Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Inn of Blu

The eldest son of Baroness Celilia, Ettore, has quietly noted my interest in refined food as I have executed his Family Style Southern Italian menus over the course of the last month on the farm. Intermittingly he has invited me to the front of house for Wine Tasting’s and to introduce me to his culinary colleagues/friends. When attentive plating has been called for he has asked that I play a central role. He has consulted me on menus and appropriated ideas and conversations we have shared; shyly mentoring me whilst keeping a personal distance. Today he invited me out for lunch, both as a pre-emptive “thank you for your help” and a “goodbye for now” (I leave the farm Sunday). Our destination was a surprise, but I had a feeling the meal and our afternoon together was more than mentioned above. It was his way of saying that he understood my appetite and that he valued my progressiveness. On the journey he was candid about possible future business and his passion for food. He knew my expectations were high.

We drove inland, past vineyards and ripe mountains to the (especially) quaint town of Nusco. Upon arrival, our Michelin awarded gem incongruously advertised its symbolic nipple logo with an arrow pointing towards its charm. Clearly a food destination (why else go to Nusco) my bright blue eyes navigated me to the seat I would call home for the next three hours. The interior was gracefully modern, airily displaying framed artwork across from a bookshelf full of exceptional wines. Ettore gave head chef Antonio Pisaniello a nod and our tasting began…

Our first course was a (rather ubiquitous) Potato Croquette; his approach was seemingly (and effectively) to lighten the regional dish of its deep fried weight. An inviting puddle of Carciocavallo cream laddled beneath was smartly spiked with Tomato Water (jus) to balance both texture and flavor.

A Veal tongue and Eggplant mélange followed. Aware of potentially timid palettes’ his sublime garnishes, (Mint, Blanched Tomato Peel and a Foam [no lo so]) with each bite, subtlety redirected your senses. Unfortunately the dish’s singularity was diminished somewhat by the gravy which accompanied.

Deep fried (Cow’s Milk) Ricotta then came served on a flight dish atop finely diced Proscuitto and Zucchini. A green oil/jus played gently with its orange neighbor (another light sauce of some kind). Although I felt the size of the Ricotta was too grand, the plate’s eruptive space was unquestionably clever. Although not mentioned as an ingredient, the adhesive mozzarella (I assume included for practicality) gave a misleading sponginess to the dish. Still, my last scandalously creamy bite coated my mouth stunningly…allowing the exceptionally paired wine to socialize before entering my abyss.

Our single Fish course was the most eccentric yet focused of the night. A resounding first bite “sigh” unearthed a myriad of carefully plated ingredients. A buttery whipped bean puree disguised a light tomato water stream. Deconstructed tomato appeared in two other forms, its skin lightly fried in strips as a garnish and “dusted” on the outer perimeter of the plate. The fish, poached to perfection, proudly centralized the dish. A surprisingly subtle bite of Peperoncino gave the dish additional character. However my best bite emerged when the mint garnish remixed the dish and made it otherworldly.

I timidly excused myself to tour the kitchen. Although never invited I introduced myself as a passionate traveling young chef to the staff as I witnessed our next course take shape. There I met another New Yorker whose chosen vocation (er, cooking) led him into this particular kitchen I found myself in. We exchanged few words, but I was comforted by his presence, a reminder that I was not alone.

I returned from the kitchen greeted by a glass of Tavarasi; a lauded local red wine. Richly satisfying, it soundtracked the heavier dishes which were on their way. The Ricotta filled ravioli emerged lightly smothered in a Tomato Fresco sauce. Simply plated, its charm was in the pasta itself; silky, moist and rich from its own freshness. Once again the water from lightly smashed Tomatoes was used effectively to offset the dishes heavier ingredients. Crushed Almonds gave the dish its earthy finish.

A 4 bean Zuppa with Cavatelli followed, perfectly thickened and inviting…it’s Pancetta base still present. Although not my favorite dish (or perhaps too rich in the moment), it was executed beautifully.

Our last savory dish, Veal prepared three ways, challenged the table with its “Secondi” verboseness. In the end, I never got an adequate description of each cut of meat and my brain must have fuzzed because my notes stop here! It was as rich as it should be with the dishes signature differentiation and continuity intact.

Passing on a full round of Chocolate flights we were given a dolci “amouse bouche”; a spaciously complex Melon foam. Its sweetness of perfection, its texture symbolically negating the coursed which preceded. A Gelatto flight rounded out our lunch. It felt like an encore in my mouth and include tart apple with cinnamon (?), Fig and Caramel and Melon and Strawberry. We each explained our choice favorites as the restaurant prepared to close.

Expectations met…

Monday, July 30, 2007


They say "imitation is the best form of flattery", but that idiom is a bit tired and there is more to this story.

Aiight, so the other night while making Panzerotti (a fried savory ravioli of puff pastry and Ricotta), I recommended that we make a dessert version with sweetened Ricotta and either a homemade marmalade or chocolate sauce. My idea was met with an “eh”; a typical indiscernible Italian euphemism that could mean anything. Then, 3 days later (as you might recall), I had a dessert much the same at Agiolina. The difference being that Melanzana (Eggplant) was whipped into the Ricotta.

A few days later, the phone rang in the cucina and it was for me (which it never is). Ettore (who was not present for my dinner out) decided to put my dessert of the menu on a night that he was hosting one of his more important dinners. We tweaked it our own way, gave it a touch of a homemade Arancia (Orange) Marmalade, a shaving of Chocolcate, a dust of Powdered Sugar, but in the end it looked a lot like what I had ordered at Agiolina. But was my dessert original? It was my idea and tasted scandalously good. There is no singular answer, especially considering this is a dessert which appears on many menus around the world. It felt like my idea, but I was reticent to take any credit for it, since just days before, there it was on another menu! Does the fact that I recommended we make it (prior to going to Angiolina) make it any more "mine" than if I had made it after being "inspired" by what I had elsewhere. Too many questions folks, too many ;)

I now realize why we keep certain things simple on the farm, namely dessert. The fact is, this gem of a dolci had many stages and was not only time consuming but hard to manage. Dessert is a signal that our night is almost over; a slice of an exceptional Cake or Semifreddo is welcomed after a night of whisking, dipping, frying, baking, pounding and chopping.

Editor’s note: this dessert is not a new idea of mine. 4 years ago, I made this for my parents’ anniversary with strawberries and fresh whipped cream. That meal still remains one of my best to date. Ask them if you dont believe me ;)

Kay learning…Calme!

Last night was the best night in the restaurant since being on the farm. Not because the menu was particularly extraordinary, but rather because there was an overwhelming feeling of “calme”. We had three distinctly different menus and over 90 guests (both unusual for us). Most of the pre-preparation happened earlier that day. The Castrato (castrated goat) was boiled, braised and sat quietly stewing for three hours in the forno. The zucchini flowers already stuffed, the eggplant meatballs ready in their perfect “ball form”, my chicken pate cooling off from the heat in the fridge etc. But this is always the case…

However, instead of running frantically between stations (grill, fryer, and kitchen), miscommunications, or “brucia” (overcooking of any kind) we were well staffed, organized and prepared. Despite good planning by Ettore, the reason for the “calme” was about the synergy of the staff; the waiters and their overseers, the washers, chefs (me included), the prompt guests and even the evenings’ light breeze were all on our side.

This was also the night that I stayed predominately in one place. For the night I became a focused and well trained “grill master”. In search of the perfect char and in tune with the flames rhythm. What is usually a grand scale sweaty burnt headache became simply my vocation.

The pics are hardly exceptional…after all I was making Chicken and Buffalo Sausage, but it should be said, they were as good as it gets! What I learned, over all else is…“calme”!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dusty love

Baroness Cecilia's mother's "The Talisman Italian Cookbook" has been in the family for over 70 years and still remains her bible.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dolci...making the comeback!

Today, a Buffalo Curd accompanied by our own Figs in Wine syrup left me agasp; deeply satisfied, intrigued and thankful that a simple dessert (albeit plated beautifully by me ;) was able to wow my senses. Reminder: curd is mixed with rennet to form Mozzarella.

Considering the lavish feast of savory treats it followed…this is saying a lot! Bellissimo!


It may seem obvious, but the experience of food is so much more than just the technicalities of ingredients, processes, timing and tradition. How we “feel” is determined by so many other factors. Often these are designed to deter and/or outshine the food; too often the concepts and lavishness of modern restaurant interiors do just this. Throughout my journey I have been in search of a balance; one that will inform my own vision as I gear up to open my restaurant. As a patron I value distinguishable/singular experiences that are both memorable and familiar; worth a journey (for a new experience) but able to acutely reference my own homely desires and needs.

From a distance I have seen former convents atop hills and been told abbreviated stories of their histories. Yesterday, thanks to Mr Arthur Schwartz ("The Food Maven”) and Baroness Cecilia I was invited to a private lunch at Masseria Astapiana Villa Guisso in Vico Equense. A former convent which is now the home of Guilia Giusso Del Galdo and her family.

When we arrived, Guilia walked us straight to their 16th Century kitchen. A wood burning oven churned out a delicately simple Focaccia (Olive Oil, Rosemary and Salt) to compliment our antipasti. The staff was relaxed and welcoming. What unfolded was a light lunch of local dishes. Proud of their locally cultivated ingredients, the dishes were light and beautifully executed; neither showy nor frugal. A classical piano hummed quietly in the background while we uncorked an earthy (unlabelled) local sparking white wine.

The meal began with an antipasti plate of cured meats and fresh Ricotta. The Ricotta’s smooth richness was heightened by their in house Olive Oil. Taking Cecilia’s cue, a conservative drizzle allowed the nutty locality to form its own small stream across my plate; my mini landscape correlating with the earth outside. The Focaccia’s slight char and astutely seasoned saltiness alongside the tender fattiness of the pancetta was a perfect introduction to the meal ahead.

A Ravioli followed, filled generously with Fiore de Latte (Mozzerella made from Cow’s Milk) and Ricotta. It was intoxicatingly simple; generous but not overly filling. The tomato sauce knew its role and provided the needed acidity to balance the dish, only just coating the rather thick (but not heavy) pasta shell.

The familiar secondi was a trio of local baked dishes. A Cipolla (Onion) Fritatta was sweet and caramelized. The Zucchini Parmesan was proportioned beautifully while the Pizza Rustica con Vedura was flaky and buttery, rather than heavy and spongy.

After a lovely Fig Tart dessert (complete with a Pear & Ricotta gelato we brought along with) we were offered a Digestif from an ornamental homemade selection. Although the only “taker”, I thoroughly enjoyed my Fennel liquor, more for its stunning presentation than it’s (too) syrupy and (too) sweet consistency. I’m a Whiskey, Brandy Cognac boy myself…

After a brief tour of their on-site museum and lavish living rooms we descended to the sepia tinted wine and olive oil cellar. As the other guests made their purchases, I took advantage of the mis-en-scene and posed solo for my people back home. It’s simply what we woulda done ;

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Top down…

Winding through and around quaint little towns…

We headed to our destination, Ristorante Angiolina in Pisciotta (a small beach town along the magnificent Cilentro coast). Once again the plan was to sample local dishes, fresh from the sea and for me to discern new trends in food and presentation which honor tradition. Checkered tables cloth’s and an informal attitude decorated the family courtyard exterior.

I was skeptical of our first Antipasto; a fruit, balsamic marinated Tuna paired with Melon. It looked almost gimmicky, colorfully plated, designed but lacking character. Although I pair fish with fruit in my dishes, I have become accustomed (alough not sold) to the local shrug of in-authenticity often associated. Nothing better than being proved wrong. The Tuna was scandalously tender. The Balsamic velvety and sweet. The melon, ripe! The sweetness of the dish was from the sun; a gift of the climate, not induced by added sugar.

My skepticism was becoming a trend. The Alicé (Anchovies) Ripieni (I think it was called), was actually a parmesan; baked with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. I feared repetition from dishes we make successfully on the farm; the Alicé’s saltiness distracting and confusing the experience. Not at all. Tender and subtle they became the layers, lightly separating each buttery bite with texture and notes of the sea; reputably “falling back” for the cheese to belt out the high notes.

Alicé’s shined again when baked with Bread, Parsley and Lemon. I feared a deep fried repeat of dishes past, but was more than surprised by its airiness. It was bright and tangy, spongy and perfectly executed.

For my primi I had my first Ravioli since being in Italy. I feared disappointment, sogginess and battling flavors. Instead whipped local white fish mixed with puréed Zucchini Ricotta seeped into a tomato jus broth and was punctuated with string like fried strips of Zuchinni. Grilled bright red Shrimp/Gamberini and a poached Tomato rested proudly in the dish. They each had their cameos but knew just a taste was suffice. The Tomato’s light explosion replenished the dishes broth. The shrimp (smartly) was little more than a reminder of the sea’s colorful fruits and ensured you got your $’s worth. Who doesn’t appreciate Shrimp for good measure?

The meal’s overall lightness meant I would at least ask about the desserts. Conscious that I have to be more respectful of Dolci’s role in a proper "meal", I have been trying to be more supportive of Pastry chefs; to save room and honor the craft. A Ricotta/Eggplant dessert won me. Although just puff pastry with sweetened Ricotta (& Chocolate Syrup), the creaminess and simplicity excited me enough to note to make it when I return.

Satiated and tipsy in the afternoon heat, we hit the beach!

It should be said

I make damn good Pesto ;)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Buffalo 4 ways

Once again the kitchens traditional home-style southern Italian format was altered, in this case to accommodate a luncheon for the province of Campania’s Agriculture Association. To be clear, this is Wall Street for Southern Italy ;).

For the occasion we showcased the Buffalo meat in a myriad of ways. Being that we traditionally braise, grill, stew and cure the meat, it was refreshing to see our approach simplified. We served additional Antipasti’s and Primi’s, but the highlight were the 4 ways we served the meat. For the Antipasti we served a triage of Buffalo which included Tagliate E. Carne Crudo (Tartare made with just Olive Oil, Salt & Pepper), Assola di Buffalo (a tender thinly slice cured meat) and Soppressata (Spiced with peppercorns cured meat).

For the secondi the meat was grilled much like a filet mignon and smothered in gravy. We almost never serve Buffalo rare, but in this instance we were using the most prestigious cut (inner thigh). The meat was tender, with a subtle sweetness and perfect char.

After the meal, Ettore and Cecilia were kind enough (and perhaps politically savvy enough) to introduce me as the chef to the constituents. They applauded. I smiled nervously and proudly, said "prego" and began to prepare the Dolci.

My vegetarians peoples, I got you on the next post...


Cimoli is the beautiful stem/stalk of zucchini. Just when you thought this creature couldn’t get more beautiful, these swirly psychedelic things entered my life. Unfortunately my fascination ends with their aesthetic purpose. First, preparing them is tedious. You have to strip them of a floss-like stringy outer shell (similar to that of Celery). This effort would of course be worth it if they had their own intrinsic flavor and/or texture. Unfortunately they do nothing to update Zucchini as I later found out. Secondly once boiled into the Soup, they lose all of their personality; like any green (Spinach, Parsley, Broccoli etc) they amalgamate to no more than spongy stewed shrubs.

We made a soup of Cimoli and Zucchini. Beginning with Pancetta (of course), the Cimoli was then added alongside diced Zucchini, chopped flowers and Potato. 1 hour later it was ready and looked like this.

Tasty, but no better or worse than the same soup I made last week sans the Cimoli.