A series of cushy consulting gigs in the '90s convinced the Italian chef Cesare Casella to settle down here for good. He had started out at his parents' restaurant in Tuscany, where he earned a Michelin star, and when he came to New York, he brought his talents to Coco Pazzo, the seminal and glamorous Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. In the following years came Beppe, Maremma, and other projects. Now, he's got Salumeria Rosi on the Upper West Side, a small restaurant where you drink wine and eat small plates and salumi, and Il Ristorante Rosi, an elegant spot for the Madison Avenue crowd where the chef can revisit a lot of the cooking that made him famous. In the following interview, Casella talks about coming to New York, why he's always got rosemary in his pocket, and what he does at his restaurants.
Can you tell me about coming to New York in the early '90s.
I used to have a restaurant in Lucca.
Yes. I grew up in the restaurant. My life was only about restaurants and cooking, since I was four-years-old. I went to cooking school, and after that I became more involved with the restaurant and we got a Michelin star and all that. I started having lots of American customers, so I would visit here.
I got offered jobs here, but I said "no." I did say yes when they asked me to come consult once a month, since that sounded cool. Where I was was mountains, rosemary, and cows. Little by little, I started coming to New York more, until I took the job at Coco Pazzo. Then came Maremma, Beppe, and all of that.
What was it like cooking back then compared to now?
It was completely back different then. The '90s was so different. I would go back home and tell my friend, "You know who was here this week? Oh, Madonna, the Stones was there, Frank Sinatra." My friend would call me a bullshitter. Then I would go back the next month and tell him, "Oh, I saw Bruce Springsteen, Kennedy, et cetera." Every time I would visit he would ask me, but I stopped, because he would just tell me to go fuck myself and that I was lying.
After a few months, though, my friend who worked in Italian TV came to New York to do a program on famous Italians living outside Italy. I wasn't famous, but he was my friend. He came in on the night before Shirley MacLaine won the Oscar, then the day Julia Roberts came in, and the day Tom Cruise came in. So he gets all this footage of these stars, so the show becomes basically all about me! [laughs] Then my friend noticed.
Working here back then was like a high every day. It was all new to me. I had been working in the mountains and suddenly I was flying on the second floor of the TWA plane and a car would pick me up at the airport to take me to the hotel.
What about Italian food in the city now compared to then?
Today Italian ingredients are more accessible. When I was at Coco Pazzo, we had the best, but it was very expensive. There are so many good Italian restaurants today in New York. You can get so many great things now.
Would you say they are better now?
Yes. There are so many different ones. We have a very nice representation of Italy here. I think a lot of the places here could be in Italy and do very, very OK. You have a lot of great Italian chefs who are American.
And you're happy about that, yes?
To be the Dean of Italian Studies at The International Culinary Center and see that is wonderful. I'm proud. These chefs love Italian food and and are making other people love Italian food. Look at Mark Ladner and Michael White — they are great Italian chefs. They could cook in Italy and be in the top of every guide.
How did Salumeria Rosi come about?
One night while I was at Maremma, I went to dinner with an Italian journalist friend of mine and a man I found out was the owner of ROSI PARMACOTTO, the company that makes these very good products. We talked and quickly realized we wanted to do something similar, and we started working on this.
The idea is very simple and very old: the towns in Italy would have the country general store, like the ones in Texas. These in Italy are the Alimentari or Salumeria. You can buy everything there. You can buy socks, toothpaste, pasta, condoms. It would serve everyone. In the villages, people would have a monthly check. They would keep a record in a notebook at the store and then give the person a check. It was a bank, a pharmacy, everything. As the years went by, a lot of these places started having little restaurants in the back.
What is the story behind the herbs and the rosemary you always keep in your breast pocket?
I was in culinary school, since they make you choose your profession in high school, basically. I would like to travel in my free time to other restaurants, and I saw how in France they used a lot of herbs and different plants. In Tuscany, it was just bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, and sage. So I started to use them, I started to take them back with me and plant them behind the restaurant. So I could cook with them, I put them in my pocket. We didn't have a word for herb garden in Italy, like we do "olivetto" for an olive tree, so my friend told me to call it an "arometto." Now I wear the rosemary everywhere. People expect it.
When I do events around the country, they try to find a rosemary plant in my hotel room so I have it fresh every day. If they don't have it or can't find it, I will get it shipped there. I never travel with it in my luggage. Always in my pocket. I once was stopped in the airport because they thought it was pot.
What would you say is special about Salumeria Rosi?
You can get a lot of these products around New York City. I can't say you can't. But we take very, very seriously how we cut, how we serve. It makes a huge difference when something is not fresh. You need to keep things at the right temperature, because they are still alive. You need to find the sweet spot for when you are going to serve it. When you have a salami, for example, you need to peel first, so that you don't get that flavor coming through the knife as you cut. Sometimes things can be too fresh, sometimes they can be too dry. Sometimes you need to cut thick, sometimes thin. You need to understand what gives you the best flavor.
And the newer restaurant on the Upper East Side?
It was a chance to do something else, but we just wanted it to be the same as the Upper West Side. I realized it was bigger, so why not do a restaurant? Why not do something more sophisticated, where I can express myself more in the food? I can cook lobster, scallop, truffle there.
What kind of cooking are you doing there?
I think it's traditional, but with a touch of innovation. We keep in mind the techniques, ingredients, and philosophies, but we can be a little more modern sometimes.
There I use this branzino from Tuscany, which I buy at $12 a pound. I don't make too much money on it, and I definitely can't use it on the Upper West Side.
I do the bagna cauda, but I change the name based on the season, depending on the ingredients of the moment. Some components are grilled, some are cooked, some are raw. Bagna cauda sauce is usually too heavy for the whole year, so I change it and adapt to the seasons. And the presentation is more interesting, I think.
It's going well. Most of the clientele is from the neighborhood, and they come once or twice a week. It's very important to fish them in one-by-one and make sure you don't change too much so that you are reliable. Maybe it's too early to say, but we're doing quite well, since people tend to leave this time of year.