You don't have to travel to Italy to master the nuances of authentic Italian cooking.
It all started with my heritage. My mom is Italian and my dad is Greek, so I’ve been exposed to Mediterranean flavors my whole life. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in our family’s restaurant (Chicago’s Heaven on Seven), so I had a lot of exposure to kitchen culture, too.
I knew that every year in cooking counts, so immediately after high school, I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. In my first year of school I got to work at [Providence’s] Al Forno, which was my first high-level Italian kitchen experience, and it was awesome. Not long after starting there, I took a trip to New York City with my dad and some of his other chef friends for a weekend, and it ended up being one of the most important trips of my life. It was only a weekend, but it was the first time I was exposed to Mario Batali restaurants and what they were all about. It was in 2003, when Babbo was at its height and Mike Ladner was still the chef and it was really the heyday of the heyday. Literally the three days we were there we only ate at Batali restaurants: Esca, Lupa, Babbo, Otto. It was life changing for me! I knew I had to work for this guy.
Jimmy Bannos Jr.
The Purple Pig
James Beard “Rising Star Chef,” 2014
Al Forno Restaurant, Providence, RI; Emeril's, New Orleans, LA; Del Posto, Esca, and Lupa, New York, NY.
Because of that trip, and because I knew I wanted to work with Italian flavors and in Batali restaurants, after I graduated I decided I would go to Italy. I was there for six months, and it was the beginning of it all. The first place I worked in Italy was at a family friend’s restaurant in a tiny mountain town outside of Rome, and it was a totally different way of living, where everything was unplugged and moved so much more slowly. It gave me a good idea of how Italians treated food and dining. After that, I worked at a pizza place, and then staged around in Florence.
While I was there, I was reading [Batali’s] Babbo cookbook religiously every day, and it motivated me even more. Being there, I realized how much there was to learn and appreciate about the different regional cuisines and cooking styles. I grew up Italian, and I loved Italian food, but I realized how much I needed to keep growing in my understanding of it—and how much more I had to learn in order to understand that heritage. I’ve realized that Italian cooking is still one of the most misunderstood cuisines that there is. Period. It gets underestimated, and people think anyone can do it without having an understanding of it.
The great thing today is that if you want to learn Italian food, you don’t have to go to Italy, even though it’s an important experience and you should if you can. There are so many authentic places to learn in the U.S., and you can take advantage of that. My best advice is to do what I do now and what my dad always did: Do your travelling and your studying through reading. Read, read, read, and then start practicing. I still do research constantly and read up on great chefs from Italy and great Italian chefs in the U.S.
Once you really understand how to stay true to the classic flavor of a dish, you can do the American thing and do a little local, unique take on it. For instance, at The Purple Pig, we do a bit of a modernist take on a classic Bollito Misto dish from Bologna, and I love being able to re-invent a classic while maintaining respect for the tradition.
Even though so much of Italian cuisine is understanding the traditions, it’s so awesome that there’s always more to learn. It’s like a language. Even though Italian was part of my heritage, I’m adding new vocabulary all the time, and it’s a really rewarding and exciting thing to learn.