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Giorgio Felicin and the Art of Simplicity

December 10, 2015 | Frank Bonanno

The best compliment I can pay a dish is to call it simple. Simplicity is so. Beautiful.

In 1999 I had a life-changing, career-changing stage at Felicin & Sons in Alba. My three months there taught me, among other things,  the Beauty of Simplicity.
There were no “stations” in the Felicin kitchen; all the cooks worked together on each task as the day unfolded. First thing in the morning, we all arrived in the kitchen to make bread together. Every day the breads changed a little, but the lineup was essentially the same: baguettes, olive bread, dinner rolls of various flavors. We mixed dough literally by hand, kneading and folding in our spots along the work table, forming whatever shapes the evening called for, then baking them as a whole.

After bread, we’d move on to pasta, as a team, a brotherhood of cooks. Giorgio, the father in the name Felicin and sons, had a signature agnolotti del pline that we formed daily. While most of us set about fashioning the miniature priest’s hats, one of the chefs would take all the butchery trimmings from the previous day and cook it off with rosemary, thyme, and shallots. He’d splash in some red wine, give the meat a slow braise, then grind it and fold in a generous amount of parmesan. This was the agnolotti filling. Each cook got basically a coffee cup sized amount, and with the back of a spoon we’d gently stuff the agnolotti. Small agnolotti, tiny, the size of, say, the top of my son’s little finger. About 40 of tiny agnolotti comprised a single order.

Then—again as a team—we moved on to roll paparadelle, tagliatelle, tinette. So simple.

And the sauces? Later, when the pasta was served, it might be with just olive oil and garlic. Basil and butter. The agnolotti was tossed in slightly browned butter with a final squeeze of lemon and a whole lot of parmesan. At Felicin I learned a truth I carry with me always: the point of a pasta dish not the sauce but the pasta.

After we rolled all the pasta shapes, papa Giorgio would start lunch preparation for the cooks, and it was pretty much the same every day—a nice salad of arugula (or some other lettuce from the garden) with really good olive oil and lemon. He also made the same pasta for us every day: bucattini. He’d take fresh garlic and chiles just smashed and thrown into the pan and brown them in a really good olive oil, then tossed in the bucatinni and finished it with breadcrumbs. Red and white wine, some cold beer and that was the daily family meal. How great does that sound right now?

After lunch it was time for nap. This concept was a hard one for me. The first week, I was so excited to be there, I couldn’t nap. What a revelation when the Italians started arriving to dine around 9. Usually, our last guests came in around 11, and this was for a 6-9 course pre-fixe menu. It was not uncommon to cook until 2-2:30 in the morning. After a week, I started taking that nap.

We’d come return from naps to finish prepping for dinner, and around 6 o’clock eat another meal—nothing to drink with this one, just some light food to give energy for the night.

What we prepared for our guests and what we dined on ourselves was so elegant, so beautiful, so simple. The cooking philosophy was all about using truly fresh, wonderful ingredients and understanding how to enhance the flavor rather than interfere with it. Even the fish was spectacular, and this was not a coastal town. Barramundi, prawns, scallops, bream.  For meat there was lamb or beef–not the homogonous, flavorless kind you might find in a grocery store, but the products of grass and hay.

The service was another thing of beauty. So much happened table side. Bisteca was brought out whole and thinly sliced on the gueredon, then prepped for the table. Such an act of visual foreplay to see the juices in the meat and smell the rich headiness of garlic and beef. I love table side service.

The kitchen staff was so, what’s the word? Happy. They just wanted to be there, cooking, in any capacity. No one spoke English, and I certainly don’t speak Italian–but food is a language of its own, and we were working toward a common goal. Everything was clear through the acts of cooking and laughter.

The beauty of a communal kitchen is what I envisioned in Luca. The simplicity of wonderful ingredients never over-worked or tampered with–rather showcased to best effect. I wanted a pasta section on the menu, with sizes and shapes to vary daily, tossed with fine oils and crushed herbs. We’d make cheeses right there at the restaurant, cure our own meats, churn our gelato and bake our breads. Luca opened thirteen years ago, mind you, well before salumi plates were trendy–servers used to have to explain each of the meats on the plates in loving detail. They defined “suckling pig” for guests. We were the first restaurant in Colorado to offer burrata–and we made it in house. I was–I am–proud of these things at Luca, the beauty, the simplicity. Here’s the thing, though: sometimes you stray from your vision. We had a chef a few years back with such talent. Our chefs have the freedom to order any food item they want to play with–and he played. His food was fantastic, but by the time he moved on it could hardly be described as simple or even Italian. I’m cooking at Luca now, and now we’re revisiting our history, a history of both scratch cooking and innovation, a history firmly rooted in an experience I had in Alba nearly twenty years ago. I’ve been at Luca to see it through, cooking in a newly designed station, from a newly conceived menu, celebrating the coming of a New Year by culling from the past.

I’m including the menu here, because honestly: it’s simply beautiful

Luca 2016.

Here’s the instagram post of my recent pasta rolling jag at Luca: https://www.instagram.com/p/BKJ5ding6bz/?taken-by=bonannoconcepts&hl=en