What’s in a Menu?

This ain’t no South Philly red-sauce joint.

Before we opened Amis, the Vetri Family’s Roman-style neighborhood trattoria, Marc Vetri and I spent a week in Italy sampling typical trattoria dishes. We ordered cacio e pepe pasta at every meal, day after day—not because we loved it, but because it would have been foolish to order it once and think, “Okay, we understand this dish. On to the next pasta.”

What if on the night we had ordered it the chef was having a bad day? What if we happened to walk into the one restaurant in Rome that didn’t serve cacio e pepe in the traditional manner? Comparing several versions of a classicl dish is a sound way to understand the dish at its core, and on that trip, as always, we were looking for menu inspiration.

Just as concept, design and physical set-up of the dining room come together through inspiration and hard work, the menu requires great attention to detail.

Just as concept, design and physical set-up of the dining room come together through inspiration and hard work, the menu requires great attention to detail. Size, shape, material, font style, descriptive copy, item placement, design and the choice of dishes are all carefully considered. Putting together a menu is labor intensive, but it’s driven by fun and passion.

There’s no blueprint or checklist. We don’t say, “Okay, we need one beef dish, two chicken, five pastas.” Instead, it’s an ongoing conversation. Our culinary team throws out ideas based on their own travel and hands-on research, study of classic dishes and trends, recipe testing and retesting, seasonal influences and ingredient availability. Gradually, we whittle down the options.

If you’re going to open a restaurant inspired by a specific culture or region, you need to really delve into the local food in the type of place you’re trying to emulate. When Vetri first opened, presented as an authentic northern Italian ristorante, our menu set off many guests and critics who questioned its contents—both what was there and what wasn’t.

Our capretto, or baby goat, was often targeted as “not Italian food” even though it has been a mainstay in northern Italy for generations.

And to this day, we still field questions about the menu’s lack of red sauce and garlic—two ingredients rarely used in northern Italian cuisine but popular in the country’s south. It took people a while to realize that we really were an authentic Italian restaurant, just not the kind they were used to. Most Italian-Americans in Philadelphia trace their roots to southern Italy, and that food has long been the standard in America. It’s no different than if a chef from Puglia had taken regular business trips to Dallas for several years and then decided to open an American-style restaurant back home. Odds are, his menu would not include Maine lobster, Maryland crab cakes or Cajun gumbo, but lots of authentic Texas barbecue. And that would be just fine, but not representative of America.

Once the right dishes have been selected for the menu, the rest is all about presentation. A menu’s style and design explain what kind of place you are running, and when the menu and milieu don’t match, it can be glaring. A fast-casual spot would likely feature cool fonts and text colors, highlighting on certain words, spirited illustrations–or maybe it’s hand-written. The menu in a more elegant setting will generally have a much finer script, less flash and more white space.

The dynamic nature of the menu keeps it interesting not just for guests who visit frequently, but also for everyone in the kitchen.

And what about size? In fine dining, the menu is more reserved and less crowded, so it tends to cover several pages, and that doesn’t include the wine list.  But our gastropub Alla Spina is more of a bar, so the entire menu fits on one page—we just want you to look it over, choose what you want, get a beer, eat some food and have some fun. At Amis, a step up from Alla Spina, we have bruschetta and appetizers on the left side, and entrees on the right, where your eyes are drawn to first.  Most people choose their entrée first, then decide on a first course. Much thought goes into all of this, and the key is to make it look uncontrived.

But of course, it is contrived. The restaurant industry has commissioned psychological studies to determine where your eyes go when you pick up a menu, revealing a host of subliminal suggestions that can maximize revenue. Knowing how people approach a menu also helps us make it easier for guests to get the most out of their experience. For example, since we obviously serve pasta, it doesn’t have to take up prime location on the top right of page one because we know that you’ll search for it. Instead, that prime space can feature our signature dishes, inspired by our travels in Italy. We devote a section on one of our menus to Il Quinto Quarto, or the “fifth quarter,” featuring variety meats such as tripe, tongue and sweetbreads. We need to highlight these dishes to let those who enjoy them know that we have them.

When a particular dish isn’t selling, we’ll consider all factors, including its description on the menu, to figure out the problem. The first step, of course, is to taste a couple of different plates to determine if it’s the food that needs to be fixed. If we’re satisfied with the presentation and flavors, we’ll rethink how it’s presented on the menu. At Vetri, we used to offer Welsh rarebit, but it wasn’t selling despite the fact that it was absolutely delicious. Someone suggested changing the name to “beer cheese toast,” and now we can’t keep it in the kitchen.

The irony of menu development is that, after all the time and effort we spend to get it just right, every so often we change it. While certain mainstay dishes will always be offered, others are swapped in and out due to seasonality, availability of ingredients, the weather, and really just change for change’s sake. You may not want a heavy ragu in August, for example, but come December such hearty food seems just right. At Pizzeria Vetri, our menu will include margherita pizza every day of the year, but we may only add the corn-based pizza in late summer.

The dynamic nature of the menu keeps it interesting not just for guests who visit frequently, but also for everyone in the kitchen. We all love food, but chefs and cooks have a more complex relationship with it. The more they get to experiment and create new dishes, the better for everyone.

Front.House.-Cover[1]This is an excerpt from “Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors and Secrets,” by Jeff Benjamin with Greg Jones,  published by Burgess Lea Press. Foreword by Marc Vetri.