"One thing I learned from traveling through Italy is that fresh food speaks for itselfif it's allowed to," says Michael Romano, executive chef and partner at Manhattan's Union Square Cafe. But Romano, who trained at exalted French restaurants, wasn't able to put this lesson into practice until he took over at Union Square Cafe, which turns 20 this year: "Union Square freed me from some pretty stifling rules; I was finally able to cook straightforward, soulful food." Romano continues to draw inspiration from his frequent trips to Italy, and from the Union Square Greenmarket. "My cooking isn't that cerebral," he says. "It just respects the ingredients and the season." In the summer, that means dishes like savory squash soup and panzanella, a salad of juicy tomatoes and crisp croutons.
Michael Romano is executive chef at Union Square Cafe, 21 E. 16th St., New York City; 212-243-4020.