Clevelanders like their steaks, and usually with potatoes. But Chef Dante Boccuzzi, formerly of Manhattan’s Aureole, has game on his mind. Duck, quail, squab, and pigeon to be exact, and he’s ready to change some Midwest minds about these tasty feathered friends.
After years behind New York stoves, Boccuzzi returned to his native Cleveland to open his own restaurant, eponymously named Dante. Since October (2007) he’s been gradually introducing game meats on his menu, but it’s been a slow process to get people to try them.
Weighing the higher price tag of the game meat with the slow rate at which it currently sells is a bit of a balancing act for Boccuzzi. Getting people to try the game is one thing — it’s noble — but making it economically feasible is another — it takes creativity. Because he’s new in town, Boccuzzi feels he has more leeway with his customers to stick to his guns and serve less common items, like quail and pigeon; the way he makes it affordable from a food cost perspective is by using as much of the bird as possible in different dishes.
In the end, Boccuzzi surmises, “it’s all in the way you use it.” Making the most of the various parts of the animal is essential when sales are slow. Use the breast meat in one dish, and confit the legs, shred, and toss with pasta for another. Use the bones for stock or sauce; depending on the bird, the wings and necks have great meat on them too. For very small species, like squab and quail, it’s more difficult to not sell the whole bird in a single portion, and this is when Boccuzzi has to rely on winning more timid customers over with a little psychology.
Pairing the less familiar with the familiar is one way Boccuzzi helps customers overcome their game meat trepidation. He helps his diners over the hump by putting the birds in a more comfortable context: squab doesn’t sound quite as exotic when coupled with potatoes. Tasting menus have been a successful tool for Boccuzzi to include game meat on plates. “I’ll do a focused tasting menu using one thing, like winter squash, and pair that with game for a couple of dishes.” He’ll throw in the customary chicken, beef, or pork for a couple dishes too to balance it out. Wine dinners with very popular wines (like anything red and Italian) also have been an excellent venue for game dishes. And, of course, giving a frequent customer a complimentary small plate of roasted quail isn’t a bad way to win someone over either — a typical Boccuzzi tactic.
Boccuzzi has made good progress breaking in Clevelanders to game birds in the few months Dante has been open. Their house-made duck prosciutto started out served alongside the well-loved Prosciutto di Parma and other salumi. Now it’s so popular it stands alone, paired with cheese and mostarda. The quail, squab, and pigeon, on the other hand, are a work-in-progress for Boccuzzi.
While Clevelanders still happily eat their steaks, Boccuzzi is busy preparing for the day when their minds are changed to consider smaller, feathery species on a more regular basis. These game menu fantasy recipes are what will eventually be on the Dante menu once Boccuzzi can lure Clevelanders away from their standard fare. Boccuzzi assures us it’s just a matter of time before he wins them over.
“I like to get away from the usual meats. In Ohio it’s tough to sell game… everyone wants steak.”
— Dante Boccuzzi of Dante — Cleveland, OH
- Grilled Cinnamon Quail and Persimmons with Pickled Jalapeño Vinaigrette and Chicories
- A light first course or even a salad (the chicories in the dish are the endive and frisee, cousins in the chicory family). Boccuzzi marinates the quail with persimmons and cinnamon and then grills it to give the bird a sweet and charred complexity. Pickled jalapeño adds a nice peck of heat and acidity for contrast.
- Thyme-Roasted Squab with Foie Gras-Stuffed French Toast
- An example of how a small bird can go a long way. The breast meat is the dish’s main component; the legs and trimmings are removed and cooked to make a jus; the leg meat is then stuffed into the French toast along with the seared foie. (p.s. squab is a fancy word for young pigeon.)
- Wood Pigeon Dressed in Leeks with Espresso-Hazelnut Risotto
- Inspiration for this dish came from Italian chef Nicotra Fortunato’s espresso risotto. Fine espresso grounds are stirred into the risotto in the last minutes of cooking, adding deep flavor, color, and a little something to wake up drowsy diners. The sous vide pigeon, coated with butter and wrapped in leeks, is juicy, tender, and sexy.
- Filet Mignon of Moulard Duck with Sunchoke Puree and Dried Cherry Granola
- Boccuzzi uses the enzyme Activa RM (a.k.a. “meat glue” or, if you want to sound sophisticated, transglutaminase) to adhere the two duck breasts, cooks them sous vides, and finishes the duck in a hot pan to brown and crisp the skin. The upshot resembles filet mignon in look and in the super-tender texture.