360 West February 2017 : Page 86
In The Kitchen PastaPerfect Culinary school taught Stefano Secchi how to cook, but it was time spent in Italy that lit his fires. By Michael S. Hiller Photos by Ralph Lauer 86 February 2017 360westmagazine.com
In The Kitchen
Michael S. Hiller
Culinary school taught Stefano Secchi how to cook, but it was time spent in Italy that lit his fires.
It all starts with a perfect egg cracked into a mound of double-zero flour mixed by hand on a wood board. From there the dough is stretched to a paper-thin consistency and then shaped and cut and stamped with special tools. Tortellini and mezzaluna are filled with a ricotta mix or a savory braised beef cheek. Double-sided ravioli gets a topping of brown butter, sage and prosciutto plus a dusting of Parmigiano.
Pasta seems so simple — just flour and eggs — but in the hands of Stefano Secchi, a cup of Italian double-zero flour and a single, dark-orange egg yolk become the hills of Tuscany, the still air of the Po River and the dairy farms of Parma.
Water is used to quickly seal pocket of dough.
On a recent morning, Secchi, the 34-year-old chef of his family’s Ferrari’s Italian Villa & Chop House restaurants in Grapevine and Addison, is making tagliatelle “al mattarello” — flattening a ball of fresh pasta dough by using a long wooden dowel tapered on both ends. “Uno, due, tre, gira [rotate],” he chants under his breath like a mantra, rolling and turning and rolling and turning until the pasta sheet is thin enough to read a newspaper through. “We make it this way every time, just like I was taught to do by Laura [Morandi],” the chef at Hosteria Giusti in Modena, Italy, where Secchi worked for a year making pastas.
It all starts with a perfect egg cracked into a mound of double-zero flour mixed by hand on a wood board.
Secchi cooks with the passion of an old soul, and much credit goes to his grandmother. “Italian food is my heritage,” he says. “I was brought up making pasta in Sardinia with my nonna when I was 5, so for me, cooking is all about family. It’s about using the best ingredients you can find locally and using your hands to make something wonderful.”
Tortellini and mezzaluna are filled with a ricotta mix or a savory braised beef cheek.
Secchi enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America after high school, with plans to later join his father, Francesco, in the Texas kitchens of their family restaurants. But he detoured to SMU, where he graduated with a degree in economics and Italianarea studies, and devoted three years to honing his culinary skills in several top-notch kitchens.
From there the dough is stretched to a paper-thin consistency and then shaped and cut and stamped with special tools.
His time spent at Hosteria Giusti left him with many memories of long days rolling and shaping dough with a soft breeze blowing through an open window of the second-floor pasta room. While he worked, he’d hear the milkman delivering the local ricotta from the hills of Emilia-Romagna, smell the fish guy delivering the day’s catch and wave to the butcher wearing a blood-stained T-shirt, dirty apron and five-o’clock shadow no matter what time of day it was.
Double-sided ravioli gets a topping of brown butter
“Culinary school taught me how to cook, but Laura taught me how cook with passion,” says Secchi. “Something like tagliatelle has been made one way for a thousand years, so why change it? In America, we’re used to making everything in an electric Hobart mixer, but now I’d never cut tagliatelle by machine because I know in Italy that nonnas have been cutting tagliatelle by hand for a thousand years and that’s the only way to do it — not just because it’s tradition, but because you can taste it.”
Once Secchi felt he had mastered pasta, he left Giusti to cook at nearby Ristorante Antica Moka and, later, at the Michelin-starred All’ Enoteca in Piedmont. A year later, he returned to Modena to cook at chef Massimo Bottura’s 12-table Osteria Francescana, ranked the No. 1 restaurant in the world on the 2016 San Pelligrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list.
Sage and prosciutto plus a dusting of Parmigiano.
“Francescana was a thoroughly different Italian restaurant,” says Secchi. The restaurant specializes in ultramodern Italian cuisine but is rooted in traditional regional cooking. Bottura’s imprint means taking creative license with classic ingredients and then employing contemporary techniques to present a modern spin. “We didn’t just serve a knob of Parmigiano cheese,” recalls Secchi. “Instead we took Parmigiano and presented it five different ways, from foams to custard to crackers.”
Specialties at Ferrari’s include lamb osso buco with Parmigiano polenta-horseradish gremolata.
As much as Secchi loved his time in Italy (he returned to Texas last year), he says his real joy is working alongside his father at their Grapevine restaurant. Jane, his Britishborn mother, works in both restaurants (his parents met while working on a cruise ship)
Pastas of all shapes, some filled, some not. The green pasta is made with spinach.
“Family is everything to me. My family is my rock. It’s not easy to be in business with your parents, but they bring a European mentality to the restaurant that’s missing in America. We close on Sundays so everyone can take the day off and relax with their families. We cook together, eat together and celebrate together. Most of our staff have been with us for decades and are part of our family. When Francesco speaks to them in Italian, they understand exactly what he’s saying. Where else in Texas can you walk into a restaurant and speak Italian with the owner, the chef and even the Hispanic cooks?”
While the current trend is to seek out fresh ingredients and housemade everything, Dallas and Fort Worth diners didn’t always embrace the real deal.
Stefano’s parents, Francesco and Jane, stay busy working both restaurants.
“We served fantastic authentic Italian dishes at our original location, which we opened in Dallas’ West End in 1983,” says the elder Secchi. “We’d finish all the pasta dishes tableside like we did in Europe, adding the eggs, shaving the Parmigiano. But slowly we realized that some dishes that go over so well in Italy didn’t go over so well in Dallas, Texas.
“We served whole fresh fish with the heads and eyes, but customers just didn’t want to see that. Little by little, we learned to adapt. But now our guests want more authentic food. They travel to Tuscany and go to restaurants and cooking classes and want us to re-create those dishes, so Stefano is helping us bring true Italian cooking back.”
Today, diners at their Addison and Grapevine restaurants still like their fettuccine with chicken but also are open to more authentic dishes.
“At our family’s restaurants, we focus on the fresh pastas I learned to make in Italy. It’s what I love. It’s what my father grew up eating, what I grew up eating and what I hope my kids will one day grow up eating and want to make,” says Stefano. “We make a tortelli with black truffle, sage and prosciutto [all imported from Italy] that’s every bit as good as what I made in Modena. When I eat this, I feel like I’m back in Emilia- Romagna.”
“Stefano has tremendous knowledge and passion,” says his father. “He’s hands-on and always pays attention to details, yet he remains humble, just like we taught him. When people can feel your passion, when it’s in your blood, no one can beat you.”
The lanky 34-year-old, who says he likes to read when he isn’t cooking, also loves spending time in Manhattan and Los Angeles. His father is encouraging him to blaze his own path, but the younger Secchi demurs. “Right now, I’m working at our Grapevine restaurant and loving what I’m doing.”
But the future is his to embrace. “My dad came to the U.S. with nothing,” he says. “He had a relentless drive to succeed, which is where I learned never to accept mediocrity. I learned from him that if you’re relentless, you can achieve anything.”
Ferrari’s Italian Villa and Chop House Two locations, Grapevine and Addison. 1200 William D. Tate Ave., Grapevine, 817-251-2525; dinner service only and an outdoor pizza-pasta bar. 14831 Midway Road, Addison, 972-980-9898. Lunch and dinner service. Gluten-free menu available at both; ferrarisrestaurant.com.
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