Making traditional Italian new

In 2017, after more than a dozen years as the award winning executive chef of Panzano in Denver, Colorado, Elise Wiggins opened her own 200-seat Italian restaurant, Cattivella, which means “naughty little girl” in Italian. Wiggins makes annual pilgrimages to Italy to work with local chefs, learning the classic techniques first-hand and becoming familiar with the authentic ingredients at the heart of the flavor.

While acknowledging the steadily growing popularity of Latin and Asian cuisines, she believes Italian will remain the world’s favorite. She continues to create authentic dishes that she hopes will be new to her more adventurous guests.

“I ensure that my menu items are authentic because I have visited the particular areas of Italy and study with the local chefs to learn to prepare these dishes the ‘traditional’ way,” Wiggins said.

While Roman street food has a place on her menu in spagliozze (fried polenta), for example, she’s proudest when presenting items most American chefs wouldn’t use.


“For instance, I serve Batsoa from Piedmont; it’s a delicious pig feet appetizer,” she said.” My goal is to seek dishes that no one else is serving in the states.”

Another example is Focaccia di Recco (i.e., the Bread of Recco). The menu item features a super-elastic dough that is stretched paper thin on a three-foot in diameter metal pan, covered with dollops of crescenza (i.e., cows’ milk cheese), then topped with another thin layer of dough. Next, Wiggins punctures the top layer for steam to escape, brushes it with a bit of olive oil, and bakes it in a 500°F oven.

“The slightly tangy cheese melts and I’ll top [the ‘bread’] with a bit of arugula, prosciutto and a sprinkling of sea salt," she said. "I figured nobody’s doing this in the US, so I brought it back.”

Wiggins’ hot condiment of the moment is one she learned to prepare while visiting chefs in the Calabria region.

“Pilacca, Italian fermented chili paste, is like crack to me,” she said. “People in the southern part of Italy love the heat of chilies. You flash fry them whole — just pop the tops off first. Flash frying loosens the skin and caramelizes part of the pepper yet maintains freshness.”


To prepare, put one pound of whole peppers into the food processor, along with one tablespoon of finely minced fresh garlic, plus one teaspoon of sea salt, then chop. Place the mixture into an uncovered container, set out at room temperature for a day or two; the garlic will ferment the chilies.

Looking to the past to uncover “new,” addictive flavor boosts like pilacca may spark fresh ideas for globally-inspired menu innovation, even for today’s discerning palate.

“People ask to buy it all the time,” Wiggins said.