The sprawling Italian style villa that is Sassi looks like something out of a movie. You almost expect an old-school, mustached Italian proprietor to swing the door wide open and welcome you in with a kiss on either cheek. Come to find out, the guy who runs things at Sassi is nothing of the sort. While he is half Italian, Christopher Nicosia, the executive chef at Sassi, hails from Chicago. We got a chance to sit down and chat with him in what they call "the library" at Sassi. Nicosia may not have a thick Italian accent but his Midwestern charm was certainly welcoming. A decade at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale have developed a different sort of character in him that we don't necessarily see in every chef. From the bountiful family meal we witnessed him create for his staff to the respectful response he gave us when asked about what he thought of Olive Garden, this guy has not lost his Midwestern roots.
Spoons instead of stethoscopes: I was going to be a physician like my father and my grandfather and then in my junior year of college I just decided I didn't want to do that anymore. I switched to psychology and specifically animal behavior. I wanted to go and be a field researcher and write and contribute to National Geographic, so I was an English literature and psychology major- that's what I finished with. I realized the fun part of the job - all the gathering of data and being out in the field was just 25 percent of it - the rest of it was being behind a computer. Crunching numbers, doing statistics - that didn't interest me at all, so I didn't really follow through with any of that. I graduated and got a job in sales in Chicago. I hated that job, but I was always catering as a hobby.
Nicosia shares his secret to a great meatball after the jump.
Clambakes at the Cape: In college I went to work at a friend's restaurant in Cape Cod just for the summer. I was cooking there and I took what I was learning there back with me. I started catering and doing clambakes for people. We always had a ball with it. After about a year of still doing that as a hobby, my dad said, "Why don't you research culinary school?" And I said, "Not a bad idea." In the meantime he had all of his friends who had ever been in the restaurant business call me and tell me how horrible it was - how hard it was...maybe I didn't know what I was getting myself into. A year later lo and behold, I was still catering and all that. My dad said, "Alright, tomorrow if you had your choice to go to any of those schools you researched, where would you go?" And I said, "Well, I guess tomorrow it would be Scottsdale." He said, "Get on a plane tomorrow; go to Scottsdale; get enrolled; find a place to live. It's obvious that's what you should be doing." And I fell in love with Arizona, with the Valley.
Italian/Irish: My father's family is Sicilian. My mother's side is Irish. I say I'm garlic and Gaelic or the McWhopper.
You ultimate Italian feast: Simply roasted whole fish with good olive oil, herbs and lemon. A pasta with anchovies, oil and garlic - that's a nice Italian meal. Simple is best - that's the Italian way really.
A place of your own: Not sometime soon. In 2005 I moved back to Chicago to do just that and after a year and a half of working on it, I hadn't even hammered the first nail. Obstacle after obstacle kept popping up. It just didn't work. We knew the day we left Arizona that it probably wasn't the right thing to do. The house we bought in Illinois fell through that day. All of our stuff was already on its way. Everything took twice as long and was twice as expensive because of the restaurant and finally, when we drew the last straw, it was like ok, let's move back to Arizona. It wasn't really meant to be. When we moved back, we moved back into the same house we moved out of a year ago. I was working at Desert Mountain as a chef for many years before that and they offered me my old position back, almost like no time had passed. So a year and a half later, I wake up in the same bedroom, putting on the same uniform - that's how I knew it was really meant to be. This is home. We love it here.
Respect for Olive Garden: It definitely has its place. It's not really the type of food we do. People get confused when they come in here. They think they're going to get a lot of veal parmesan or spaghetti. It's just a different style. That's more Italian American - the stuff that was born in New York. What we try to do here is stick with the more authentic southern Italian way of dining - simple ingredients, nice and fresh. We try to source out the best seafood and treat it simply. Olive Garden does very well. How can you really say anything? They definitely have their place and good for them.
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One good little eater: Hiro Sushi is number one on my list. That is my all-time favorite. My 8-year-old son - that is his favorite restaurant. He didn't start out being a great eater, but he'll try anything. His favorite is tobiko, the flying fish caviar; he likes the spicy yellowtail role; he loves eating the fried shrimp heads. One of my proudest moments was when he was like five years old and he looked at me from across the table and said, "You're right dad, the eyes do taste like popcorn."
The secret to good a meatball: Make sure you use some filler, some bread soaked in milk. That's what makes the meatball nice and soft, not really dense. You have to put that in. Some people call it filler, some people call it cheating. It does stretch the recipe out a little bit, but it's also very necessary.
Most memorable meal: The most memorable meal I have had was in South Africa. We were there hunting and you know there is a connection you have when you pull something out of the water or shoot it out of the sky and now 12 hours later it on a plate in front of you. There was this lady - she digs this hole in the ground, builds this fire and makes this amazing bread in this hole in the ground, cast iron Dutch oven. We were sitting at card tables. It was this panoramic scene overlooking this valley and we were eating guinea fowl. It was tasty - it might not have been the best meal, but that entire experience will stand out in my mind forever.
Come back tomorrow to find out the three items everyone should have when cooking Italian food at home.