When it comes to Italian food, red sauce continues to hold strong. There seems to be no stopping Major Food Group’s insistence that there be a chicken parm in every port, and the biggest names are even ensuring that the red-sauce joint is jarred and sold at the grocery store. But amid that scene, a new trend emerged in 2022, attempting to evoke more of a luxury vacation than a seat at Nonna’s (or Rao’s) table. This is Coastal Italian. And it means whatever you want it to mean.
Broadly, the Coastal Italian restaurants — or coastal Mediterranean or “Italian riviera” or a handful of other descriptors — that have opened across the country this year tout seafood as the main difference between them and other, un-adjectived Italian restaurants. At the newly-opened Casino in New York, there’s fritto misti, shellfish pasta, and a stew of mixed seafood with a tomato and saffron broth. At Hearts & Flame in LA, the menu includes crudo and char grilled octopus. The menu at Boston’s Faccia a Faccia has small plates of swordfish and pasta with squid ink and uni, and also a selection of crudo. In fact, there’s a lot of crudo going on, whether it’s the yellow carpaccio at Capri in LA, tuna with orange zest at Riva in Minneapolis, halibut at Bar Sprezzatura in San Francisco, or a rotating selection dressed in “Calabrian aquachili” like at Dea in Dallas. Naturally, spritzes are everywhere.
“Wait, isn’t Italy mostly coast?” you might ask. Indeed, while it might seem like Coastal Italian follows the more general trend toward interest in regional cuisines, most of these restaurants instead use the idea of “coastal” as a way to skirt around that very regionality. Menus under the “coastal Italian” umbrella still include basically anything you can find throughout the broader Mediterranean region, with chefs mentioning locations as disparate as Venice, Sicily, Ibiza, and the French Riviera as inspiration. Faccia a Faccia describes itself as “drawing inspiration from [the chefs’] travels across Liguria, Sicily, Sardinia, and more,” while at Dolly Olive in Portland, Oregon, the menu features Sicilian eggplant parm, spaghetti bolognese, and Spanish octopus. At Balla in Last Vegas, there’s a Roman-style pizza menu. There’s bone marrow angolotti, burrata, mozzarella sticks, chicken milanese, and hunks of steak cooked over an open flame in the center of the room. Yes, you can technically eat all of these things on the coast, but whether or not they feel “coastal” is another story.
Rather than any one culinary tradition, Coastal Italian is an aesthetic. Many of these restaurants embrace light colors, the blues of the ocean, or art deco touches in their design. There is an aura of wellness to coastal branding, a subconscious evoking of the “Mediterranean diet” and all the supposed health benefits it brings. Regardless of what’s on the menu, it’s all about feeling light and refreshed. And mostly, to be on the coast of Italy is to be in the sunshine, relaxed, and distant from your daily responsibilities (unless you actually live on the Italian coast, then you just have to work like everyone else). The point of hospitality is to momentarily relieve you of your worries, but by bringing in an idea of a physical place unrelated to the cuisine, these restaurants attempt to construct a larger fantasy. The larger fantasy, in this case, happens to be one of the year’s most desirable.
This year, with pandemic travel restrictions all but gone and a strong dollar, Americans have taken up international travel with abandon, with the Italian coast a particular hotspot. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of international tourists in Italy rose 172 percent, and were even up from pre-pandemic numbers, and this season of White Lotus codified beachfront Sicily as an it destination. That popularity is based on an illusion: Positano, Sicily, Calabria, Amalfi, all of these are places that are beautiful on their face, but the idea of these places is that you, the tourist, have just stumbled upon these ancient cliffside towns where life is slow and the people know how to enjoy themselves. Maybe you could even live there, work remotely, and eat lightly dressed pastas and shellfish all the time. You’d have no problems.
As Rebecca Jennings notes at Vox, the reality of coastal Italy makes quick work smashing that myth. Tourists outnumber locals in Positano, one of the Italian coast’s most popular spots, three to one, and rather than a charming, colorful town most people find hordes of other tourists all vying for the same selfie. “The problem of travel at this particular moment is not too many people traveling in general, it is too many people wanting to experience the exact same thing because they all went to the same websites and read the same reviews,” writes Jennings. No place on earth could live up to what Americans have built up in their minds.
In that light the Coastal Italian Restaurant is a far better deal; at the Coastal Italian Restaurant, the fantasy can remain intact. You can have all the grilled fish and squid ink pasta and Aperol spritz you want, with precious little to intrude on your daydream. In the dining room, the Italian coast can remain whatever you imagine.
Marylu Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.