The area around Mediterranean Sea is one that is known for its vast wealth of fantastic foods. What actually constitutes Mediterranean cuisine is often times disputed; foods from places like Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece, and even Israel and Turkey are lumped into to this otherwise vague category of world cuisine. The areas around the Mediterranean have incredibly regionalized cuisine, and even different areas of the same country will have varying cuisine (such as the difference between Tuscan & Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy). Often times (not always), however, many of these styles are blended into Mediterranean-American eateries. These eateries will occasionally incorporate elements from more than one of these regions, as there are a number of dishes that transcend country borders. In this Buyer’s Guide, we will look at some of the back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house essentials needed when opening a Mediterranean style restaurant.
Back-Of-The-House: The traditional preparation methods of Mediterranean cuisine vary as much as the cuisine itself. It is of utmost importance to first definitively determine what varieties of food will be appearing on your menu. The menu items and base region of the cuisine will drastically affect what kinds of cooking and food preparation equipment will be necessary. Here are a few examples of some equipment needed for some of the most popular Mediterranean menu items.
- Pasta Equipment – Pasta is a staple of many (not all) variations of Italian cooking. Restaurants producing their own pasta will need prep tools such as dough mixers and dough sheeters, but will also require some special cooking equipment. A pasta cooker or steam kettle should be used when cooking large volumes of pasta, and a stock pot range may be necessary to cook the large quantities of sauce that will accompany the dishes. There may be various other utensils or accessories needed (aside from standard utensils like spatulas and whisks), such as ravioli stamps or colanders, so it is best to deconstruct all pasta dishes on your menu and determine exactly what smallwares will be necessary.
- Falafel Equipment – Falafel is one of the most popular foods along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It has its place in the cuisine of countries like Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and even in Greece. These deep fried chickpea fritters require a deep fryer (preferably one with a cool zone for sediment to collect), a food processor to coarsely grind the chickpeas, and a smallware known as a falafel scoop (also known as an aleb falafel). Storage containers and refrigeration will also be needed to house the chickpeas while they are soaking and the raw falafel mixture. There are some machines that automatically press falafel patties and release them into the hot oil for frying. These machines are intended for higher volume operations, and must be placed directly next to a deep fryer. There are some varieties of the dish kibbeh (traditionally the Lebanese and Palestinian varieties) that can be prepared in a similar style as falafel, but consist mostly of lamb and bulgur.
- Bread Equipment – A number of Mediterranean regions craft their own breads to accompany their dishes, and many American Mediterranean-style restaurants have taken to crafting homemade breads. For this, dough mixers, bakery style wooden-top prep tables, on top of various smallwares like rolling pins and ingredient bins are needed. Proofers may be necessary for crusty hearth breads (like most Italian breads), but eastern Mediterranean pita is, for the most part, unleavened. For baking, most Mediterranean breads should be cooked in either a hearth oven (such as a stone deck or brick lined oven), or in a wood fired oven (especially the case in east Mediterranean cooking).
- Pastry Utensils – Many Mediterranean dishes, both sweet and savory, will incorporate various elements of pastry cooking (especially in Greek dishes like spanikopita). Working with pastry requires most all of the items needed to make bread, in addition to pastry specific utensils such as pastry knives, pastry bags, and pastry brushes.
- Slicers & Panini Grills – Cured meats and paninis play a large role in Italian cuisine. Italy produces a tremendous variety of cured meat for sandwiches and other dishes (such as prosciutto or soppressata) that must be sliced on a manual or automatic slicer for the best results. Once sliced, many of these meats have their place on one variety of traditional panini (a pressed / grilled sandwich) or another. These panini are traditionally cooked on a sandwich press or grill (a sandwich press has flat plates, a sandwich grill ridged), but can also be cooked on a charbroiler or griddle with a steak weight.
- Broilers – On top of preparing meats with a standard charbroiler and flat griddle, some Mediterranean cuisine has specific cooking methods. Two of the most well known specialty meats prepared in Mediterranean restaurants are gyro and shawarma. Depending on the region the recipe is indigenous to, the recipe will consist of any number of meats (though the most common are beef, chicken, lamb, veal, and pork) that are seasoned and slow roasted on a rotating vertical broiler. Slices of meat are taken to fill orders, and traditionally wrapped in pita with vegetables and any number of sauces. Gyro broilers are necessary to produce this Mediterranean specialty, and they come in any number of sizes. In addition to the gyro broiler, there are broilers designed to cook traditional kebabs; skewers that contain seasoned meats and vegetables. Lamb is traditionally the most common used, but items such as chicken, beef, fish, goat, or pork are also used depending on the region.
- Seafood Equipment – The Mediterranean Sea is home to some of the best indigenous seafood in the world, and it often appears in Mediterranean cuisine. Things necessary in preparing Mediterranean seafood are standard to all seafood. Things like boning / filet knives, steamers, shuckers, and scale removers are all commonplace in a Mediterranean seafood operation.
- Specialty Cookware – Depending on the menu items, there can be some specialized cookware needed. For instance, in Moroccan cuisine, one of the signature dishes is named after the dish it is served and cooked in; a tajine. The tajine is in essence a brazier of sorts; it slow cooks its contents, and has a cone shaped that allows steam to condense and flow back down into the shallow base. Most dishes served / cooked in a tajine are stew-like in consistency, and feature cuts of meat that may require slow cooking (like lamb shoulder or ox-tails) as well as any number of other meats and vegetables. A dutch oven can accomplish the same thing in larger volumes, as it is not prudent for a restaurant to serve a table several hours after they order. Dutch ovens can also be used for things like steaming mussels or seafood, and for dishes like the Italian classic Osso buco. A pizza stone may also be a good investment for businesses that want to hearth bake breads, but have / need to use a standard or convection oven. Large braizing pans can also be useful when cooking the Spanish classic paella or large quantities of Italian risotto.
Front-Of-The-House: The front-of-the-house in a Mediterranean style restaurant flows differently than most American style restaurants. Though some items like falafel and gyro can be prepared in a sort of “grab n’ go” fashion, most Mediterranean meals are multiple courses, and feature a number of smaller components, rather than one large entrée. Here are some special items that may or may not be needed when stocking the front of your Mediterranean restaurant.
- Raw Bar Equipment – As previously noted, the Mediterranean Sea has some of the best seafood, so it should come as no surprise that many Mediterranean restaurants feature a raw seafood bar. A raw bar requires a (usually) built-in set of cold wells or a cold plate. Cold plates tend to be the norm for raw bars; they are large flat surfaces that allow for a bit more of a decorative appearance than a standard cold well, but still keep product at proper temperatures (an incredibly important feature when chilling seafood). Sneezeguards are necessary to protect the shelf life of the seafood on the raw bar, and to protect it from customers’ germs. Plate dispensers or a rack to house plates on the cold buffet will also be necessary, as well as storage for any sauces or sides on the bar.
- Tajine & Other Serving Dishes – The tajine, as discussed earlier, is both a piece of cookware and a serving dish. In the commercial environment, many restaurateurs elect to cook large quantities of stews and only use the tajine to serve. Additionally, a wide variety of dinnerware usually is necessary to accommodate the wide number of small dishes being served (sometimes called “meze”, “mezze” or “mezza”). Foods like hummus, tabbouleh, labneh, dolmades, and other mezze are usually served in smaller dishes, but are traditionally served several at a time. They are commonly accompanied by fresh pita, which is stored in dishes similar to the ones used to store warm tortillas in Mexican restaurants.
- Cheese Graters & Other Table Utensils – It is very common to see olive oil pourers on tables at Mediterranean tables, as it is often added to the top of dishes or blended with a spice mix at the table to make a fresh bread dip. Italian inspired restaurants will also usually have cheese graters and pepper mills at the table or in the hands of servers. Most Italian dishes are topped with indigenous cheeses from the regions the recipes hail from, such as Fontina, Parmigiano Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano, and a cheese grater is a must for these hard cheeses.