In The End, It Still Tastes Like Nonna’s Cooking
Family Recipes: The Secret Behind Some of the Country’s Best Italian Restaurants
“I respect the recipe and try to keep it rustic—yet polished.”
Albert Di Meglio
For Albert Di Meglio, the distinct aromas of roasting oranges in the morning and oregano-infused rabbit in the evening meant that his grandmother was cooking. As a child, he’d peek into the kitchen until she’d let him help, and he was always awestruck by the fast pace she kept.
As he grew older, he asked for her recipes for the roasted oranges, rabbit and other dishes she brought from Barano D’Ischia, the township in southern Italy from which she was born. She didn’t oblige—because she never wrote them down—so one of Di Meglio’s missions was to interpret them the best he could when he opened Barano in Brooklyn in 2016.
The Williamsburg-based trattoria is a tribute to Nonna Giuseppina’s hometown, of course, but food was only a piece of the puzzle. Di Meglio wanted to share a bit of the warm and fuzzy part of his childhood as well. For him, dinnertime means “family time.”
“Having an amazing meal was normal, but having an amazing meal with family was the main purpose,” explains Di Meglio. “You can discuss recipes all day long, but the most important part of Italian cuisine is the gathering, being together. That’s what it was really about.”
When he set out to hire a general manager for Barano, he needed someone who understood his interpretation of a “family atmosphere” the moment guests stepped inside his restaurant. “I wanted it to feel like a family member telling you what we had to eat rather than a waiter ticking off the daily specials,” he explains. Barano’s open kitchen, with the heat from the wood-fired oven flowing into the dining room, is an additional bonus to the setting.
Di Meglio’s culinary background includes stints at New York’s Le Cirque, Osteria del Circo and Rubirosa, as well as staging at several Michelin star rated restaurants in Italy. His training, of course, was enhanced by his nonna’s influences.“I take her recipes and reinterpret them a bit,” he explains, adding that his grandmother cooked a lot of rabbit during his childhood because it was a staple during her years in Barano D’Ischia. “My grandmother would do (the rabbit) as a main course. I switched it a little bit and turned it into rabbit ragu alla ischitan over pasta. I respect the recipe and try to keep it rustic—yet polished.”
“The most important ingredient is what you leave out.”
From Bar Toma’s giant meatball stuffed with fontina, toasted bread, marinara and fried basil to the pork neck gravy and braised gnocchi at Spiaggia Café, many dishes at Tony Mantuano’s Chicago restaurants are family inspired. A Michelin star chef and James Beard award winner, Mantuano was heavily influenced by his Calabrian-born grandmother.
“She was a great cook, so all of those recipes are burned into my memory bank,” he recalls. “The pastas and sauces she would make during every holiday and family event were so memorable with distinct flavors that we’ve used some of her original recipes in my cookbooks.”
Out of all the recipes and cooking techniques he learned from his nonna, the most important lesson was to have some restraint in the kitchen.
“Italian cooking, generally speaking, is all about not a lot of ingredients,” Mantuano says. “The most important ingredient is what you leave out. To be true to Italian cooking, the fewer ingredients the better.”
Of course, the celebrated chef brings his own interpretation to every dish. “The way that it becomes modern is maybe how we plate it up or the portion sizes are a little more manageable,” he says. “Maybe we add fresh herbs at the very end, whereas grandma may have used those in the beginning. But you cannot really change heart and soul with these dishes.”
When Joe Demonte moved to Chicago in the 1980s from Italy’s Puglia region—part of the “heel” of the country’s shape—he almost never ate at Italian-focused restaurants. That’s because he couldn’t find any of the cuisine he remembered from home.
Puglia is made up of 20 regions and right off the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which means he grew up eating a lot of seafood. But the seafood, pasta and sauces at Chicago’s Italian restaurants, he observed, were prepared differently from what he was used to. That inspired him to open Macello to showcase popular dishes from his homeland.
On Macello’s menu, you’ll find classic Pugliese dishes like mussels stuffed with bread crumbs, white wine, cheese, garlic and parsley as well as red snapper crudo and orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) made with broccoli rabe. All sauces are made from scratch every day.
“I like to think that I’m one of the people who keeps the tradition going,” says Demonte. “Hopefully there will be someone younger than me who can keep it going so that these recipes don’t get lost over time.”