Downtown Italian Aims to Re-Create the Experience of West Village Spots at Home
Gabe and Katherine Thompson with Joe Campanale
All photos courtesy Baltz & Company
After a random meeting through a mutual friend, chefs Gabe and Katherine Thompson hit it off -- as you may have surmised from the joint last name. Shortly after meeting Gabe, Katherine was approached by her former colleagues Joe Campanale and August Cardona; they were opening a restaurant and wanted her to be the executive chef. She had no desire. Katherine, however, suggested Gabe try out for the position. He applied and conducted tastings. The day before he was supposed to accept another job, he was offered the position at Dell'Anima (38 Eighth Avenue; 212-366-6633).
Seven years and four concepts later, Gabe, Katherine, and Joe have recently added another big gig to the fold: The team released its first cookbook, Downtown Italian: Recipes Inspired by Italy, Created in New York's West Village. With cocktail recipes, suggestions on wine pairings, and the Thompsons' favorite recipes, it's all about re-creating the experience of Epicurean Management Company's restaurants at home.
For two years, Gabe and Katherine tinkered with and tested recipes (Campanale worked on separate sections and added wine notes after the recipes were decided). Gabe says it was one of the hardest things he's ever done. "It's actually much harder than working in a restaurant, because everything in a restaurant is so second-nature, you're not stopping to record every single step."
With the goal of dedicating the book to the home cook, Gabe and Katherine had to essentially leave their knowledge and recipes at the door. Rather than work in the restaurant kitchen, the couple chose to research and create recipes in their own home. Gone were the convection ovens, industrial ice cream makers, and endless ingredients. Together they re-created their favorite recipes from the eateries and their family repertoire, with ingredients from their local grocery store (although they did research mail-order options for a few instructions). An avid cookbook fan, they used Katherine's mother's complaints about other works as a guide for the tome. "There's nothing more annoying than looking through a cookbook and going, 'How the fuck do I get that ingredient?' " says Gabe. "Or the book is obviously tested and worked on in a restaurant kitchen, 'cause the timing is all off."
To make it work, they diligently measured (also tough for a savory chef), took notes, and timed every aspect -- months into it, they realized their oven was off by 25 degrees, so they had to go back and readjust temperatures for all the existing recipes.
Working within the confines of the publishing world was another learning curve. Where the team already had an idea of what they wanted the volume to look and feel like, they quickly realized that there was so much more to putting together a book than they imagined. According to Gabe, they were free to choose the recipes; however, there were many aspects of the overall design that were intricately detailed. "It's a weird push and pull about which recipes to include, mostly because of how much space it includes in the book," says Gabe. "I didn't really think about that stuff, page count."
As far as the fare, the recipes are based off of Gabe's style of Italian-inspired cuisine. It's broken down into aperitivi (cocktails by Campanale), antipasti, primi (pastas), secondi (entrees), contorni (sides), dolci (sweets), and digestivi (after-dinner drinks). While it follows the guidelines of an authentic meal from the motherland, Gabe makes it very much his own. Where antipasti traditionally comprises small cold bite-size foods, he chose to include items that were, according to him in the book, "more thoughtfully composed." As far as primi are concerned, it's usually the first warm course of the meal in Italy; however, at his restaurants, he treats them as mid-courses, hoping guests will start with apps, share a pasta, and move on to entrees. In the book, he gives tips on appropriate portion size.
Gabe did not start off cooking Italian fare. Like most chefs, he's classically trained, with a focus on French technique -- he moved to New York to take a position at Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. But he started falling for the laid-back, spontaneous Italian approach to cuisine while working at Clarklewis in Portland, Oregon. It wasn't solely Italian, but every day the chef would come in and make dishes with the ingredients he felt like using. "It was the most profound working conditions I ever had," says Gabe. "It was my first Italian food gig, but it still wasn't the vein that I wanted to open an Italian restaurant."
He's obviously happy with the way things turned out. He met the love of his life and she prompted him to go after a position that has proven successful. But since Katherine took a step back from the company's executive pastry chef position (she's still on board, but spends more time with the kids these days), Gabe wishes she were able to spend more time in the kitchen. "I miss working every day with her," says Gabe. "She always had her eye out for stuff, kind of my eyes and ears in the kitchen. We help each other really well with ideas."
Click to the next page for Gabe's rigatoni with roasted butternut squash and bacon recipe.
Rigatoni with Roasted Butternut Squash and Bacon
Serves four to six Pair with a crisp white wine - We like: Keuka Lake Vineyards "Falling Man" Riesling: dry, but a little sweet.
"I have my dear friend Sal Rizzo to thank for this dish, which he made for one of his Sunday suppers," says Gabe. "I begged Sal to let me steal his idea. My version uses bacon instead of sausage, and walnuts seemed to add just the right amount of texture."
4 cups butternut squash cut into "batons" (½ by ½ by 1½ inches) or large dice ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning Freshly cracked black pepper 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut into ¼-inch slices 10 fresh sage leaves, torn 2 shallots, julienned ½ cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio ½ cup chicken stock 10 ounces dried rigatoni 2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese 6 tablespoons roughly chopped walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, toss the squash with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the 1⁄2 teaspoon salt, and several turns of pepper. Spread the squash on a baking sheet. Roast until the squash is tender, but still holds its shape, about 30 minutes. Use a metal spatula to gently loosen the roasted squash from the pan. Set aside.
2. Place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter. When the butter mixture begins to turn slightly brown (2 to 3 minutes), add the bacon. Cook the bacon, stirring frequently, until the fat starts to render and the bacon starts to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the sage and shallots.
3. Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes, until the shallots start to soften and caramelize. Add the roasted squash and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes more. Add the white wine and cook until it evaporates completely, about 2 minutes. Add the stock and simmer for 2 minutes. Decrease the heat to very low and keep the sauce warm until the pasta is ready.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season the water generously with salt.
5. Cook the rigatoni until just al dente, slightly less than the suggested cooking time on the package. The pasta should have a small white line in the center.
6. Transfer the pasta from the water to the sauce. Reserve the pasta water. Increase the heat under the sauce to medium and add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter, the Pecorino, and the walnuts. Stir to combine. Cook for another minute or so. Thin the sauce with pasta water or simmer for 1 to 2 minutes more to thicken as needed. Serve in warm bowls.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter @saraventiera.
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