We covered background, heritage and his son's exotic eating habits yesterday. Today we cotinue our chat with Christopher Nicosia of Sassi.
Nicosia's "garlic and Gaelic" heritage, as he put it, has contributed to why he became a chef. He took an interest in cooking at a young age, recalling once when he was around 10 and his father told him to go make scallopini, as if it were a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or something. Without fully knowing what he was doing, he said, "Ok," and went to pound and flour away. Nicosia never thought of cooking as a career until later on in life. His decision to move from Chicago and attend the Scottsdale Culinary Institute changed everything.
Playtime in the kitchen: My dad likes to cook. He had those few recipes that were really good, but he didn't have a whole lot of time and/or patience. He was a physician and on those rare days off he'd cook. He'd go buy every color pepper available and slowly poach them in olive oil and we'd have that with a steak or ribs. He liked to, but didn't want to focus on the technique. He just wanted to play in the kitchen. I never really got the chance to cook for him - he died 11 years ago and I had just got out of culinary school. We always cooked at home, but that's one thing I really wish I could do is cook for him at this level. He'd be here every night.
Hobbies other than cooking: Hunting and fishing - love it, love it, love it. I wish I had more time to do it.
After the jump: Nicosia explains what expense simply can't be spared when if comes to Italian cooking.
A family that eats together, stays together: My family is everything to me. Growing up we would spend hours around the dinner table. My mom is a fabulous cook, so that made it a lot easier. We would just sit there all night long. The one rule was: just come home for dinner. A lot of people don't have that rule anymore and it's so important to just talk around the dining room table. Don't sit at the coffee table. The dinner table is a sacred place. No matter who is with you, come home for dinner. We always had extra people. My mom always cooked. There were only five of us, but there were always extra people because my mom is a fabulous cook.
A worldly palate: We traveled everywhere - my mom and dad traveled even more than we did. So when they went to New Orleans, my mom would get into a Cajun craze and she'd have to come up with all these Cajun dishes. And then they'd go to Argentina and come back and she'd have to make chimichurri.
When cooking Italian food at home you should: Have three things: sea salt, good olive oil - we use the local Queen Creek olive oil - and then fresh herbs. Have a small herb garden. It makes such a huge difference. Finish your dish with fresh herbs. It gives another dimension to whatever you're making, plus it's always fun to be able to say, 'I grew this.'
As for the Italian chefs on the Food Network: Mario Batali - that's one that's done a great job with authentic Italian food and really bringing that concept and that philosophy to the masses. Just like what Julia Child did with French cooking back in the 60s. Nobody knew anything about it and she introduced it to everybody and made everybody think it was really easy and fun to do. And Mario has done the exact same thing with Italian. He really does bring the authentic to the table so to speak.
Personal chef heroes: I think Mario would be one. Local, in the Valley, I've always looked at Robert McGrath as kind of a mentor of mine. I recently just got to know him. We never were really introduced or got to know each other. Since Christmas we've gotten a couple chances to chat. You know, he gave me his cellphone number - it's like, "Whoa! A Beard winner gave me his number." Renegade is a fantastic place. He has a little show called Check, please! now too.
If not Sassi, then: Where we used to always go for Italian food was Casa Mia. I don't even know if it's there anymore. It started out really small - that was at Frank Lloyd Wright and Via Linda then they moved further east to Scottsdale Mountain area and I think they're still there. The service there was always great. We always felt like we were at home.
"Wanna buy some windows?" The sales job I had was the worst. I was selling home improvements. We were selling windows and the company manufactured. All of the leads were done by telemarketers, so you'd have go to the office and get your leads first. This job didn't last for very long. I started to focus on catering. You'd go to office and get your leads and I'd be sent to Crown Point, Ind. You'll tell anyone anything to get them off the phone, so three hours later you're talking to someone who has no recollection of talking to the telemarketer and then you'd be expected to go knock on doors. It was just ridiculous. For some people, that's their thing and some of them did very well. It was not for me at all.
Watch your flame height: Every time flames shoot out of the pan really high, everything tastes like burnt oil to me. I have this aversion to that. When I see someone throw something that's too hot into a pan and I see all these flames, I get livid. I will make them do it over because when I taste it, I can taste that burnt oil - it's awful. In Chinese cooking with a wok, you really want it nice and hot, but then again they have those big curves, so it doesn't really catch on fire, so you get what they call the breath of the wok. You have that flavor that's from the oil being able to get so hot and not igniting. That's the design of the cooking vessel.
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Worst guest modification/request: I don't look at it that way. I just came from the club atmosphere, which I had worked in for 10 years. I'm all about accommodation. If they want ketchup, I'm going to give them ketchup. They bought it; it's their dish now, if they want ketchup - if that's all it takes for them to be happy and say they'll come back, here's your ketchup sir. I think some people get so caught up in it and so arrogant.
Yes man: As you can see, this place is like a beautiful villa - I want people to feel like they're my guest in my home and I'm going to do whatever it takes to make them happy and it's really something I carried with me from being in the club atmosphere at Desert Mountain because it was an extension of their homes. I was running our Italian restaurant up there, but there was this group of people who would come in day in and day out asking for chicken-fried steak. It got to the point where every other time they'd come in, I'd be making them chicken-fried steak at an Italian restaurant, but they loved it, I had the stuff to make it, so why not? It was really rough at first here trying to get my staff on board with that. I think they've just warmed up to the fact that I'm not going to say no if we don't have to. We want to build that loyalty. A little bit goes a long way.
Best compliment: Better than my mom's...shhhh, don't tell. There are world travelers who tell me this is the best dining experience they've ever had - that really means a lot, especially coming from Desert Mountain. A lot of them are from Europe.
Tune in tomorrow for Nicosia's recipe for Black Fettucine with Rock Shrimp.