F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Pizzeria Bianco, Pane Bianco, Bar Bianco, Trattoria Bianco (Phoenix)
Experience: Babbo Ganzo (Santa Fe)
Where did you first learn to be a chef and how to run a restaurant?
When I was in Santa Fe I worked with a chef named Giovanni Scorzo, we had a little restaurant named Babbo Ganzo. I was the sous-chef there. It was more of a trattoria pizzeria with rotisserie. It helped me learn the differences between Italian and Italian-American food. Growing up in New York City, being born in the Bronx, we all had epiphanies when we understood that you might not be able to find chicken parm on the menu in Apulia. But that was also the first time I learned the responsibility of handling the crew, when Giovanni wasn’t there.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
I tell young chefs a lot: You have to learn to eat first. Developing one’s palate is probably the most important tool you can use in cookery. Then you can learn to cook what you like. I always tell chefs: Forget what I like, what do you like? What flavors do you like? As much as I appreciate VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) and the pizza consortiums—history is so powerful, I couldn’t respect it more—but the more freedom that we can give chefs and cooks at home, the better. At the end of the day, all these “rules” are just opinions. If you like your pizza dough crispier or less crispy, thicker or thinner, it might not make it authentic, but it could make it more enjoyable for you. It’s important to eat, to learn what you like, so that you can learn to cook what you like.
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My mom and my aunt were the incredible cooks in my family. One of my favorite memories, and one of my favorite things still to this day, were my mother’s meatballs. That’s how I first learned about crispy: the meatballs cooling on the rack, after they’d been fried but before they went into the sauce. So they had these crispy bits on the outside. I loved to eat one before it received any of the sauce, before it was anything else but just freshly ground beef and Parmigiano and flat-leaf parsley and a bit of tomato. They didn’t teach me to cook so much as they let me watch. I got stuck in the kitchen by accident: When I was a kid, I had asthma really bad. So I got stuck at home. It turned out to be kind of a blessing. Maybe I couldn’t be a world-class runner, but I found another way to express what was inside me.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I try to get better at everything every day. What’s really bad about me as a human being is I’m not very adventurous. I’m a creature of habit. If I love one thing, I could eat it every day. So I’d like to work on my willingness to explore outside my Italian world.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
Fresh bay leaves. Go spend $15 at your local garden store on a big, fresh bay leaf tree in a bucket and stick it in the ground. Fresh bay is nothing like the bay that you got when you moved to your first apartment and bought that glass bottle of dehydrated, gray leaves. Fresh bay is one of those great gifts. Not only can you activate it by rubbing it through your fingers, you can put it with a beef stew or ragù, or even just a fresh pasta with garlic and fresh bay and maybe a bit of chile. Infuse a good extra-virgin olive oil with the bay first, and then add everything else. It’s a subtle kind of kiss.
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
State Bird Provisions. In the chef community I hear great things about it, about their fresh approach to small plates and dim sum service. I like how it’s familiar but outside the box. And made with all the great resources of the Bay Area.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I’ve been to the one in the Village but I still haven’t been to Stone Barns. I’m a huge fan of what Dan Barber does. And actually, I was born in the Bronx but grew up in Ossining, New York. When I was a kid, sometimes my parents would take me to the grounds, so I’m familiar with that land.
The new Fifteen in London. Jamie [Oliver] just reopened it on its 10-year anniversary. He just brought back a great young chef, Jon Rotheram, who was at St. John for a long time, and grew up with Jamie in Essex. He’s a supertalented. He’s taking it back to a classic British menu with a little Italian sensibility. Also the remodel is beautiful.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
I’ve brought back a lot of things from trips, but I’ve come to think the best things to bring back are sensory: sights, sounds, tastes and smells. Things anybody can have. To be able to own a Van Gogh as opposed to just experiencing it in a museum? They both get you the same thing. This past year I was in the basement in Tom Calver’s cellar in Westcombe (England). He makes some of the most beautiful cheese. He brought me to this little cellar where they make Caerphilly. His cellar was probably 6-by-10-feet. It just held so much history. There was such a headiness to the room. You could feel everything that was going into the cheese in this little space. That was a humbling experience.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
My favorites that I love: The whole Time-Life series, Foods of the World. Italy, France, Spain. I love those. Those are probably one of my first finds. I also love the Francis Mallmann book Seven Fires. That’s an incredible book about restraint and primal fire cookery, and place.
What is one technique everyone should know?
I don’t know if it’s a technique, but everybody should have the experience of picking a perfectly ripe peach. We have these great peaches in Arizona at the end of May, Desert Gold peaches. They go ripe when the weather goes from tolerable to insanely hot. When you pick them, the temperature is inching toward the triple digits. So, late in the day, you pick those Desert Golds, they’re so precious. Sweet. Juicy. You can’t do anything but run back to the kitchen and yank them apart, shove them in your mouth and enjoy them. So if it’s a technique, it’s learning to take things gently from their source. And escort them back to your kitchen.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Restraint. You just don’t always need that squiggly caramel line or pop of color. Sometimes brown food is brown, and brown is beautiful. Sometimes enough is enough. Sometimes more is already too much. It’s about just being present and seeing what makes sense to you.
For the best-bang-for-the-buck food trip, where would you go and why?
My mother’s house, for sure! Just crash there! Tell her I told you it was cool. She’ll probably have something on the stove right now, so you can definitely come by. I have this little Trattoria Bianco I just opened up. It’s really cool, it’s really special, and I’ve got a great young chef there, Johnny Hall. My mom comes in there every Thursday. She’s a fantastic baker. She’s good at lots of things (she’s a great hand illustrator, too). But if she has one special gift, she’s a great baker. But that’s a good trip for everybody to make. Just roll by your mom’s house. Maybe just some Rice Krispies Treats with bananas. Just tuck into that Formica table and enjoy. Or just some toast and jam. Just connecting with people that matter to you, that’s a cool thing. That’s a good bang for your buck.
What does your mom bake at the trattoria on Thursdays?
She does this beautiful Arizona cream pie that’s really a Boston cream pie: a 12-inch sponge cake with custard and dark chocolate. She’ll do little crostatas with seasonal fruit, things we get at the market.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
BYOF where you bring your own food, and we could cook it. You’d bring the ingredients and we’d just see what we can do with it.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
With Mario and Thomas I’ve been blessed to have more than a passing acquaintance—they’re good friends. But I’d take all of them out for a pint. I’m a huge fan of Anthony’s work. Among chefs, whether we make French omelets or pizza, there isn’t that much that separates us at the end of the day. What is special about all those people is they see the much bigger picture. So yeah, hopefully I could get them all out to dinner. Any time spent with any of them is an honor for sure. But I’d love to have a beer with Anthony Bourdain, just because I haven’t yet.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
E, for just enough. Like I don’t serve fish. Not that I’m against it, but I wanted to serve what I had and what I could get my hands on, that could reach us in a way that made sense for me. I had to be at peace with that.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
I hope there will never be a single ingredient. I hope they’ll be talking about everything. Everything matters. I hope they’ll be talking about what makes good things good.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Chicken cacciatore: It’s a dish my grandmother made every Sunday. At that time it was the greatest thing that I’d ever had. And in memory it’s still the greatest thing. And I still have the pot she made it in, which is it he only thing I inherited from them.
I think—I don’t know if it defines me, but I have a great relationship with pizza. Pizza’s been very good to me. Hopefully, I’ve been good to it, too, and we’ve had a good ride together. Hopefully, it continues.
Another food would be that peach that I talked about. Even I can’t take any credit for it, maybe just for not screwing it up, maybe I’ll have a special place in someone’s heart.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Greek yogurt. Honey, if it’s close by, but it’s more of a texture thing.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.