Under the Toque: Fiamma’s Trabocchi redefines modern Italian dining

Under the Toque: Fiamma’s Trabocchi redefines modern Italian dining

As is so often the case in those parts of Italy that stir the imagination, Fabio Trabocchi started learning about food as a child. That upbringing led him to cook in kitchens across Europe and, now, in New York. His latest venture is Fiamma [3], a stately fine-dining restaurant on the western edge of Soho — a downtown New York City neighborhood that retains vestiges of old Little Italy even after its fate as a rich and stylish hot spot has been sealed. Trabocchi landed there, in partnership with Steve Hanson’s B.R. Guest [4] Restaurants, after working in Italy, London, Moscow, Spain and the Washington, D.C., area where he won a 2006 James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic for his work at Maestro [5]. His expansive and adventurous menu at Fiamma has been similarly well-received, though Trabocchi takes care to suggest it’s also been misperceived, at least in part.

How did food play a role in your upbringing as a child in Italy?

The education I got was indirect because it was so much a part of our lifestyle. I grew up in Le Marche [6] — a region on the Adriatic coast of Italy that has been secluded or set apart, even for Italians, for historical reasons. For hundreds of years the entire economy was set up on sharecropping. My father and my grandfather and [our ancestors] before him, they all worked as farmers running a farm for nobility. My dad was a farmer until he was 27 or 28.

Why did he stop?

In the 1950s, landowners started to sell their property because they were getting aggressively taxed by the government, so it wasn’t worth it anymore. The majority of the farmers had to leave and go out and reinvent their entire lives. That’s what happened to my dad’s family — they went from the farm to the city. But because of his background as a farmer, our grocery shopping was not done at a supermarket. Every weekend my dad loved to cook, and we were surrounded by the best ingredients from the best places, directly from the people who grew it. I went with him to buy our chickens, our eggs, our milk. And there were a lot of people like us in the neighborhood: One of the old farmers became a butcher, so I could go in and spend a day there learning about meat. It was the same with the baker — he was another farmer doing something different in the city.

Was food talked about as something rarefied then?

It was just important to us in our family — it was not strange. Even in Italy, this type of lifestyle tends to disappear nowadays. But I was lucky enough to go through it and be there, in the field with a farmer watching the chicken who was going to have to die for our dinner.

When did you know you wanted to work with food as a vocation?

I worked in Italy while I was going to culinary school, a lot of times for free. I spent my weekends taking trains to different restaurants in the country, where I would go and cook for a weekend, and then go back to school. Then I worked for Gualtiero Marchesi, the first three-Michelin-star chef in Italy. You have to work your way to him, through other chefs, to make it into his kitchen. There’s a generation of chefs my age who all come out of what I call the Marchesi school, and we all have different styles and approaches.

What’s the organizing principle of the “Marchesi school”?

I take something that is very traditional because I feel personally rooted in the recipe, because of memories of my childhood or the way it was presented to me, and I try to bring some of my own creativity to it, with different herbs or garnishes or seasonings that are different than what they used to be. It’s still true to the original recipe, but it’s presented in a modern way. Is contemporary Italian food allowing more freedom to a chef? That’s certainly true. But if you ask me to do spaghetti with tomatoes, I have no problem to do it with the same effort it takes to make ravioli with sousvide lobster inside. It’s no problem to make both dishes great.

You did a short stint at a restaurant in Moscow in the mid-’90s. What was that like?

I went to Moscow with some of the chefs I had worked for. It was a short experience, about three and a half months, a total adventure — really wild. We could have a conversation for three days about what happened there. It was a partnership between Italians and Russians. I saw very interesting things. They placed an airport scanner at the entrance of the restaurant, and in the coatroom there were safety-deposit bank boxes. A lot of security came for, let’s call them V.I.P.s, and they would check in their knives, their guns and the call girl would just give them a number. We had meetings with the partnership with a couple guys armed with Kalashnikovs, just to make it clear that it was a serious meeting. It sounds like a movie, but it was real.

CHEF’S TIPS

Take meats out of the refrigerator 20-30 minutes before cooking them and take a gentle temperature approach rather than brutalize them.

Cook short pasta like penne or rigatoni the same way as risotto: rather than boil in water, sweat it with shallots, add white wine, reduce and then add chicken stock — so the starch from the pasta becomes part of the sauce and the pasta absorbs the flavor of the sauce.

What did you learn about yourself as a chef from all that?

It was a great experience as a chef. You can’t ask for more when you can walk into a green market and walk out with a piece of brown bread with three spoons of caviar inside. I give most value to the fact that I went to a country where they don’t necessarily have good ingredients everywhere. You can find them if you want to.

How did their notion of Italian food differ from what you had known?

Their knowledge of it was basically what the most conservative or traditional meal would be for an Italian, what would be cooked at home without going to a restaurant. But Italian food evolves, like everything else. It has never been codified. How many recipes with spaghetti and tomatoes have you had? And how many twists have you had in those? Some people say you should put cheese on it; other people will kill you if you add cheese. What makes Italian Italian?

What were your impressions of the United States when you first came here to work?

The volume was the first shock: going from restaurants that do 50 or 70 covers a night to a restaurant that does 350, and the speed and execution of it all. That made for a big learning curve.

What do you think made you distinctive as a chef by the time you got here?

I had a background of working in London and Spain, my own Italian culture growing up, adventures in Moscow. All of that was like a briefcase.

How did the contents of that briefcase figure into your food?

It was certainly 100-percent Italian, with some of my own creativity added to it. I try to put together combinations of recipes from one region in Italy with recipes from another region, but it’s all Italian-grounded. It just has more of a fine-dining status: a good presentation, good technique, a clean plate, great ingredients. It’s just not the kind that makes most people think of red-and-white tablecloths with a big bottle of Chianti in the middle. The Italian food of today is what I’m trying to do at Fiamma. If you go to a one- or two-Michelin-star restaurant in Italy today, you don’t necessarily have trattoria fare. You have a chef whose personality drives the restaurant and what goes on your plate.

BIOGRAPHY

Title: chef-partner of Fiamma, New York CityBirth date: January 31, 1974Hometown: Osimo, ItalyEducation: Istituto Alberghiero Panzini, Loreto, ItalyCareer highlights: James Beard Award in 2006 for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic; leaving Maestro in McLean, Va., to join Fiamma and having a surprise goodbye party attended by 350 clients

How was it starting work in New York with Steve Hanson, an operator with a reputation that precedes him?

I think Steve Hanson and I are both driven by high expectations, so we had no problem clicking and working together.

What has surprised you about New York?

Any place you go, you need to adapt and change. To the extent of what Italian food means in this town, there are some parameters that are, to my surprise, limited. I still have to find an answer for that. Probably because you have such a wide availability of Italian establishments, it certainly requires a higher sense of risk and effort to go to the higher end of what Italian food can be. When I got written about and it said my food was not Italian — that was a big moment.

Some high-profile reviews have called your menu lots of things other than Italian — some have made mention of French food.

If you ask me to cook French, I need to look at a book first. So I don’t know where those comments come from. I think it’s a problem of perception. It’s partially our fault as Italians, because we came to this country as immigrants and were desperate to make it, so we did what we knew best. But today, in Italy, there is so much more food and knowledge about food, and we are absorbing techniques from everywhere. In New York, you can have a French chef making ravioli, and that’s still French. But you can’t have an Italian chef touch foie gras, because that’s French. But foie gras was grown by the Egyptians, and then we had it during the Roman Empire. And going back to history, we actually had something to do with French food being codified, when Catherine de Medici went to Paris and brought Italian chefs to Paris to cook at the palace there.

Can you name a specific dish that sums up what you’re trying to do as a chef?

There is one signature dish that I’ve been doing for some time, and here it was called Asian because it uses ginger. We have a restraining order from using certain ingredients here. [Laughs.] It’s a lobster ravioli, for which I use chunks of raw lobster instead of making a traditional purée. I use won ton sheets of pasta, so you can cook this ravioli gently in a warm fish stock, and the lobster will still be juicy and tender. Sometimes it’s misconceived as not Italian, because it’s just not evident that it has an Italian passport.