2010 January: On the Go

Delivering pizza doesn’t pose much of a problem. Delivering food other than pizza can be a problem –– unless, of course, you know the ins and outs and outs and ins of what I like to call the perfect delivery.

You have to know what works and what doesn’t work. Your food looks great when it is plated in your restaurant and is put on the table. Now imagine that same dish, and imagine how it will look when it is set down on the kitchen table of that customer. OK, so maybe that is not a fair comparison, but at least give it a shot.

When it comes to “perfect delivery” I have one word for you: Plastic. Yes, plastic. The container, the dish, whatever is being used to transport the food from Point A (your restaurant) to Point B (the customer) is as important to perfect delivery as the good food that goes in it.

I order in Chinese a couple times a month. I like the food that this place makes, but I like it even better that the restaurant uses sturdy plastic containers to transport its food. I have never had a container leak. The tops seal tight, and the food stays reasonably hot, because that plastic top seals tightly to the plastic bottom. I am not too concerned about the outer packaging –– a shopping bag, a brown bag –– as long as it is sturdy enough to not fall apart. A few pennies spent in better containers will return big bucks in customer satisfaction and repeat business. There are literally thousands of containers of every shape, size and weight for delivery of food. It all depends on your needs — the foods to be delivered and the portion size. Obviously, you can use a lighter weight container for delivering salads. But for a heavier dish –– baked ziti, for example — you will need something sturdier. If a sauce is involved, the need for a tight seal is very important.

What delivers well is always the big question. In Chicago, where I live, there are delivery operations that handle 20 or 30 restaurants. And in many instances, you can order the full menu from any of those restaurants. That’s a bit tricky, but it can be done. The advantage to offering delivery on most of your menu is that it gives the customer a better understanding of what you have to offer, but it just might get them to try some dishes that they hadn’t considered (read: bigger check average).

On the other hand, if you are just getting started with delivery or are rethinking the whole process, you need to know these facts:

Seafood does not travel well, so avoid it as much as possible.
Anything deep-fried –– calamari, for example –– will get there lukewarm and soggy. Shellfish (mussels, clams) would be a disaster.
Shrimp? Maybe, depending on what it would be paired up with. But why take a chance when there are so many other possibilities?

Some of the best dishes for delivery? Appetizers: wings (extra sauce packed separately), salads (dressing separate). Some sandwiches, like subs, travel well. Also, Italian sausage sandwiches, meatball sandwiches, chicken sandwiches (grilled chicken with pesto is a sure winner). Most pasta dishes, especially baked pasta dishes (baked ziti, baked mostaccioli, lasagne), travel well. Ravioli is good to go, but I would avoid linguine with clam sauce. Red sauces on pasta are good, but white sauces can be a problem. Keep in mind that the customer might wish to reheat the order. Some foods reheat fine; others don’t.

Baked Ziti with Sausage
This pasta dish travels with ease and eats like a dream. Obviously, a big batch can be made ahead, portioned, and finished off with hot marinara sauce, just before it goes out the door for delivery. And it reheats well.
Yield: About 8 servings (scale up in direct proportion)
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely chopped onion
1 pound Italian sausage, casing removed
4 cups all-purpose ground tomatoes
2 teaspoons each dried oregano and dried basil
8 ounces ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped fl at-leaf parsley
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound ziti, mostaccioli, or penne
½ pound mozzarella, shredded (about 2 cups)

In a large skillet or saute pan, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the sausage. Cook and stir for 5 minutes, or until the sausage is cooked through. Remove from the heat and drain off excess grease. Add the tomatoes, oregano and basil. Cook the sauce at a steady simmer while prepping the rest.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, salt, parsley and Parmesan.

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until it is not quite al dente. Drain it well and add it to the ricotta cheese mixture.

Take the sauce off the heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes. Add the sauce to the pasta and ricotta mixture and combine well.

Pour the pasta mixture into a 4- to 5-quart ovenproof baking dish. Level the top with the back of a spoon or spatula. Spread the mozzarella evenly over the pasta and bake until the cheese starts to brown and the sauce bubbles along the edge of the pan. Let stand for about 10 minutes before portioning. If necessary, reheat, sauce, and serve to order.

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.