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Q & A with Cesare Casella

Chef Casella Headshot,jpg.jpgIf you see a chef wtih fresh rosemary in his shirt pocket, it’s Cesare Casella.  “I think the Italian cuisine in New York has improved a lot over the past two decades.  Most of the time the Italian food here can be even better than you find in Italy,”  Casella asserts.  One of New York’s quirkier chefs, the chef drew attention at Beppe with his unorthodox Tuscan cooking before opening Salumeria Rosi Parmacotta on the Upper West Side.   He grew up handing out menus at Vipore, his family’s restaurant, only to return home after cooking school to earn Vipore a Michelin star before moving to New York.   His latest project, a market-cum-restaurant, features an impressive selection of Italian charcuterie, cheeses, as well as handmade desserts.  Salumeria Rosi also puts his spin on  “Tuscan-style tapas,” like rigatoni all’Amatriciana with a nine-meat ragu, a leek and pancetta tart, and a bread pudding that changes nightly. 



What did you want to be when you grew up?
A chef!

What was your first job in food?
When I was a kid, I worked at my parent’s restaurant Vipore in Italy

At what age did you start working at the family trattoria called Vipore?  What was it like being your mother’s sous chef?
It started when I was eight years old, and I would hand diners the menu.  And every year I would gain more responsibilities – I grew up in the restaurant!

What did you learn from your mom and working at a restaurant at such a young age?
I would watch my mom cook, and learn from her that way.  Only after I was 17 years old did she start to really teach me.  She really taught me how to respect the ingredients and the food.  I also learned how to talk to the food – like when I go to the market, I look at the ingredients and they talk to me.  The next time you go to the market, look at the fish, tomatoes, and fruit you’re buying.  If it looks sad, then it’s old.  The food must talk to you.

never seen without your signature, fresh rosemary in your shirt
pocket.  Do explain your fondness for herbs and “herbal cuisine”…

have a real passion for herbs, and never leave the house without
rosemary in my pocket.  And ladies love it!  They come up to me all the
time to ask me about my rosemary!

You also attended the Culinary Institute of Ferdinando Martini in Montecatini.  Looking back, do you think you benefited more from the education you received in your family’s restaurant or culinary school?
They are two very different things, and they work together to give you a culinary education.  The education combined is important.

After graduating from culinary school, you returned home and earned your family’s trattoria a Michelin star.   What compelled you to leave for America?
I used to come to the US all the time for vacation.  And even though I loved it here, when they asked me to come work here I refused.  Then they offered me to come work in the US only one week every month, so I could spend the rest of my time in Italy.  I started to really love it, and would spend more and more time here.  So my move to the US was gradual.

You make your real debut on the New York dining scene with Beppe and unconventional Tuscan cooking.    What kind of liberties did you take with traditional dishes and how do you think Tuscan food has evolved over the past few decades?
I think my Tuscan cooking has involved a lot.  At my restaurant, I take traditional ingredients, traditional dishes, and do it my way.  Since I’m the Dean of the Italian Culinary Academy, I also cook more Italian, not just Tuscan.

How has the Italian restaurant scene in New York changed since the early 90’s when you arrived?
I think the Italian cuisine in New York
has improved a lot over the past two decades.  Most of the time the Italian food here can be even better than you find in Italy

Your latest venture, Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto, is a market-cum-restaurant.  What was most difficult about collaborating with your partners, the Rosi family and how did Oscar-winning set designer, Dante Ferretti, become involved in designing the interior?

I wish every collaboration would work this well.  Partnership is like a marriage, and I worked really closely with the Rosi family on creation of this salumeria.  It was also so easy to work with Dante Ferretti – more so than working with the architect.  When he first explained his design to me, I couldn’t quite tell how it would come out.  And after I saw the finished product, I cried.  It was so exciting to see his ideas come to fruition – to see the black mirrors with the giant map of Italy.

What is your favorite dish on the menu at Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto?
This is too difficult a question for me to think which one is better for me.  It’s like asking which of your children is your favorite.  I always love the beans and the salumi though, and the salumi platter with Parmacotto mortadella, prosciutto, and others, alongside my Sette Fagioli salad – I love.

Which is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
I don’t always like the sweets.  I stay more with salumi than dessert.

Where do you go for a delicious meal in New York City, (other than your own restaurants, of course)?
I love eating out at Del Posto and The Four Seasons restaurant, and if I want a delicious snack I  go to Academia di Vino.

Any new plans on the horizon?  A cookbook perhaps?  Spill the beans…
I’m writing a new book – True Italian.  It’s all about true Italian cuisine, ingredients, and culture, along with lots of recipes.

Address: 283 Amsterdam Ave., between 73rd & 74th Sts.
Phone: (212) 877-4800

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