Saturday, June 23, 2018
Cooking

The Dish: Sea Salt owner and chef Fabrizio Aielli on Italian food in America, fresh ingredients and more

Fabrizio Aielli wants people to know that Italian cooking is more than long pasta swimming in red sauce.

"In the past people thought spaghetti and meatballs or linguini Alfredo defined Italian food. Heavy sauces covered in garlic and cheese," he said. "But this is not Italian food."

On Nov. 6, at his restaurant Sea Salt in St. Petersburg, Aielli is hosting one of seven Immersion Dinners being held around Tampa Bay in conjunction with the Dalí Museum's current food-focused exhibit "Ferran Adria: The Invention of Food." The sold-out dinner will have a carnival theme that aims to celebrate Aielli's home city of Venice, Italy, and to show diners what, exactly, Italian food can be: Nitrogen popcorn and kumamoto oysters will reflect a foggy day in Venice; a mini cone of peanut butter foie gras and a glass of rose brut champagne will transport guests through St. Mark's Square; seafood and black ink risotto will nod to the city's famous waterways.

The chef behind the Sea Salt restaurants in St. Petersburg and Naples moved to the United States with his wife, Ingrid, in 1992. He has owned restaurants in Washington, D.C., moving to Naples in 2007 after being invited to cook at the Naples Winter Festival and falling in love with the city. The couple now divide their time between St. Petersburg and Naples, where their first Sea Salt restaurant thrives and where they also own the more casual Italian trattoria Barbatella.

The 53-year-old chef recently talked to the Times about what inspired his food journey. Because of his strong Italian accent, Aielli asked to respond to our questions via email. Here is an edited version of his responses.

You've worked in the food industry since you were 14. What attracted you to the kitchen?

Like many chefs, my mother and home cooking and the summers I spent at my grandparents' farm in the countryside. As a boy, I was so inspired by the beauty of fresh ingredients and everything you can do with them. My first jobs were in restaurant kitchens after school and during the summers. Then I began traveling and working at fine restaurants around the world.

Do you have a favorite food?

I love sea urchins and white truffles. Although my favorite may change every day.

What's your least favorite food?

Liver. Any kind of liver.

What are your thoughts on Italian cooking in the U.S.?

There is a lot of excellent Italian food in the U.S., primarily because you are now able to get quality, authentic ingredients here. We are also fortunate to have many great Italian chefs who have moved to this country. You just have to use your imagination to reproduce the view of the Venice lagoon.

What's an ingredient you couldn't cook without?

Salt, of course, and olive oil.

What misconceptions do American home cooks have about cooking Italian food? Many people think it must be loaded with garlic to be Italian.

This is not Italian cooking. The use of garlic is Italian-American, created in America. In Italy we do not use too much garlic. For authentic Italian cooking you have to pour a glass of wine, cook with three to five ingredients, keep it simple, fun and don't forget the liquid gold: olive oil.

Who does the cooking at your home? What's a typical meal?

I do most of the cooking at home. We keep it simple. Different pastas, baked fish, veal Milanese with arugula and tomato, or buffalo mozzarella and tomato. On Sundays, Ingrid makes the best braised chicken ever.

Be honest. Are you a closet fan of fast food: Big Macs and Whoppers?

Absolutely no fast food! But I am a very big fan of good pizza.

Are you a fan of any TV cooking shows?

Chef's Table with Massimo Bottura. One day, when I'm not in the restaurant kitchen, I would like to be in a show like that. It gives me goose bumps with how real it is. These shows help people understand the flavor, the complexity of the food and dishes we create. To a chef, food is not just food, it's who we are.

How do you approach a menu? Say you're entertaining at home.

It depends on the occasion and the season. A summer menu will be very different from a Christmas menu. I like to go to the market and start by seeing what's fresh today and which ingredients excite me.

What if you weren't a chef. What would you be doing?

If anything, teaching kids how to become chefs.

Know a chef, caterer, cookbook author, journalist or other local food and drink purveyor we should interview for this feature? Email food editor Michelle Stark at [email protected] or Irene Maher at [email protected]

Comments
Enjoy Israeli Couscous, Swiss Chard and Peppers warm or at room temperature

Enjoy Israeli Couscous, Swiss Chard and Peppers warm or at room temperature

By Katie WorkmanIsraeli or Mediterranean couscous are tiny balls of toasted semolina pasta that plump up when cooked into toothsome, slightly less tiny balls of pasta. They make a great base for a side or salad. You can make the couscous according to...
Published: 06/22/18
Here’s the skinny on the ketogenic diet: What it is, how to follow it properly

Here’s the skinny on the ketogenic diet: What it is, how to follow it properly

It started with jugs of olive oil and cans of tuna, lots of it, which my husband hauled in one day and plunked on the counter. "That’s my lunch!"That was about three months ago, and every day since there has been a new entity in our house to consider...
Published: 06/20/18
Five ideas for rainbow-themed foods to serve at your Pride party

Five ideas for rainbow-themed foods to serve at your Pride party

More than 50,000 people are estimated to attend Pride weekend in St. Petersburg, which runs Friday to Sunday. (June is LGBTQ Pride Month.) Whether you plan to march in the parade or host your own smaller gathering, we’ve selected five rainbow-themed ...
Published: 06/20/18
My husband has been on the ketogenic diet for three months. Here’s how he does it.

My husband has been on the ketogenic diet for three months. Here’s how he does it.

This week I wrote about something with which I have become very familiar: the ketogenic diet. If you’re like, "Huh?" you are where I was three months ago, before my husband, Phil, embarked on the weight-loss regimen. The keto diet is a high-fat, low-...
Published: 06/19/18
Updated: 06/20/18
A perfect pick for dessert

A perfect pick for dessert

America’s Test KitchenIt might seem impossible to improve on a perfect peach, but we decided to try. We wanted a simple, warm dessert that amplified the peaches’ flavor. To achieve tender, flavorful peaches with a lightly sweet glaze, we began by tos...
Published: 06/19/18
Everything you need to know about marinating meat

Everything you need to know about marinating meat

For a lot of home cooks, marinating meat is almost as automatic as cooking the meat itself. Douse the meat in some kind of flavored liquid, pop it in the refrigerator overnight and cook it the next day.Seems straightforward enough, but there are reas...
Published: 06/19/18
Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

When we started seeing ads for Nestle Toll House cookies already baked and prepackaged, I knew it was time for our tasters to get involved. They are cookie lovers, and one even has his own cookiemaking business. We found the Nestle brand and had hope...
Published: 06/18/18
Take grilled potatoes to another level with garlic and rosemary

Take grilled potatoes to another level with garlic and rosemary

By AMERICA’S TEST KITCHENGrilled potatoes are a summer classic. We wanted to put a new spin on this dish by adding rosemary and garlic. Unfortunately, we found it was difficult to add enough flavor to plain grilled potatoes. Coating the potatoes with...
Published: 06/13/18
Recipe for Stuffed Beef Burgers

Recipe for Stuffed Beef Burgers

Hidden inside these tame-looking burgers is a smoky and spicy blend of bacon, chipotle, cheese and something unexpected: pepperoni. Because the ground beef part of these burgers is patted fairly thin, there’s less of a chance you’ll undercook it. For...
Published: 06/13/18
How to cook eggs for dinner: shakshuka, carbonara and more

How to cook eggs for dinner: shakshuka, carbonara and more

Eggs are an underutilized dinner ingredient. Aside from fried rice and a breakfast-for-dinner situation, I rarely use eggs in my cooking past the hour of 4 p.m. It makes no sense. Eggs are a great source of protein, able to be cooked in myriad ways, ...
Published: 06/12/18