Hey, Baltimore, in the mood for Italian tonight? How about a nice veal piccata or chicken Parmigiana with a side of linguine?
Forget about it.
Instead, we're having pork cheeks with celeriac puree and pea shoots, a local melon salad with peaches, red onions and brioche croutons, and spinach tagliatelle tossed with blue crab meat and ... buttered popcorn.
Welcome to the new Italian dining landscape.
Of course you can still find the classics in Baltimore, both in and out of Little Italy. But Baltimore is seeing a new kind of Italian restaurant. Some of these new places, like Bottega — Adrien Aeschilman's white-hot micro restaurant in the Charles North neighborhood — are not obviously Italian restaurants at all.
Bottega's reclaimed barn wood and jars of preserves evoke farm-to-table more than trattoria, and the weekly changing chalkboard menu lists items like duck breast with blueberries and fish peppers and stuffed rabbit with black-eyed peas.
"A lot of people ask us if this is Italian," said Aeschilman, whose family vacationed in Italy every summer when he was a teenager. "It's Italian because that's what I grew up cooking, it's my background. I cook what I know, and therefore I consider it Italian."
This new take on what "Italian" means is happening not just in Baltimore but across the country, said Izabela Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation, a New York City nonprofit that celebrates America's culinary heritage.
"This a whole new kind of Italian-American cuisine. I'd call it American-Italian." Wojcik said. "It's very much a product of the current way that chefs are cooking."
Besides Bottega, other new Italians include Aggio, the stylish new restaurant from the nationally regarded chef Bryan Voltaggio, and Pazo, the formerly Spanish but now Italian restaurant from the Foreman Wolf restaurant group.
Others are Hersh's, a South Baltimore bar where the small-plate menu is inspired by the fry shops of Rome, and Birroteca, a "modern, rustic Italian" tavern where one of the specialties is the Locavore, a Neapolitan pizza topped with market-fresh vegetables.
The biggest influence on the new Italian restaurant is the farm-to-table movement, with its emphasis on local sourcing, regional traditions and simplicity.
This is what true Italian dining is all about, said Aeschilman. "We would always comment on how good the food was in Italy, and it was really because they were using fresh ingredients. It wasn't a huge repertoire of food. People did pastas really well, they did very simple cuts of meat with a few ingredients."
That dining philosophy shows up on Bottega's menu, which typically lists about a dozen items total — a few appetizers and pastas, four main dishes, and one or two desserts. Almost everything is scrupulously sourced, and Aeschilman has cultivated relationships with local purveyors, even occasionally traveling to area farms to pick crops himself for his menu.
It's not surprising that Italian dining and locally sourced dining are starting to converge, said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, which conducts annual surveys of American chefs to track dining trends.
For starters, Italian is the longtime favorite among table-service menus in the United States, she said. But local sourcing, the essential component of farm-to-table dining, is at the front of diners' minds.
"Locally sourced meat, seafood and produce are our No. 1 and 2 hot table-service trends for 2014," Fernandez said. "Local sourcing has stayed in the top 20 for the past five years, making this a true trend rather than a passing fad for table-service concepts."
If the main influence on the new Italian restaurant is farm-to-table, the second is the public's interest in chef-driven cuisine.
Wojcik of the James Beard Foundation said Italian cuisine provides the ideal framework for enterprising chefs.
Restaurants are "trying to build their business as gathering places where there's an appreciation of the craft that happens in the kitchen," Wojcik said. Italian cuisine "never gets old because there are so many interpretations."