A FEW years ago, the top-class restaurants of America were almost exclusively French. Today, the most popular cuisine is Italian. This comes as no surprise. Americans have had a passion for pizza and pasta for years. Now they are going upscale. The new trend is regional Italian cuisine.
To some Americans, regional Italian food means ``northern Italian cooking,'' a style using fewer tomatoes and garlic than southern Italian cooking. But this is far from a complete description.
Franco Romagnoli, owner of Romagnoli's Restaurant in Boston's Faneuil Market, says, ``In the United States the term `northern Italian cooking' has been used snobbishly, I think, by cooks or establishments to distance and differentiate themselves from the red checkered tablecloth d'ecor and the tomato-garlic kind of cuisine, or implicitly, the southern Italian style.
``The northern-southern division is an oversimplification,'' he contends. ``There are 19 regions in Italy, each with a definite ethnic cooking style, but all may or may not use tomatoes, hot pepper, and garlic. People must stop to consider that north, south, east, or west ingredients can be used well or badly.
``The pendulum of cooking trends in Italy swings periodically from new - meaning fashionably bourgeois - to rustic-peasant, meaning regional, traditional foods.
``The swing is definitely towards the traditional, regional food, but with an eye for a lighter presentation,'' Mr. Romagnoli says.
Americans today are intrigued by the infinite variety of dishes from the country's many regions. They are ready for more-refined Italian cooking and want more new and exciting dishes.
While some of the new restaurants in the US concentrate on one special region, others are devoted to upgrading the image of Italian cuisine as a whole and offer dishes from several different areas.
Most Italian chefs in Italy insist there is really no such thing as ``Italian food'' - instead, they describe the cooking by its region. They talk about Florentine cooking, the dishes of Genoa, the Piedmont, and food from Abruzzi and the Adriatic coast.
``Today's regional cuisines are quite distinct, each with characteristic foods and dishes,'' said Vincenzo Buonassissi, an Italian food authority and author of half a dozen books on Italian food and cooking, during a recent interview at his Milan apartment. ``Despite contemporary trends and culinary crossovers and mixing of cooking styles, a great diversity still exists.
``We have the polenta and butter-based cooking of Piemonte in the northwest and the light seafoods of the cuisines near the shore. There are special dishes from the hill country, because of the foods available in those areas. Even within certain regions such as Tuscany, you will find several different cooking styles.
``At the same time, the Italian diet in general is lighter today and more varied,'' Mr. Buonassissi explains. ``People here are very busy, work longer hours, so there is less and less home cooking. They cook on holidays - holidays are very important - but they are eating out more and more.''
A recent tour of several restaurants in northern Italy indicates that, for many young Italian chefs, regional cooking means going back to their roots. They respect the old classic traditions and at the same time appreciate the variety and quality of fresh country ingredients.
The emphasis is on the products of various regions, such as the Fontina, Ricotta, Robiole, and other local cheeses; the very fresh vegetables such as greens, beans, tomatoes, and herbs; and the simple peasant foods such as polenta, rice, and pasta.
Behind the new trends is a desire to retain and save the best elements of the old cuisine.
``Some hotels and restaurants may have been slightly influenced by the nouvelle cuisine trend,'' Buonassissi said. ``Others have many customers who want the classic dishes done to perfection. But today's top Italian chefs agree there is room for improvisation when it is guided by an understanding of composition, balance, and experience.
``Unlike France, where gastronomy has been codified, cooking in Italy has always been highly informal. Each ingredient stands on its own, whereas in French cuisine each element is blended with others to contribute to a final integrated taste,'' he said.
``Pasta'' (1973), one of Buonassissi's cookbooks in English, first published as ``Il Codice della Pasta,'' is a definitive work with 650 recipes, many of them archaic. Although Buonassissi is a lawyer, his professional life is dedicated to cuisine, including his television show of more than 12 years and his activities in leading gastronomic societies.
Today, pasta is usually made at home in central and northern Italy and produced in factories and sold in packages in the south. Now with more women at work, both fresh and dried pasta are available in all the shops, but most cooks say there is nothing as good as when it's made from scratch.
Milan, the capital of Lombardy, a northern province, has two regional specialties particularly well known in the US: Risotto alla Milanese (Risotto Milan Style), rice delicately flavored with saffron, and Osso Buco, braised veal shank on the bone.
Here in northern Italy, butter, rather than olive oil, is the main cooking medium, and there are some excellent cheeses from these northern regions. The best known is Gorgonzola, although in the Alpine regions and in Piedmont and Val d'Aosta, several hundred varieties of cheese are produced.
The tome of the high mountains are most celebrated. The related cheese, Robiola, is aged with basil, thyme, flowering juniper, and fennel. True fontina is made only in the Val d'Aosta, although you will find it and imitations throughout Italy and in other countries.
Two of the traditional sweets of Milan in the Lombardy region are pannetone, a cake with raisins and candied fruit, and torrone, an almond-flavored candy popular since the 13th century. Another favorite Lombardy dessert is pears stuffed with Gorgonzola.
Only recently have Americans been able to taste what Italian chefs call authentic northern Italian cooking. In Boston, Romagnoli and his wife, Margaret, are serious about about bringing real classic and regional Italian food to the US.
In their restaurant, the Romagnolis present regional menus with special dishes from Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, Sicily, Venice, and other regions. They have also produced a television and a video series and three cookbooks on Italian cooking. ``The New Italian Cooking'' (Atlantic, Little Brown & Co., $15), published in 1980, is their most recent.
Here are some recipes that are on the Romagnolis' restaurant menu and in their cookbook. They represent a skillful blending of the old with the new, in the combination of classic ingredients with a limited amount of preparation time. Romagnoli's Monkfish on Skewers 2 pounds monkfish, in 3 slices, 3/4 inches wide 2 sweet green peppers 1/2 pound large mushrooms, washed, stemmed 1 dozen cherry tomatoes, washed, hulled 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 cup white vinegar 2 tablespoons snipped or freeze-dried chives 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, or 1/2 teaspoon dried 1/2 teaspoon oregano Freshly ground pepper
Trim fish of the central bone and skin. Cut in 1-inch squares.
Place green pepper square on skewer. Add a mushroom, tomato, and fish and continue in sequence, ending with pepper. Repeat, filling 8 sets of skewers, and place on platter.
Combine oil, vinegar, herbs, and pepper in jar; shake well, pour over skewers.
Marinate, basting from time to time, at least 1/2 hour.
Grill skewers on open grill or in preheated broiler, turning as one side is cooked, a total of 6 minutes. Baste with any remaining marinade and serve when fish is cooked, vegetables barely cooked, and peppers crisp. Makes about eight 9-inch skewers.
Serves 4. Galletto Ripieno Con Mandorle E Prugne (Rock Cornish Hen With Almond-Prune Stuffing) 1 rock Cornish hen 1 Italian sweet sausage, skinned, chopped 5 dried prunes, pitted, quartered 1/4 cup blanched, slivered almonds 1 thick slice day-old Italian bread 1/2 cup milk 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt 2 slices lean bacon Freshly ground pepper 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup chicken broth or bouillon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Discard neck; clean and reserve giblets. Chop almonds, coarsely. Break up bread and soak in milk.
Combine sausage, giblets, prunes, almonds and chop or process until well chopped and about same size. Squeeze bread and add. Mix well.
Salt hen's cavity, then stuff both cavity and neck pouch with prune mixture. Skewer openings closed.
Place bacon on breast, tie wings and legs, and sprinkle liberally with pepper.
In skillet, brown hen in the oil. Place in baking dish just large enough and bake 15 minutes. Add chicken bouillon and baste hen. Lower heat to 375 degrees F. and continue baking 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender. Place on hot platter. Degrease pan if necessary and serve pan juices with hen. Cut in half with poultry shears.
Serves 2. (Multiply for more servings.) Petti Di Pollo Farciti (Stuffed Chicken Breasts) 2 chicken breasts, boned, skinned 2 slices Fontina cheese 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley 1/2 tablespoon capers, rinsed Flour for dredging 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 tablespoons chicken stock or bouillon Freshly ground pepper to taste
Cut off and discard any chicken fat.
Place chicken pieces between waxed paper and pound with flat side of meat pounder. Lift paper, overlap any split pieces, replace paper, and pound again so that overlapping pieces will stick together.
Cut or fold cheese to cover half of each piece of chicken breast. Mince parsley and capers together and spread on cheese. Fold each chicken piece to enclose stuffing, pressing edges together to seal them.
Dredge stuffed chicken in flour, pat well, let rest a few minutes. Saut'e chicken in butter and olive oil 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Remove to warm plate in a warm place.
Add chicken stock to pan; stir; cook over medium heat about 1 minute or until a sauce has formed. Pour over chicken breasts.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.