Italian Renaissance: Taking a modern approach to a classic cuisineLamb, star anise and fregola. Chicken, fennel and peperonata. Prawns, garlic and speck. Even a quick look at Cielo’s menu shows it to be fluent in Italian.
“There are certain core fundamental flavors that go into Italian food,” said Karen Hoffmann, executive chef of the downtown restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel. “Lots of cinnamon, star anise, fennel, Italian parsley, golden raisin-Italian parsley combinations – all kinds of savory-sweet combinations.”
Hoffmann’s creative partner at Cielo is restaurant chef Bruno Cardone, a native of Italy’s Piedmont region. “I joke around with Bruno all the time. I’ll say, ‘I have this Asian black forbidden rice. Is there anything like that in Italy?’ And he’ll say, ‘We eat the same foods as everybody else! We have pork and we have beans. … ’ He’s right. It’s just how you approach it,” Hoffmann said.
The elegance of contemporary Italian cuisine rests in large part on its simplicity.
“You take four or five ingredients, and they can just do wonders together,” said Adam Gnau, executive chef of Acero in Maplewood. Contorni such as house-pickled beets boast a bright flavor built with orange rind, garlic and a thyme-heavy mix of herbs. Thinly sliced artichokes in olive oil are likewise unapologetically plain and undeniably delicious.
Acero’s motto, said owner Jim Fiala, is: Don’t overthink it. And it works.
Last fall, Bon Appétit magazine featured Acero’s cauliflower ravioli with guanciale, an unassuming dish that plays sweet against salty to phenomenal effect. Mia Rosa creates a similar dynamic in dishes such as its proscuitto-wrapped monkfish, which chef and owner Phil Noe said has become a staple since the restaurant opened late last year in The Grove neighborhood.
Duck and pears, a classic duo, creates another striking contrast of flavors, and by adding spaghetti squash to the mix, I Fratellini in Clayton augments the dish’s sweetness while introducing a nice touch of nuttiness.
Of course, simple renderings run a risk of crossing the line between understated and dull. The trick, Fiala said, lies in the integrity of the ingredients.
“One of the things that you notice with real good food like real Parmesan is they pack so much more flavor that you really don’t need that much of it to satisfy you,” Fiala said. House-made pasta, organic vegetables, fresh eggs and hormone-free beef allow Acero to maintain clean flavors in its food.
At Cielo, Hoffmann and Cardone use speck, a variety of cured ham with more spunk than pancetta or proscuitto, made from acorn-fed Berkshire pork. (Soon they’ll start using pancetta from the same supplier.) Real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano arrives in 80-pound wheels that the kitchen crew calls “tractor tires.” House-infused oils (smoked paprika, sun-dried tomato) and vinegars (tarragon, basil) ground dishes in fresh, pure flavors too. And it probably goes without saying that Cielo makes the majority of its pasta on-site – in some cases, with fresh-ground farro flour.
Contemporary Italian restaurants use pasta in moderation. Cielo’s short list includes standards like gnocchi and ravioli along with more unusual picks like garganelli, an egg pasta shaped much like penne, and fregola, a close cousin of couscous rarely spotted on American menus.
Cielo serves fregola with its rack of lamb, and the pasta is toasted. “It kind of makes it two-dimensional in a way,” Hoffmann said. “Some of it’s going to get toasted and some of it isn’t.”
Noe, who pairs fregola with the monkfish mentioned earlier, said he made a point of minimizing the amount of pasta on Mia Rosa’s menu. The vegetable lasagna, for example, substitutes eggplant for noodles. And though tagliatelle accompanies a scallop and porcini dish, the shellfish are large while the bed of pasta is small, placing the overall emphasis on the seafood.
PLENTY OF FISH
Mia Rosa, which dubs itself “coastal Italian,” gives seafood plenty of playtime. The same is true for I Fratellini, where roasted Missouri trout is elegantly embellished by Swiss chard, sage and proscuitto. One of the standout seafood selections at Cielo spikes steamed mussels in a white wine-garlic broth with salty guanciale and chile flakes.
Gnau typically seasons fish with the utmost restraint, so as to let the flavor of the fish shine through. Dressed modestly with lemon juice and served atop tomatoes and sprouts, the Tuscan white anchovies are little stunners.
UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN
Fiala and Hoffmann both cited a Tuscan influence, though they are always finding something new under the sun.
Fiala and Gnau have served their must-try egg raviolo with a variety of sauces: brown butter, pesto, black truffle. The filling might have mushroom one week and artichoke the next. They’ve also experimented with the texture of the spinach, traveling between the extremes of chunky and puréed.
Last month, the Acero team took an eating tour through Abruzzo, Campania and Lazio that was more pleasure than business. Boiled sheep left them underwhelmed, though the two spoke highly of cacio e pepe, a dish with just three ingredients: spaghetti, pecorino and black pepper. “It was unbelievable,” Fiala said.
The varied culinary backgrounds of Hoffmann and Cardone keep things dynamic in Cielo’s kitchen.
“[Cardone] would put torrone [a nougat made with honey and nuts] on for a cheese garnish, where I would never think of putting something like that with cheese, because it’s already very soft and cheese is very soft – but when I tasted it together, I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool,’” Hoffmann said. She said Cielo’s Chianti-infused spaghettini, essentially a version of drunken pasta, was another from-the-cuff collaboration.
“‘Contemporary Italian’ to me means taking those core fundamental flavors, and then twisting and turning them in a different direction,” Hoffmann said. “Capers may be incorporated into a relish or a beurre blanc. Speck can be raw or crispy. What else can you do with proscuitto? Can you take the rinds off the prosciutto and then make oil with it and then that oil can be a base for something else?
“Instead of throwing out our Reggiano Parmesan rinds, we use them in soups. We recently put them on the stove and we render it down and make an oil. That’s what you would consider a contemporary approach. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to dress a pasta dish with it? Where are you going to apply that?”
AND FOR THE NEXT COURSE
In order to research a new spring menu, Cielo will be running a variety of specials this month. There’s no telling what diners will luck upon, though Hoffmann did drop a couple of names: baccalà (dried salt cod) and pork osso buco.
Noe is angling for some skipjack tuna, whose swordfish texture is firmer than ahi.
Acero hopes to find different types of cauliflower and might at some point start making its own cheeses. In the meantime, Gnau will be playing with a new toy, the versatile gnudi pasta made with flour, egg, ricotta and Parmesan.
“They’re little morsels of fun,” Gnau said. “They’re really creamy. We serve it with crispy guanciale and tomato sauce and that’s it. It’s really simple.”
Keep in mind that Mia Rosa and Cielo are even younger ventures than Acero, which will celebrate its second anniversary this spring. In other words, this is only the beginning of contemporary Italian in St. Louis.