What’s your most requested recipe?
Either the sweet onion crepe or spinach gnocchi. Everyone asks me, what is it about food from Italy, what is it about these specific dishes like bucatini all’Amatriciana that are hundreds of years old and yet ones people still eat there every single day? I think it’s because they’ve worked out the perfect combinations of salt, texture, flavor, everything—the perfect marriage. Our crepe has these perfectly slow-roasted, caramelized onions wrapped in this kind of soft on the inside, crispy on the outside crepe, with a creamy fondue sauce—everything marries well. It’s the same thing with our spinach gnocchi: They’re incredibly light, they’re almost 100 percent spinach, they’re served with brown butter and a little ricotta salata, which adds a little salt. It’s just the perfect mix.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, by Anna Gosetti della Salda. Mind, it’s written in Italian, but I refer to it as the bible. It’s the absolute go-to for traditional Italian cooking. You walk into anyone’s house in Italy, they have that book. If you go to a region of Italy that’s unfamiliar to you and are served a dish you’ve never seen before but you’re told it’s traditional, you will find it in there. And the recipes are always right. If the dish is not working, you’re doing it wrong. In most Italian cookbooks, the recipes are almost always wrong; they don’t have a strong tradition of recipe testing there. But the recipes in this book are exact. We’ll often try an Italian dish from another cookbook, discover it’s not working, and then find the solution in the bible.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
Soffritto. It’s important to understand the basics and when it comes to Italian cooking, soffritto is definitely one of them. It’s the base of so many sauces, ragùs and other dishes. You want to dice up the vegetables evenly and finely, and you could chop them in a Robot Coupe or Cuisinart, but I like doing it by hand. There’s a therapy to it—it’s soothing and satisfying to make it by hand, it feels like a real accomplishment. You can add all kinds of vegetables, too: It starts with onions, carrots and celery, but from there you can add leeks, fennel, garlic, tomatoes, fresh or dried mushrooms, there are no rules. You can change the mix depending on the dish. As you sauté the chopped vegetables in olive oil, you want to get them right on the edge of browned, more translucent, where the onions are soft and sweet. The onion will add one layer, the fennel another, and so forth, to get you a deeply layered, flavorful sauce.
Can you share one great entertaining tip?
A buffet is the key. I have a long, thin townhouse so we don’t have room for a huge dining room table. We have an island in the kitchen so I just make everything family style and then people sit wherever, switching seats and mingling all night. It’s fun and casual—for me, this is the best way to have a big dinner party.
Background Born in Philadelphia. Worked at Granita in Los Angeles; Taverna Colleoni dell'Angelo in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy; and Coco Pazzo and Bella Blu in New York City.
First food memory His grandmother's arancine (Sicilian rice balls).
First thing he ever cooked Baklava for a fourth-grade show-and-tell on foods of the world.
Dish he could eat every day Spaghetti. "I do eat it every day."
Weirdest thing he's ever eaten Cheese with live worms in it, a regional Italian delicacy.
Favorite cookbook The Heart of Sicily by Anna Tasca Lanza.
Favorite place to eat Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia.
Trend he's most tired of "Architectural fooddishes you need an erector set to build."
What he eats at 1 A.M. Sushi. "Once I hopped on a train after work, got to New York City at 1 A.M. and ate sushi until 2:15."
Favorite kitchen tool A cleaver he bought in Italy. "It fits my hand."
Recipe tip Keep pasta dough moist; it should be pliable, not sticky. If it seems dry after you've rolled it out, brushing it very lightly with water will make it easier to shape.
Won Best New Chef at: Vetri