My Favorite Chef in Italy: A Lesson From One of the Greats

A crazy, pork-liver-filled, spur-of-the-moment dinner reminds a New York restaurateur of the value of cooking with restraint

Salvatore in the kitchen at Porsena_wide.jpg Salvatore Dennaro is my favorite chef in Italy. When he lost his restaurant last summer (because he is the worst businessman I know), I was really sad.

Salvatore owned a little trattoria-style place in Foligno, Umbria, called il Baco Felice, and I loved it because of its simplicity and reliance on quality ingredients, many of them produced by Salvatore himself. In simple low-key places in Italy, that reverence for la materia prima (quality ingredients) is harder and harder to find. He has wound up working for a friend of his, an esteemed winemaker in Montefalco called Marco Caprai, cooking meals and teaching cooking classes at the winery. Recently they came to the U.S. to put on a series of wine dinners in New York and Chicago, and Salvatore insisted on coming and cooking with me at Porsena.

Salvatore's cooking was a reminder to me and a reaffirmation that sometimes what you don't put into a dish is as important as what you do.

As soon as he landed, he hightailed it over and decided he should make a lentil soup. Fortunately we had prized Umbrian Casteluccio lentils hanging around in the dry storage left over from New Year's Eve. He hustled into the kitchen and started chopping away at the vegetables (celery, onions, garlic) for the base of the soup. As he bustled about asking for things, I discovered my Spanish-speaking prep cook speaks pretty good Italian. I also discovered that while I speak great Italian and pretty good Spanish, I cannot speak the two simultaneously.

Salvatore is a character and very jolly. He kept up a running commentary on the world as he sees it as he cooked, chatting about leftist politics and what makes a good wine all at the same time. He decided that we should cook dinner together the following Sunday and that we should make sausages. I don't have a meat cutter or a sausage stuffer, I said. That's fine, he said, I can call this guy he met at Eataly and have him cut my meat for me. Problem solved.

I encouraged him to make fegatelli, my favorite dish, pig's liver wrapped in caul fat and seasoned with bay leaf and wild fennel pollen. He proposed chick pea soup with pasta and lentil and salt cod salad. Over the next few days, my chef Sebastian and I decided that this was actually the perfect opportunity to go buy ourselves a meat cutter and sausage stuffer, and we ran around gathering equipment and ingredients in preparation for the big night. Salvatore popped in and out, coming for dinner when he could, praising me for things he thinks I do right and chastising me for the things he thinks I could do better. He said my spaghetti vongole needed a big splash of color from some red chili pepper, which made Sebastian laugh, as he and I had argued about this very issue in the beginning. I'd wanted to use tiny dried hot Sicilian chilies for the flavor, but Sebastian thought the jarred Calabrese were better and prettier.

Salvatore thought the lamb sausage pasta was great, but the greens, he wondered, shouldn't they be cooked more? Italians like their vegetables really cooked and it's one of those things I forget because I actually have never been able to decide what I prefer. For me its one of those things that really sets Italian and French food apart—the degree of doneness on the vegetables.

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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