Two of the plates I tried while chatting with withScarpetta
's new chef de cuisine Nina Compton (who just took over the helms this week), and outgoing chef de cuisine Michael Pirolo (who is moving on to Macchialina Taverna Rustica) were new pasta compositions that chef Compton has created for the menu: First one sampled was tagliolini with suckling pig sugo ($24).
Michael explains that "it takes three days to make." They brine, and then braise the entire pig (photo of brining pigs follows), take the meat off the bone, and toss it with perfectly cooked strands of yolk-colored pasta, broccoli rabe, garlic, pork cracklins, and juice from the pork.
"Now that she's doing dishes like this I'm glad I'm leaving," jokes Michael, "because she would have taken my job anyway."
Pirolo and Compton have been working with Conant for just over four years -- when they started, the restaurant was still "a shell." They have surely developed a chemistry together, both personally and in the way they can anticipate each other's moves behind the line. That was clear in yesterday's post.
Michael seems like a fairly low-key guy, which is likely why you don't read about him as much as you do other important Miami chefs. He was born in New York, grew up in a town outside of Naples, then returned to New York; in his his twenties, it was back to Italy -- three years in the Piedmont, Lombardy, and Bologna areas. Before Scarpetta, Pirolo worked at Gilt, one of New York City's finest restaurants. "Prior to that I was in Philadelphia with Stephen Starr at Striped Bass." [Since closed.]
The outgoing chef is happy to be tackling a new challenge at Macchialina Taverna Rustica. "It will be a little bit more rustic, and the setting is definitely going to be more casual," he says, "but at the end of the day, Italian food is about using local ingredients. Then he added something surprising. "I sometimes say that if you took the pastas off this menu (Scarpetta's), it's not necessarily an Italian restaurant. We try to cook with the spirit of Italy, not necessarily in the true traditional sense. Some dishes yes, but on others we get pretty creative."
When asked about the opening date for Macchialina, he says with confidence that "it will be the first week of May." Still, new horizons and all, at the time of this interview Michael admitted a certain wistfulness about leaving. "I've been putting off getting my books and knives out of here."
The books must be many. "Every month we get a delivery -- like $200, $300 worth of books," says Michael, "and we compete to see who gets the books first." "I read a lot," Nina says when I ask about favorite cookbooks. "Scott's book (Scott Conant's New Italian Cooking), and The French Laundry Cookbook is a staple. Mike and I follow a website called Ideas in Food, which is great. They do really different things every day." "We follow Sean Brock and his two restaurants in South Carolina (McCrady's, Husk), the 11 Madison book (11 Madison Park: The Cookbook)...
When asked if they draw inspiration from these readings, both answer, more or less in unison, "Big time."
The second pasta dish, agnolotti dal plin ($25), is another new Compton creation. They braise the lamb for three hours, puree it, confit the lamb belly and create crispy lamb lardons. Confit of tomato, arugula, and minted bread crumbs garnish the dainty pockets of pasta. "Lamb, tomatoes, mint -- it's a no-brainer," Nina explains. "The flavors complement each other very well." They sure did, and this is one delectable plate of pasta -- those lardons really retain their crunch, which surprised me.
I ask if it's difficult working in a traditionally male-dominated field. "I think cooking in general is tough for a woman. It's macho territory. I've been at it so long I'm used to it, but you have to basically work twice as hard because people underestimate you." And the pressure of taking over such a high-profile restaurant? "I feel a lot of pressure," she admits, "but I'm confident. I have a good team and that makes a big difference. You can't do it yourself."
At one point I used a basketball metaphor to compare the way the two chefs work together -- which led to the story of an unexpected kitchen guest. As Nina tells it: "It was a Friday night and we were busy. We hear a knock on the kitchen door. We don't answer, and we hear more knocking. So I'm yelling, like -- "Give me a second, we're busy!", and I go over and push the door open and look up (she leans her head all the way back as if looking way up) -- and there's LeBron James. I said 'Oh please, come right this way!' He came in and said 'Hey guys, everything was amazing," and our staff was really excited, like 'Wow, Lebron James just walked through our kitchen!'"
I inquire as to their favorite chefs. Favorite chefs? Michael starts with Mark Vetri in Philadelphia, and adds Dustin Bogle, the new chef at Gilt. "He's like 26, the youngest chef to get 2 Michelin stars in New York City." Nina says she's got a lot of favorites, and starts to name a few: "Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud..."
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Among the duo's food-related activities, besides cooking each night and perusing cookbooks, is taking part in what Pirolo refers to as "food tours," where "we go somewhere and get two appetizers, then move on and get two appetizers, move on and get two appetizers and keep moving on."
Naturally I wanted to know which restaurants they really liked, and, being a considerate type, I suggested to Michael that he start with Pubbelly -- his soon-to-be partners. "Definitely the Pubbelly guys. Honestly, I went in there so many times, that's how I got to know them. I figured I come in so often I might as well join them." Sra. Martinez, Tudor House, and Zuma were three others he named as favorites, with Nina nodding in agreement for each.
"You're well-rounded chefs," I note towards the end of the interview and meal. "Yes, we're well-rounded chefs," agrees Nina. "We're not well-rounded people," Michael interjects, "because everything we do is food-related. But we're well-rounded chefs."