Umami* of Nantucket | Chef Cesare Casella
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.”
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.
Spaghetti con Cozzo (Spaghetti with Mussels)
Now, whose house: yours or mine?
*”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”.
This article originally appeared in the July 17th,, 2013 edition of Mahon About Town.
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.
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