menu planning...

Joined Jul 2, 2008
This question runs the risk of being either stupid or naive..but here goes.

What basic rules do you follow when planning a menu?

If you were to plan for Italian, for example, would you stick with dishes from one region? Would you combine from different regions?

I'm thinking out loud, but there seems to be some logic for sticking to one region, either to show the variety, or star dishes from that region, or spices available, or ingredients available from that place.

And the other part is there has to be some balance in terms of proteins, vegetables, etc, as well as heavier foods and lighter foods...

Any advice? Reading recommendation? Sorry if this question is too silly.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
First off, Karen, there are no stupid questions. Everybody has to learn for the first time, and the best way of doing that is to ask.

There's no simple answer, in this case. The variable are just too extensive.

Using your example of Italian, for instance, I believe I would plan it around the course progression of Italian meals: antipasto, primo, etc. Does that mean sticking to the dishes of one region? Not necessarily. Just as much can be said for doing that, a case can be made for mixing them as well. Much depends on the purpose of the dinner.

Think about Italian restuarants you know. How many of them are specifically Sicilian, or Tuscan, or Valle D'Ostan, vs. the number that are merely generic Italian? Just as there's a place for both types of restaurant there's a place for both in your menu.

Once you get away from an ethnic theme the variables actually increase. For instance, you might be planning a small-plates dinner, or one with an ingredient- or type of food theme, or celebrating a particular event or holiday.

Let's look at Mardi Gras, for instance, because the timing is right. Do you confine yourself to Creole/Cajun dishes? Broaden to the entire Gulf Coast, where Mardi Gras also is a big deal? Or even go wider and call it Carnival, and include influences from all the countries that celebrate Shrove Tuesday under that name?

On the other hand, there are times when things tighten up; a wine & cheese party, for instance, or---a growing trend---soup parties.

And you're certainly right about there needing to be a balance of one dish to another. This is especially important when there is no particular theme to the menu, i.e., we're just having a dinner party. While this opens many doors, you still want to avoid conflicts between types of dishes and flavors, one course to the next, just as you would avoid them within courses.
Joined Apr 3, 2008
mmm, I agree with everything KYH said. I just want to expand a bit. If this is a one time event then I would try to keep it as authentic to the region as possible ie... if it's Tuscan then it's Tuscan.. if it's Italian then the various regions are okay.

However with any restaurant while there is the main focus of your menu (even if it's seasonal and yearly) there are weekly specials for breakfast , lunch and dinner depending on what your restaurant serves. There can even be daily or lunch only specials. While the specials are sometimes spur of the moment aka Soup du jour, some are not, aka leftover Prime Rib from Friday night (a weekly Friday night special in this case) becoming Philly Cheesesteaks, Saturday's lunch specials, while they last. If your looking for dollars and sense (lol) while making a menu I would ask EdBUCHANNON and PeteMcCracken on how they approach it as they have the broadest spectrum I can think of in terms of service on this board. Not to mention they both seem supremely qualified to answer.
Joined Apr 2, 2007
Study other restaurants' menus insofar as layout etc and see how they do it. I have a really useful link which I will dig out and post, I think a lot of menbers would find it interesting.
Joined Jul 2, 2008
You feedback has been wonderful, thank you very much. That link, Bazza, was very interesting as well, i'll have to share with others, it merits a closer look.

My question comes from a homework I was given, but we weren't given much guideline. But it is very interesting. We were asked to plan an Italian menu, and the thing that the chef seemed to emphasize was that Italian cuisine is, it sounded like, at least in Italy, as orthodox, things are done one way, as they've been done for generations, and she was saying that they don't accept innovations in ingredients to what they have. Whether or not that is entirely true, I don't know since I am not familiar with practices or restaurants there. What i'm understanding is that innovations such as chocolate pasta for dessert wouldn't go over. ??

That's where the question on menu uniformity is coming from.

Anyway, I've dug out a few books I have on Italian cuisine, the 95 Bon appetit on the meditteranean, which doesn't seem too bad, and I hope is authentic, the CIA professional although I don't know if i'll find authentic recipes, and a very strange book I forgot I had by a Medici who did a cooking show for PBS years ago.

And strangely enough, she's asking us to do a critique of a movie (the German version) which I've already seen, of mostly martha or las delicias de la vida, to appreciate the italian approach.

so, i'll get to work on that...

Joined Sep 29, 2009
Let me set off by saying that, if you want good ingredients for Italian, you are in the second best country in the world to find superb ingredients. Italy would be first but most of the better quality Garlic, Onions, Peppers, Chiles, Tomatoes, and Herbs sold in mass markets in the US are grown in Mexico. Pork is also, from my understanding of Mexican cuisine, central to both Italian and Mexican styles of cooking. Head to the farmer's markets around town and I would all but guarantee that you will find good stuff.

As for a set way of doing things going back generations, it varies from family to family. As I've said before, there is no Italian Escoffier, only Nonna, someone's grandmother, to rely on for technique and recipes.

As for menu planning, just keep in mind that a formal Italian dinner has six courses.

Aperitivo- a small drink such as vermouth, campari, or prosecco.
Antipasto- Appetizer
Primo- First Course, usually risotto, pasta, gnocchi, and the sort.
Secondo- Main course, generally veal, fish, or pork. Tuscan and Sicilian cuisine also include wild game
Contorno- Side dish, susally served just after eating of the Secondo has begun or at the same time. Normally a green salad or roasted vegetables.
Formaggio e frutta- Cheese and fruit. Pretty self explanatory.
Dolce- Dessert
Caffè- Coffee. Usually espresso and almost always black.
Digestivo- after dinner liqueur. Generally limoncello, nocino, or sambuca. Sometimes fortified wine.

I know that's 9 but 3 are drinks while waiting on food or while talking after the meal.

Play with regional cuisine as the meal progresses. Just make sure that your menu has a flow that makes sense and have fun with it.
Joined Feb 1, 2007

First, confirm your understanding of what the instructor said. If she said what you think, then follow her statement, even though it isn't right. Easiest way to get in trouble is to disagree with your instructor's biases.

Some of the most exciting innovations are being done with Italian cuisine even as we speak. The idea that Italian food----which represents the accomodation of one wave of invaders after another---is stagnent is just silly.

To be sure, there are regional styles of cooking that remain more-or-less constant. For instance, a hallmark of Sicillian cooking is its combinations of sweets and sours. But look at what chefs such as Nino Garziano are doing within that tradition. Just one example: one of his great primo courses is Black and Cardamom Pappardelle in Bottarga Sauce with Olive Oil Foam. None of the ingredients would be unfamiliar to the average Sicilian; but his or her grandmother certainly didn't combine them that way.

Be that as it may, if you're going to go with "classic" Italian, in order to meet the teacher's instructions, there are some better references for you to check.

Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cook Book is sort of the bible of the subject, and you'd do well to find a copy. Your library probably has it. More recently, Lidia's Italy, or any of Lidia Bastianich's (sp?) works will serve you in good stead.

Good luck with the project.
Joined Aug 13, 2006
I think your instructor has picked up on something quite common here in Italy, concerning orthodoxy. Note other threads on fish and cheese, for instance. Italians tend to like the cuisine they grew up with and have clear ideas about what is right and what is wrong. There is a trend towards more experimentation, but an even stronger trend, perhaps, to going back to very traditional recipes - "Slow food".

However, ChefRay is wrong on one front. I have never (NEVER) seen coffee served after a meal with milk without at the very least inducing the waiter to make some sort of grimace if not outright disgust. True, i've never had the pleasure of eating in any of the top restaurants, but I do know about the ones I've been to. I know, because i never drink espresso and only like coffee with milk.

Also first courses are not only pastas and grains, but also soups. Depends on the region, but pretty much all have a wide range of soups. It would make for an interesting departure on the usual italian menu.

Sides are big, and not limited to grilled vegetables. Despite the fact that most restaurant owners have no idea what a vegetarian will eat (they often assume they will eat chickens - birds are not meat) or certainly fish (well, FISH are not meat, of course!) - despite this, Italy is great for vegetarians because there are hundreds of ways to make vegetables. You would gain points making a nice soup first course that is not minestrone (zuppa di scarola, pappa al pomodoro, zuppa di farro, etc etc etc, always in consideration of what is strictly in season!) and by making some interesting side dishes, again in season. In some regions (Tuscany, e.g.) the meat is often simply grilled. But the real work goes into the first courses and sides. Also don;t forget the wonderful selection of pastas with vegetables, if you really want to do pasta. In the states i remember ada boni's "Italian regional cooking" was a good resource for regional recipes.
Joined Nov 1, 2009

A couple books that I use that I have gotten good results with. The Regional Cuisine of Italy, and The New Regional Cuisine of Italy. You should be able to get one or both of them at Amazon. BTW sometimes I do a menu from one region, and somtimes I'll pick items from different regions. It all depends what I am in the mood for.
Joined Aug 11, 2000
interesting topic.....

for several years I was chair of a wild mushroom gourmet dinner group.....approx 15 couples meeting 1x a month usually at another member's home. At that time I was active in numerous culinary groups, as this was a wild mushroom group it seemed important to have numerous wild mushrooms in each month's menu.....other members thought differently....still baffles me 12 years later. Many thought anything goes which makes me CRAZY!
Anyway, balance is important, especially in multicourse meals....flavors, textures, volume, richness, seasonality....

Does it all have to be from one area? nope.
A menu design comes from:
1) why you are having this meal
2) who are your guests
3) what's your budget $, time, equipment......etc
4) what's available product wise
5) how do you express yourself with food
Joined Feb 26, 2007
(said very tongue in cheek but with a not just a touch of sincerity) you must, of course, keep your colour palette, red, white and green. Ok ok kalamata and other olives could feature somewhere....

Always - olive oil (ahem- not with desserts- maybe some do have them, of these I beg ignorance)

As in - pasta of choice with basil and tomatoes.

Pizza Marghuerita

Zuppa - a minestrone

Caprese Insalata

Italy has such a variety we could go on and on. But, basic ingredients of the traditional style. Pasta, olive oil, tomatoes, anchovies, basil, olives, oregano, eggplant, zucchini, oregano, parsley, parmiagiano,veal, cured pork products.... etc etc

Oh, and the wines and spirits :D
Joined May 29, 2006
I would run a standard Italian menu. Every night however I would feature specials from various regions your choice
Joined Sep 29, 2009
I should have stated that my in country Italian work experience is limited to Torino, with many of the customers being from France and Monaco. The French patrons may have had something to do with the coffee. As for the soup, I forgot to put that bit in.

I am totally on board with the caffe e latte. I also like to prepare it like my Dominican friends, a little coffee in some sugar and beat that with a spoon until it foams a little. Then spoon that into the coffee to sweeten and then a splash of raw milk or heavy cream.
Joined Dec 4, 2009
Tradition does, indeed, live in Italy. In the towns and villages. And, thank the cooking gods, in books such as "In Nonna's Kitchen".

But I'm thinking that Italy is pretty darn cosmopolitan and especially in the big cities, "regional cuisine" is just a topic of conversation.

Everything's fair game.

Do the courses, do the balance.

The only thing that I would add is that you keep to a basic "style": rustica or fina.

My additional book recommendations: Hazan's "Esssentials of Classic Italian Cooking", "The Taste of Italy", and "Cucina Italiana" (I think there's an English edition).

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