New York is known across the planet as the city of relentless reinvention. The skyline reaches ever higher into the clouds; time warps neighborhoods like funhouse mirrors as wave after wave of newcomers erode and displace those that came before, adding ever deepening layers of spice to the roiling civic stew. A never-ending parade of artists, showmen, geniuses and charlatans lurks, eager to challenge and twist anything threatening to congeal into custom into something new, shiny, original, and better than before.
When it comes to cuisine, like just about everything else, the city’s spotlight typically falls on chefs who dazzle, reinvent, update, and surprise by drawing from a constellation of influences to carve their own unique culinary tales. This is the American impulse – to find our own way in the wilderness, to blaze our own trail.
And it’s just this that makes Locanda Vini e Olii, a traditional Italian spot tucked away on a residential corner of Clinton Hill, stand out. Here, chef and co-owner Michele Baldacci, a native of Tuscany, embraces what might be considered an otherworldly approach: Years spent in the kitchen at Florence’s oldest restaurant, where the recipes haven’t changed since its opening in 1880, instilled in him a respect for doing things the way they’ve been done for centuries. Today, at Locanda Vini e Olii, he is committed to creating completely traditional Tuscan fare – using just a few ingredients of the highest quality, prepared the same way they have been for generations.
We stopped by to sample some of Michele’s cooking, and to chat with co-owners Michael Schall, the general manager, and Rocco Spagnardi, somellier, about Locanda’s decidedly contrarian approach amid the city’s freewheeling culinary culture.
So guys, what should we should try today?
Michele: Well, I am from Tuscany. The cooking I do is very traditional Tuscan food. Most of the dishes I make here are dishes whose recipes haven’t changed in centuries. It’s my tradition, my cuisine.
Tuscany of course is traditionally a very poor country. The cuisine is very simple. It’s built around a lot of beans, kales, onions, herbs like bay leaves, sage, rosemary, thyme – the things that you would find in every garden in Tuscany hundreds of years ago and that you will still find there today. And also the braised meats. Braised meats, beans and bread I would say are definitely the most important ingredients in Tuscan cuisine.
Here, we make a dish of braised short ribs of beef with cannellini beans. It’s a very typical, very traditional Tuscan dish, so it’s something that I think would be good to try.
Tell us about it.
When it comes to beef, we always use pastured Piedmontese beef. Piedmontese beef is a very special breed from the northwestern part of Italy. They are very large animals, very muscular and lean, but still with very tender and juicy meat with really fantastic flavor. Today, a lot of farmers in Italy are breeding only Piedmontese, and more in the United States are beginning to. We get ours from a ranch in Montana. It’s fantastic beef, and it’s what we would use in Tuscany so it’s what we use here. It really makes a difference.
The first thing we do with the meat is to roast it, to create that rich flavor. When you braise meat, you always want to roast it first. So the preparation goes – roast the meat, then add the ingredients for the braising. I use red onions. I almost always use red onions – I prefer the taste, the flavor. Then the herbs – in this case, bay leaves. A little salt. In some dishes, like this one, when I want to give a little more intensity, I use red wine vinegar – a glass of nice vinegar to glaze the dish, to intensify the flavor. Then, a bottle of a favorite Tuscan wine – red wine, of course. And we finish by adding some water.
Some people use stocks to add flavor when braising meats or doing other things. I never use stocks. This is very simple cooking. I want the flavor to come out from the ingredients in the dish. I don’t want to add flavor from somewhere else. You have these beautiful ingredients – you let them give their flavor to the dish. You don’t need to add more from a stock. Less is better.
So the beef goes in the braising juice and cooks slowly for about four hours. It becomes very, very tender. With all braised meats, if you let it rest overnight, it gets only better. All the flavors come together in just the way you want, and the meat becomes even more tender. So we braise the meat at night, let it sit overnight in the refrigerator, and use it the next day. It’s very, very nice.
Then, the beans. Beans are really, truly, the base of Tuscan cooking. You find them everywhere in Tuscan cuisine. Particularly the cannellini beans – the smaller, white kind of beans. Like everything in Tuscan cooking, making beans is very, very simple, but the few ingredients that you use and the way that you cook them is very, very important.
Some people think you have to soak the beans before you cook them. No, you don’t have to soak the beans. It’s not necessary. So you start with a pot of water and you put your beans into it. Your other ingredients? A full garlic clove, a stick of celery, a bunch of sage, one tomato, extra virgin olive oil, and some salt. That’s it. Put everything together and start heating the pot. Once it boils, you lower the heat so the water barely simmers, and you let them cook for a few hours. It’s very important that the temperature is as low as possible. The lower the temperature, and the slower they cook, the better. This is how it’s done.
I used to work at a very, very old restaurant in Florence, called Buca Lapi. It opened in 1880 in the basement of the Antinori Palace, and since then, the menu has barely changed. They used very old, very traditional recipes when they opened and they use the same recipes still today. That’s where I really learned to cook – I still use that totally traditional approach now.
We used to make these same beans at that restaurant. I had a really large charcoal grill there. At the end of the night, when just the ashes were left in the grill, we would make the beans. We would put all the ingredients in the pot, the same as I do here for this dish, and we would put the pot on top of the ashes and go home. They would barely, barely boil – maybe not even at all. When we would come in the next morning around nine or nine thirty in the morning, the whole restaurant would smell like the most perfectly cooked beans. It takes about ten hours that way, but that’s…perfection.
They call this method ‘fagioli al fiasco’ – beans in a flask – because people in the country used to make them that way in a traditional chianti bottle, over the ashes at the end of the night. Now, if you don’t have hot ashes and ten hours to cook your beans, you can make them in a pot in about four hours and that works alright – your result is almost as good.
Of course, you always keep the beans in their water. Never throw the water away – it’s a sacrilege. There are so many things you can use that water for. Whenever we want to serve the beans, we heat them in their water, and of course finish them with extra virgin olive oil and fresh pepper. That’s all you need.
So for this dish, we just put the braised beef on top of the beans with some bay leaves. That’s it. It’s very, very simple. That’s why the ingredients are very important. They must be of the very best quality because there are not many of them and you rely on those few things for all of your flavor. You don’t add flavor from stock or something else. The ingredients have the flavor and they give it to you. So, just a few ingredients, great quality, and the knowledge of how you should treat them based on a very long history and very deep tradition of cooking – that’s basically the recipe for Tuscan cooking, and for the food we make here at Locanda Vini e Olii.
So Rocco, what wine would you pair with this dish?
Rocco: Well this dish is very rich, very flavorful. I think the best way to pair it will be a nice, full bodied red with a lot of character and depth. The one I would probably pick for this would be the 2007 Barbera D’Alba from Vigna de Romani. It’s made by a guy named Enzo Boglietti. He makes very good wine. It’s just a great wine. It has a really big power. It’s very complex and intense, and works very well for this kind of plate. It’s very elegant and well balanced, and has the kind of really full body and character and depth that works perfectly with a rich, earthy, braised meat dish like this.
How did the three of you guys end up here, as owners of this place? Michael, why don’t you start?
Michael: The restaurant has been here for twelve and a half years. An Italian couple named Catherine and Francois Louy who lived nearby opened it in 2001. They had both been in the restaurant business for years. Catherine was a manager at Balthazar. Francois was the GM at Cipriani. They wanted to open their own place in Brooklyn, and spent a lot of time looking for locations without much luck. This place had been the neighborhood pharmacy for over a hundred years. When they saw that it was closing, they knew it would be perfect.
So they took over the space, kept all the old mirrors and wooden cabinetry and shelving in place, and opened it with Michele, as a very traditional Tuscan restaurant. They ran it for nine years. Eventually, they got a little tired of running the place day in and day out, so they offered to sell it to the three of us.
I had come onboard a couple of years after they opened the place as a waiter and manager, sometimes part time and sometimes full time. Michele had opened the restaurant. Rocco had come in a few years later as a waiter. The three of us all knew the restaurant intimately because we’d been here more or less from the beginning. So the original owners basically offered to sell it to us,‘the kids’ they called us, because they knew we understood what it was all about.
For me personally? I never had any intention of owning a restaurant. I grew up in suburban New Jersey. I started working here when I was in grad school for art at Pratt. I do pencil drawings – fairly meticulous large scale pencil drawings. I started working here to fund my art career. One of the better pieces of advice my dad ever gave me was, “If you want to be an artist, get a job in a restaurant.” You can support yourself, it’s flexible, and you can do it anywhere you want.
I love it here. This is a great place. We’re proud of it. There’s something about it. It’s one of those places you never want to leave. I don’t have as much time to work on my art right now as I’d like to, but some day I will again, I hope. [laughter.]
And you, Rocco?
Rocco: Like Michele, I grew up in Italy too. I’ve worked in restaurants all over the world – in Switzerland, England, Australia. I first came to New York in the late nineties. I went to culinary school for three years and that’s where I started to really study wine. I went back to Italy for a few more years after that, really focusing on learning as much as I could about wine. I became very passionate about it. There is so much to learn about wine. I decided to become a sommelier.
What really helped me a lot was working with a lot of very professional people – chefs, wine makers, wine sellers, who taught me a lot of things I never knew about wine. You can read about wine, you can study about wine, but really the most important thing is tasting wine, tasting many, many wines, with people who really understand them, so you can learn how to understand them too.
I came back to America about four years ago and I met the former owners here by chance. I was looking for a job. I started working here as a waiter. I really liked it here. I thought, “This is a really good place.” A couple of years ago when they offered the restaurant to the three of us, we were very glad. We did everything possible to make it happen, and we are very, very happy we were able to make it work.
How about you Michele? How did you end up here?
Michele: I’m from Tuscany. I grew up there. My great grandfather was a chef. My grandfather was a chef. My dad is not a chef, but my mom cooked for us since forever. Of course, food is a very important part of the family and the tradition in Italy. So I grew up eating well and watching my mom cook and wanting to learn to cook.
My first job in a restaurant was at a very good two Michelin star restaurant near my house in Tuscany. I worked for free for the first few months to learn the basics, and then I moved onto a more traditional restaurant in the countryside and little by little I learned the job.
In this profession you kind of have to choose which direction to take. I could have gone the Michelin star route to try to become a star chef. [laughter.] But me? I decided to stick to the very traditional style of cooking because it made more sense to me. Eventually I ended up at Buca Lapi in Florence, and that’s where I really learned a lot about the most traditional Tuscan and Florentine recipes and cooking.
The menu in the restaurant has been the same since it opened in 1880. The recipes haven’t changed. There is no invention. No innovation. It could be a little boring from a chef point of view for some, but for me, it was a really great way to lean the fundamentals of cooking – how you really should cook a piece of chicken, or braise a piece of meat like a wild boar, or make a sauce, or make beans or bake bread. There it was all about the most simple dishes, made just as they should be made.
While I was there, Catherine and Francois found me through a listing about me on the Italian internet. They wanted to open a very traditional Tuscan restaurant and somehow they found me and approached me. They came to Florence to meet me, and a couple of months later I was here with them in Brooklyn. We opened in early 2001. After five years here I returned to Florence and Buca Lapi.
A few years after that, Francois called me. He said, “Would you be interested in taking over Localda Vini e Olii?” First I said, “No, I don’t think so.” But then he said, “Well you know, Mike and Rocco are interested if you are interested.”
I thought about it and I decided to come back. It was good for me because I was able to introduce traditional plates that were maybe not so popular here, like all kinds of tripe dishes, chicken liver dishes…We put our sopressata on the menu. To make it, we cook a whole head of pork for hours, then pick off the meat and press it together with herbs. These dishes maybe seemed a little weird to people at the time, but they’re not weird to me. They’re part of Tuscan and Florentine heritage and cuisine. And you know, they worked very, very well. People liked them.
Michael: I think Michele’s approach to cooking really separates him from a lot of chefs making Italian food in New York. If you look at the chefs making Italian food that get most of the attention here these days, they’re all American born and they’re all trying to put their own twists on it, their own stamp. They’re often reinventing or reinterpreting or updating very traditional dishes. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s great, and I love some of those restaurants. It’s just a completely different approach.
While Michele does take some creative license with some dishes, he’s not trying to reinvent Tuscan food. He’s trying to do very traditional food at the highest level. He brings his own creativity to some dishes, but always only in very subtle ways.
Michele: For me, there is nothing wrong with honoring tradition, I think. This is my tradition, my heritage. For me, this way of cooking is my own way of cooking. It is simple, but also refined. As long as you use the very best ingredients and you know how to prepare them, there is nothing to improve. In Tuscan cuisine these recipes have been made the same way for generations for a reason – because basically, they are perfect. There is nothing to improve. To us Italians, we think, “Why would we try to change it?” It wouldn’t make any sense.
Locanda Vini e Olii is located at 129 Gates Avenue, at the corner of Cambridge Place, in Clinton Hill.
Photography by Liz Clayman. All rights reserved.