Super Tuscan: The Culinary Reinventions of Chef Cesare Casella

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
October 2010

Interviews

Talking Salumi with Chef Cesare Casella

Bliss at the Salumeria: Catching up with Chef Cesare Casella

Recipes

Jack Rabbit Salad: Grilled Rabbit over Radicchio
Chef Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi - New York, NY

Pony Express: Tuscan Lamb Meatballs
Chef Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi - New York, NY

Rodeo: Veal Cheeks with Tomatillo Salsa
Chef Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi - New York, NY

Sloppy Giuseppe: Italian Sloppy Joe
Chef Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi - New York, NY

Everyone’s doing it. At Maremma’s closing party, all of Cesare Casella’s friends were doing it—stuffing the chef’s favorite herb into their pockets with anarchist abandon. And for the most part, everybody’s cool with Casella’s particular herb obsession (he even likes to cook with it!). But when the chef strolled up to armed security at Newark airport with a healthy tuft of the stuff in his breast pocket, they were dumbfounded. Forget that it was rosemary, the trademark boutonnière Casella’s worn for over 30 years. Newark security wasn’t having it. So the ever-smiling chef submitted to inspection, declaring fresh rosemary to security the way only a chef could.

Beyond being a sign of increased screening at Newark’s dubiously secure airport, this is exactly the kind of little vignette that illustrates Casella’s implacably good attitude. Surrender your rosemary to official inspection? Sure. It’s what’s gotten him through the ups and downs of a long, influential career in the food industry. And it’s what keeps him evolving, challenging himself with new projects when most chefs would rest happily on their laurels. Once you’ve done Gourmet, Martha Stewart, Iron Chef, No Reservations and then some, the implicit rule is you don’t have to try anymore, right? Not Casella. He never stops trying.

Stubborn and Grinning

Casella’s life (and highly recognizable, perpetually smiling face) has been catalogued in every forum—print, online media, television (he’s even had a part in launching a movie deal—so a reiteration of his life’s story is needless here. We’re more interested in how Casella stays smiling through all the inevitable disappointments of building a career in this less than giggle-inducing industry. Surely it can’t just be the rosemary?

It’s not. In fact it’s much, much simpler than that. Casella has an old fashioned stick-to-it attitude that’s been variously inspiring and frustrating his loved ones since he was a kid—when he already knew he would be a chef while the rest of us were taking our first life-altering mouthful of paste. Cuisine was in Casella’s blood; it was practically his birthright: “I grew up in the restaurant,” he says, referring to Vipore, the family-owned eatery. His restaurateur parents urged him to be an “architect, doctor”—anything that would get him out of the kitchen. But Casella persisted. “Not only because I love [it],” he admitted, “but because they tried in some way to blackmail me!” (They would pay for anything but culinary school.) Casella’s version of adolescent rebellion? A 5:30am wakeup call to make culinary school in Montecatini. Only when he was 19 did his mother let him into Vipore to cook in earnest. “Then she started to agree it was possible for me to be in the same kitchen,” remembers Casella. She and Vipore got a Michelin star as a reward.

It’s All About the Attitude

Because he carries his accomplishments (and disappointments) with grace, you’d almost think Casella’s road to chef-success was a smooth, newly paved straightaway. In fact it’s a lot more like one of the winding roads of the Italian countryside, the kind only a Vespa can negotiate with any ease. And that’s what Casella’s got in spades: agility, maneuverability, adaptability. For instance, once the sparkle of his Michelin star reached American shores, Casella was in high demand in New York City. Rather than do what most twenty-something chefs do—immediately milk success for a high-gloss career in Manhattan—Casella began a casual courtship, spending a week out of every month in New York, testing the culinary waters.

Casella eventually relented to the siren call of Manhattan, but he was far from an imperialist chef looking to conquer new territories; in fact empire is the farthest thing from Casella’s mind, then and now. He was simply entranced by the possibilities for Italian cuisine at the time. Today we take regional Italian cuisine for granted, but two decades ago, when Casella arrived, emphasis on hyper-local ingredients and rustic, traditional cooking styles—the uber-Piemontese Sorella comes to mind—was almost nil.

And Casella helped catalyze an evolution of Italian cuisine with his super Tuscan perspective, first at the helm of Coco Pazzo and soon after at Il Toscanaccio, its sister restaurant. His first big solo splash came at Beppe, where Casella’s Tuscan roots were broadcast on a menu screaming with creativity. “Never did I want just a great restaurant,” said the chef. “I wanted a great restaurant in my style.” In his opening review, William Grimes praised “bighearted entrées like lamb pot pie baked with baby artichokes and Chianti,” and “chicken livers sautéed with red onion, sage, capers and vin santo.” Critical acclaim wavered over the years, but the refrain was generally very positive. Casella might have stayed at the helm of Beppe, but he’d grown accustomed to twists and turns; the Vespa needed to conquer new roads. “It is very hard to let go of something you have worked hard for,” Casella says of Beppe. “But if you are to progress and grow, you must allow yourself to move on to the next stage of your career.”

The Birth and Death of a Restaurant

For Casella, the next stage was Maremma, a never-before-tried concept combining the American and Italian (yes, Italian) cowboy ethos under one and the same roof—announced none-too-subtly with oversized steer horns in the entrance. The New York Daily News reported “Beppe Biggie Branching Out,” inaugurating a season of buzz about the chef’s forthcoming, uncanny creation. “We’d say howdy to the cactus martini!”

Casella knew there might be a bit of cultural confusion. “Americans have an immediate and specific relation to the word cowboy,” says Casella. “The idea of an Italian or Tuscan cowboy might at first seem comical, but it actually conjures a very similar gastronomical experience.” And nobody who’s seen him can deny that there’s something about the big-boned proportions of cowboy culture—whether in Texas or Tuscany—that seems appropriately Casella-ish. He’s got the soul of the butteri, those old-school Italian cowboys who work the herds with a simple stick, or uncino, no six-shooter required. Casella cooks with cowboy gumption, and Maremma served the double purposes of honoring the little-known Tuscan cowboy culture and giving Casella, culinary cowboy, an uncharted Wild West of his own.

And for a while, it worked. Casella was the Sergio Leone of cuisine, co-opting the proportions of the American southwest, not for its dramatic chiaroscuro and life-or-death margins, but for the heart and soul of its cuisine—or, as Casella puts it, “big, filling, warming, hearty dishes made from great ingredients, cultivated from the lands cowboys work.” On the menu, this translated into dishes like “Sloppy Giuseppe” and “Pony Express”, entire dinners of Chianina, a breed of Italian cows, and robust coffee and chocolate-inflected chili. “My work at Maremma was all about concept development,” Casella remembers. The fact that Maremma didn’t last beyond its brief three year span owes more, Casella believes, to the toxicity of its location than any of the odd juxtapositions of menu, music, or decor. “I fell in love with the space,” said Casella, “but failed to properly account for the location of the space.”

But when did he know it was really time to go? “Honestly, you mostly just feel it. Then you look at your P&L [profits and loss statement] and the bottom line shows you that the L is taking over.” But it’s not just a matter of crunching numbers. It’s a feeling. And for a chef as stubbornly happy as Casella, it’s paramount to feel good in any project. “It’s like with any relationship,” he explains. “Sometimes you just feel that it isn’t working. ‘You’re a great restaurant, and someday you’re going to make people very happy. I just may not be the one to help make that happen. It isn’t you, it’s me.’”

Still Smiling

So what does a chef do after losing his investment, watching his concept crumble? If you’re a glass-half-empty chef, you invest in a few nights of serious drinking followed by pleading with future investors. If you’re Casella, you go straight to work on your next project. It’s not that he’s deluded or doesn’t feel the sting of failure. He’s done what most successful chefs do; he’s translated his failures into an invaluable commodity--perspective. “When I was younger, I was inspired by my instinct, what my gut told me to do,” says the chef. “I ran headstrong into the wind and made a lot of mistakes!” Maremma changed that. “Now I know that while my instinct is still very important, I must also consider firm business concepts and models in order to measure whether what my instinct wants me to do is in the best interest of my business.”

His latest venture, Salumeria Rosi, is like the beautiful lovechild of the chef’s colorful creativity and matured business sense. “All of the things that went wrong in the past have been made right with Salumeria Rosi,” says the chef. “The P is winning on my P&L!” And it’s no surprise. A comparatively modest dining concept for a chef of Casella’s caliber—a market for cured meats and cheeses with a small-plates menu—Salumeria is Italian authenticity, transported to New York. Exactly what modern diners crave. Casella’s team prepares the charcuterie locally, so diners can stroll in for a half pound of Casella’s favorite, parmacotto, or sit down for a few small plates and a glass of wine. And more often than not, diners will actually see Casella, the marquee chef, in his restaurant! “It is strange if a day goes by when I am in New York and I do not go to the Salumeria!”

Even with the recent opening of Eataly, a super-size (and seemingly competing) version of the comparatively intimate Salumeria, Casella is unflappably happy, even giddy. “Eataly is a great place!” he says. “Like the Salumeria, it is a simple concept executed by professionals who intimately understand the true soul of Italy.” Apparently jealousy and competitiveness don’t fit in Casella’s professional outlook. There’s too much good humor. “Salumeria is Little Eataly—get it?”

When he’s not cracking jokes or refreshing his rosemary sprig, Casella divides time between the Italian Studies program at FCI, his import company The Republic of Beans, the Salumeria, its upstate charcuterie, and various other projects. Does he complain? No. “My job is a life that I love. It’s not difficult,” he says. “Food is life.” Casella’s good attitude might be invincible, but just the same, we’d sure like a whiff of that rosemary.