Writer in the Kitchen: Locanda Vini e Olii
We had just finished an interview and tour of Locanda Vini e Olii, his Italian restaurant (along with co-owners Rocco Spagnardi and Michael Schall) in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. From the moment I first walked through the historic doors, I was compelled to know more about the story and people behind this space. There are countless restaurants serving Italian food in New York, but few sear your memory so deeply that you have to return for more.
Clues of the restaurant’s former life as a century-old pharmacy give the space some of its undeniable charm. Shelves that were once lined with medicines are now stocked with wine glasses and country-inspired dishes. Arriving on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I took a seat at the bar with Michele for a chat about food, travel, and tips on how to improve cooking at home.
Michele grew up in the kind of family that made every meal fresh. Talking about his childhood in Florence he said, ‘We planned our meals in advance, nothing was ever frozen, we connected over food’. It should come as no surprise that after some impressive experience — cooking at La Tenda Rossa, a two-star Michelin restaurant and Buca Lapi, one of Florence’s most beloved restaurants — Michele would become part of a team in New York seeking to connect with customers and help expand their culinary horizons.
It is clear that everyone here loves food. Co-owner Michael Schall works the floor with ease and familiarity, helping customers to break down Italian-heavy language and references on the menu. On my first visit he described dishes with affection, helping me narrow my choices and create a well-balanced meal. This attention to detail encouraged me to make a mental note to return for one of the restaurant’s wine dinners, pairing seasonal ingredients — like mushrooms at a recent autumn wine dinner — with interesting Italian wines.
With a modest smile, Michele hesitated when I asked him to narrow down his cooking skills to one specialty. ‘Braising meats’ he finally answered. ‘We have a different braised meat almost every day. For the last three days I’ve had three different braised dishes. One of my favorites right now is the braised short ribs, with red wine, bay leaves, and red onion.’
What is striking to me about this restaurant — beyond a mastery of preparing meats — is an energy for pushing the boundaries. ‘I don’t want to serve the obvious dishes’ Michele said. This was apparent later when I stepped into the kitchen to see a pot of ribollita (a simple Tuscan soup of bread and vegetables) gently bubbling away on the stove.
There are challenges, however, in creating a menu that strays from what people expect. Michele said an ingredient like tripe — the lining of the stomach– served here topped with grana padano cheese is one of his most under-appreciated dishes. Yet with the help of warm service and a knowledgeable and curious customer base, these dishes are becoming easier to serve. People want to expand their horizons, and Michele wants to serve dishes that are rooted in his tradition, not watered down or trendy.
Not only do this chef and I share a passion for Italian food, but we both love to let our stomachs spark travel. Recent culinary adventures for Michele include traveling to Alba in the Piedmont region of Italy for its annual truffle festival and tasting the famous sachertorte in its native Austria.
Before heading into the kitchen to witness fresh pasta being made, we talked about tips for cooking at home. The chef warned against spoiling a dish with too many ingredients, and cautioned me against being overly dependent on broth when braising meats. ‘Then everything winds up tasting like broth’, he said. Instead allow the flavor to come from the meat and from the ingredients you choose, and if liquid is needed — use water instead of broth.
Michele isn’t finished pushing the boundaries at Locanda Vini e Olii. Next he’s planning on using more game, beyond wild boar, on his menu. He wants to use more birds like squab and partridge. During our conversation, it was clear that this chef is constantly challenging himself to share Tuscan traditions with his customers in new ways.
From the Tuscan bread made in-house to the fresh pasta, everything here is made just how it is in Italy: with love. Leaving the chef to prepare for Saturday night service, I wished I had a reservation for that very night. Next time I sit down at one of the brown-paper covered tables, I think I’ll take Michele’s advice and eat more tripe.