Saturday, September 22, 2018
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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]

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