New York City isn’t short on rustic-chic Italian restaurants, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, Ciano stands out among the crowd for its excellent pasta dishes; its innovative wine program, which allows for every bottle of vino to be served by the half-bottle; and its romantic ambiance. We called up chef Shea Gallante to learn more about how he got his start and to find out more about how Italian cuisine has evolved since he first donned his chef whites.
You started your career pretty young: Your first job was at 14, and you then opened up a pizzeria at age 19. What was that experience like?
Well, you know, it wasn’t a professional kitchen; I was looking for independence, and as any young adult or older child does, you think you know it all. It was a lesson learned, and it didn’t fare that well. But then enrolling in CIA afterwards, I found what I was looking for.
What were some of those lessons you learned?
You can’t say, “No, we’re not going to have that.” You have no choice when you’re alone but to have everything and to get it all done. It was a valuable lesson for even operating a restaurant at this level in New York City. It has to get done at any level, and the cost is that you do it all yourself.
You’ve worked primarily in French and Italian cuisines. What draws you to those regions?
In terms of flavor profile and ingredients, for sure I’m drawn to Italian cuisine. I definitely have an affinity for pasta and the aura and flavor profiles. French cuisine is more about technique and precision, and provides more of a basis of cooking. Italian cooking is grandma-style and rustic and not as exacting. But I took from each one.
How would you describe your style of cooking at Ciano?
I’d say it’s New York City Italian of 2012. The whole of Italian cuisine has evolved. The places serving chicken parm 10 years ago are now serving pasta with broccoli rabe and lamb sausage. Italian cuisine is no longer that image we have of Little Italy.
Why do you think that is?
I think that it’s through information and progression, and people looking for something new. It doesn’t satisfy them to do the same thing every day. Cooking is a creative career, and you’re always looking to do something different. To be honest, there’s an advantage to both sides. Taking something and doing it every day and making it better, and also the creative discipline of making something different all the time.
One of my favorite dishes at Ciano is the meatballs. What’s the secret to making them so tender?
It’s just a balance of the ingredients and the technical aspect. We don’t put anything different in there; it’s just the technique and execution. It goes back to your earlier question of French technique with Italian style. It’s just how we incorporate the bread and the moisture, and use certain cuts of veal to beef. We don’t mix them too much.
Some of the pasta shapes you create are unique, too, like the cortecce. What are some other cool pasta shapes that Americans might not know about?
That’s harder to answer now than five years ago. For me, my favorites are orecchiette and cavatelli, which everyone knows. In terms of unusual ones, the malloreddus, and the lasagnette. I love the cortecce. There are many more available in specialty stores today that sell these shapes.
I think a lot of people are intimidated by making fresh pasta at home. Got any tips?
Just be prepared and organized; there’s no easy way to do it. Have a space set up and cleared out and have everything ready so you can shape the dough, cook it, and store it. [Pasta making] is just discouraging with the mess it creates. If you’re going to do it, start simple. Make pappardelle or a flat noodle. Everyone wants to make cheese or lobster ravioli at home. Why lobster? Think of all that work involved: cooking the meat, cracking the shell. Just start simple and be comfortable with the kitchen and build up from there.
Check back in tomorrow, when Shea reveals his daily diet and the foods that are always in his home refrigerator.