Byline: Robert Haskell
NEW YORK — East 22nd Street has few of the rustic charms of a hillside in Tuscany: for all their aspirations, there’s nary a table at Union Pacific, Bolo, Commune or Alva at which diners can linger over a plate of pasta as the sunset pours through the windows.
And yet the Flatiron District’s densest strip of restaurants now has some of the most authentic Tuscan food in town. Beppe, chef Cesare Casella’s new eatery, was designed to evoke the farmhouse trattoria feeling of Vipore, the restaurant his grandparents and then his parents owned in the tiny village of Lucca, Italy, and where as a young chef Casella earned a Michelin star.
Beppe is his first New York restaurant, but Casella, who moved here in 1993, paid his dues at Il Cantinori and at Coco Pazzo in its mid-Nineties heyday. “There were more people in my building here than in my village in Italy,” says the chef from his perch at Beppe’s bar — where he sits in red trousers and red All-Stars, with the perennial sprig of rosemary peeping out of the breast pocket of his white chef’s coat.
“At Vipore, I knew every chicken and egg we served,” he says. “I knew every pig and cow and grew the vegetables in my garden.” A city restaurant is a different affair, and Casella learned that the hard way in Pino Luongo’s giant kitchen at Coco Pazzo. At Beppe, the chef commands every aspect of the restaurant, from the terra cotta tiles and the antique wooden floors to the heirloom beans he adores. “I’m becoming very vain about my beans,” he says. “I’m trying to arrive at the old flavors — to make it like Tuscany.”
To that end, Casella imported seeds for a great variety of beans, as well as honey and olive oil from a small producer in Lucca. The chef also spent the better part of last year upstate, “deciding who’d raise my pigs and grow my tomatoes.”
The cornerstone of Beppe’s food is cucina casalinga, the home cooking Casella learned from watching his mother at Vipore. But Casella prefers to think of his style as cucina ruspante, literally free-range cooking — which means Tuscan ideas, but recipes and ingredients that range from all over Italy and America. (It’s also part of Casella’s patrimony; his father would drive five hours to find the right mushrooms.)
The food at Beppe is free-ranging historically, as well. Casella admits to a personal romance with 16th-century Italy — where cooking got a jolt from the discovery of America, the iconoclasm of Catherine di Medici, the use of the fork and the migration of European Jews and Arabs to Livorno.
Casella’s carabaccia is a thick onion stew with a poached egg floating underneath a parmesan crust. It’s a recipe that di Medici introduced to France — along with her other famous innovation, underwear — when she married Henry II; and it’s the prototype for French onion soup.
The pontormo, a green salad tossed with pancetta and soft scrambled eggs, takes its name from the Florentine Renaissance painter Jacopo Pontormo. The maremmana is a little joke, says Casella. “It’s a plate of Tuscan spare ribs named for a region where Italians raise cows like in Texas.” The cuscusso, or couscous, might seem strange on an Italian menu. “But is was a typical food for Arabs in Livorno in the 1600s,” he says. Casella’s worked hard to turn Beppe (which is short for Giuseppe, the name of his grandfather) into a Tuscan outpost in New York. The open stone hearth, filling the restaurant with a perfume of cherry and oak, resembles the one his father used to grill steaks, and the black-and-white photos that line the restaurant’s orange walls are portraits of people eating in different villages throughout Tuscany. “I wanted to feel my people surrounding me,” says the chef.
But home is best expressed in the food. “The Tuscan idea is simple: When you have a good product,” Casella says, “cooking is easy. You cook it, you pour in some olive oil, it’s done.”