Umami of NantucketJuly 18, 2013
Umami* of Nantucket | Chef Cesare Casella
By Sara Boyce
Perhaps you caught a whiff of Rosemary from his pocket garnish as he walked through the Nantucket Wine Festival crowd with a grace you don’t often see in a man of his height and frame? Or maybe you noticed his crimson-colored chef jacket, the twinkle in his eye, or even purchased his most recent cookbook, Fundamental Techniques of Classic Italian Cuisine, which is a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award nominee.
Unlike many New Yorkers, Chef Cesare Casella holds your gaze while speaking with you. As soon as I heard him talk with his thick, melodic Italian accent, I understood. Ahhhh, this man is NOT a typical New Yorker. He is Italiano.
Chef Cesare hails from the Tuscan walled town, Lucca, located right next to Pisa. Tuscany, in the north of Italy, is known for its fresh, healthy ingredients: heavy on the vegetables and olive oil, light on the cream sauces.
Whatever we might say about their Prime Minister’s sex scandals or their road signs (have you ever tried interpreting some of the signs on the road?), Italy does beauty well. I would argue that Italy does everything sensory to perfection. The music, opera, design, architecture, clothing, art, language, the wine, and the food. Most of all…the food. How can a meal in Italy be so stunning in its simplicity? While the ingredients are few, they have all been selected for their perfection.
Chef Cesare learned to cook at Vipore, his family’s restaurant. After graduating from the Culinary Institute Ferdinando Martini, he returned to Vipore to earn a Michelin star for the restaurant. In 1992, he moved to New York and worked as a restaurant consultant. In 2001, he opened his first restaurant, Beppe, named after his grandfather. As a restaurateur, he uses his Tuscan roots as a base from which to re-invent traditional dishes into something unique and wholly his own.
Chef Cesare currently owns two restaurants in New York City, Il Ristorante Rosi, a traditional modern restaurant on Madison Avenue and 72nd and Salumeria Rosi, an Italian-style small-plates delicatessen style restaurant close to Lincoln Center. He has earned consistent and effusive acclaim in a city where even successful restaurants are bright flames that soon go out. This is no surprise for a man who has been on many of the top cooking shows, published multiple books, and been appointed Dean of Italian Studies for the International Culinary Center. New York Magazine deemed Maremma one of the Top 5 “Best New Restaurants in New York”, Forbes Magazine voted it one of the best US restaurants, and Food Arts Magazine gave Cesare the Silver Spoon Award for outstanding culinary accomplishments.
When I asked him to describe his food philosophy, Chef Cesare did not hesitate. “My food philosophy is very simple.” Quite fitting for a man who closes his emails with a Leonardo da Vinci quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. “I learned from my mom and from four years of cooking school. I learned simplicity and respect for ingredients. For me, it is the same here in the United States. When you have the knowledge and the ingredients, you can cook Italia everywhere you want. I think what is good in Italian philosophy: you need to cook what is the best. Not to have a fixed idea of what you want to cook, but to choose what is the best at the moment”.
As Chef Cesare Casella says, “I cook with happy ingredients.” Happy ingredients? Yes, Happy ingredients. Part of this word choice might be a result of English as his second language. But part of it is that he speaks the truth. He explains further, “Respect the ingredients means how you cook, how you cut, how you clean. When you respect the ingredients, the ingredients respect you.”
“When you go shopping, it is important that you find the best quality product. When I was 10 years old, my father taught me to make sure the food smiles to you. Never I understand what he was meaning. He showed me the difference between two tomatoes. One tomato was sad and was not a nice color. The other was bright and happy. The same with the fish: never you want to go buy a fish that is sad. You want to buy fish that is happy, that smiles to you. It’s a very simple food philosophy: When you cook with happy ingredients and respect them, it comes back in how you cook and how you use the product. When you cook, you want to use the same wine you are drinking. Because in the end, you are getting the flavor.”
Chef Cesare explained, “simple recipes start from choosing the right ingredients. That is already a good recipe. Now, start with a vegetable that is in season. Add sea salt and olive oil. You really don’t need anything else.” For those comfortable with using just a few more ingredients, two of his summer recipes follow. Now, whose house: yours or mine?
Insalata di Pesche
© Cesare Casella
Serves 3 to 4
This is a popular dish in summer when peaches are at their peak. Really old recipes call for poaching the fruit in the sauce, but I like marinating the fruit better; it tastes fresher to me.
3 cups white wine, red wine, or champagne
1/4 cup orange juice
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 lemon verbena leaves or mint sprigs
4 ½ cups thinly sliced peaches
1. Combine the wine, orange juice, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon verbena or mint in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
2. Put the peaches in a large bowl. Pour the marinade over them and mix well. Place the bowl in the refrigerator and marinate for at least 3 hours but no longer than 24 hours. Serve cold or at room temperature.
3. Note: Any leftover peach salad will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for a few days.
WINE SUGGESTION: The wine you used in making the salad.
Spaghetti con Cozze
Spaghetti with Mussels
© Cesare Casella
Serves 4 to 8
1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, with their juices, crushed or pureed (you can also buy canned crushed or pureed tomatoes, but I think the whole ones are less acidic and of higher quality)
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until just under al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
2. Coat the bottom of a large skillet with olive oil. Add the garlic, thyme, half of the parsley, and the crushed red pepper and sautéover medium heat until the garlic starts to color.
3. Add the mussels, wine, and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, cover, and cook until the mussels open, 5 to 7 minutes.
4. When the spaghetti is ready, add it to the sauce with 1/2 cup to 1 cup of the pasta cooking water (depending on how dry the sauce is). Cook the spaghetti in the sauce, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes for the pasta to absorb the sauce. Stir in the remaining parsley and serve.
Grey Lady Wines Wine Suggestion: Choose a wine with low – medium acidity like a Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Arneis (or the one you used in the recipe!).
*”Umami” is something the Japanese recognize as the 5th flavor, in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. A nuanced word, one could define it as the “je ne sais quoi” that deepens flavor, the experience, and imparts satisfaction and sensory delight. To me, it’s “that which makes Nantucket special”.
Mahon About Town’s Food, Wine, and Drink Editor, Sara Boyce has been working in the luxury market since she visited Nantucket for a “three-week” visit after 9/11. As an Art Dealer turned “Lady in Chief” at Grey Lady Wines, and the First Member of the Nantucket Wine Club (www.NantucketWineClub.com) she indulges her passions of bringing people together over food, wine, beauty, and travel. Grey Lady Wines specializes in boutique wine recommendations and Private Collections, but Sara feels the best glass of wine is always that shared with friends. To share photographs or comments on Nantucket’s Food, Wine, and Social scene, email her at FoodWine@GreyLadyWines.com.