear when the Italians invented the delicious dessert, but supposedly restaurateur Ado Campeol’s wife, Alba di Pillo, and pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto first served it at their restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso, Italy, in 1969. The traditional method soaks ladyfingers (sponge cake biscuits) in coffee and layers them with a mixture of eggs, sugar, and mascarpone, and sprinkles the top layer with cocoa. In Italian, “tirami su” translates to “pick me up” or “cheer me up,” and that’s probably because of the addition of liqueur like Kahlúa or rum. Forno and Rosie’s offers traditional versions, but Alfio’s makes a decadent “Taste of Cincinnati” award-winning chocolate caramel version that’s layered with whipped dulce de leche mascarpone and espresso-infused chocolate.


Illustration by Sarah Becan

Akin to gnocchi, ravioli is another type of Italian dumpling, except typically square in shape and stuffed with a variety of ingredients. The word “ravioles” first appeared in a 14th century Italian cookbook, and traces its roots to Central and Northern Italy. In America, ravioli evolved to be synonymous with Chef Boyardee and the toasted ravioli, a St. Louis creation. However, in Cincinnati, Russo’s Ravioli  has been making ravioli by hand using the family’s great grandfather’s recipe since 1945. These ravioli gurus don’t have a brick-and-mortar location but you can visit a local farmers’ market (like the ones in Hyde Park and Montgomery), Findlay Market, Dee Felice Market, or Jungle Jim’s to purchase Russo’s lemon-basil ricotta, traditional meat, and three-cheese options.

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