This New Orleans Chef Brings Her Nonna's Recipes Home for the Holidays
At Gianna, chef Rebecca Wilcomb pays homage to her grandmother's cooking with an Italian-inspired menu.
Though Rebecca Wilcomb opened Gianna, the Italian restaurant that is the latest member of the Link Restaurant Group’s burgeoning New Orleans empire, in April, she says she’s been “doing research for it my entire life.” Wilcomb grew up mostly in Massachusetts, but her mother is Italian—her parents met while her father was in the Army and stationed in Italy. Summers and holidays sometimes meant visits to the southern Veneto in the Po River delta to see her nonna, the grandmother for whom the restaurant is named. (Gianna is also Wilcomb’s middle name.)
When the family gathered on Christmas Day, there was always tortellini in brodo, the traditional first course in northern Italian holiday feasts. “It’s something that we all love,” Wilcomb says of the pork-, beef-, and chicken-filled pasta parcels floating in a rich, clear broth, adding that even when the holidays were spent elsewhere, she, her mother, and her sister joined forces to make it. “It’s never as good as my nonna’s, but she’s got a few years on us!” So five years ago, when Wilcomb began talking with partners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski about opening what would become Gianna, she knew the tortellini would be on the menu year-round. “Whenever I visit my grandmother, it’s the first thing she makes for me.”
Wilcomb, who won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South while executive chef at the Link Group’s flagship Herbsaint, spent long stretches of time in Italy before opening the new restaurant. She and her colleagues made trips as a group to Sicily and Rome and Campania. She worked in a pasta lab in Bologna and made repeat trips to her grandparents’ house. Now that the restaurant is a reality, she is looking forward to sharing not just her expertise but also her family traditions during her first Christmas at Gianna. “Christmas is really big in Italy,” she says, “And the celebrations last almost a month.”
While the tortellini is the sacrosanct Christmas Day first course, it is usually followed, Wilcomb says, by a whole roasted bird. During the season, she plans to offer a similar festive family-style dinner at the restaurant, where duck will be roasted in the wood-burning oven. Baccalà, which was always her family’s Christmas Eve main course, will be on the menu as well. Wilcomb braises the salt cod with tomatoes and olives—the strong, acidic flavors hold up well with the fish—and serves it over polenta. A special dessert will be a chocolate cassata, the classic Sicilian cake featuring a liqueur-soaked sponge cake layered with sweetened ricotta and topped with candied fruit (in this case, lots of citrus).
The use of citrus in holiday feasts turns out to be a shared custom. “Italy and Louisiana have the same citrus season,” Wilcomb says. “Different types of lemons are grown year-round in Italy, but the winter, especially around Christmastime, is orange season. Markets all over the country are filled with the many varieties grown in the South.” At home, Wilcomb plans to decorate with bowls of oranges; at the restaurant she will fill antique citrus crates with fruit from Louisiana.
The responsibilities that come with a new restaurant mean that Wilcomb will be staying in New Orleans during the holidays, but she hopes friends will gather to fill and twist the tortellini, which is always a group affair. The festivities will be aided by the Babbo Natale Spritz created by Cary Palmer, the Link Group’s beverage director. Named for Father Christmas, the drink is “a seasonal take on the classic Italian spritz,” says Palmer. “The cranberry liqueur keeps things dry and tart, and the aperitivo has a backbone of baking spice that screams ‘holidays.’” For her part, Wilcomb can’t wait: “A big familial meal is so festive during the season. It’s the Italian way.”