Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bits & Morsels

Crostone Siciliano – Ceci Purée and Sicilian Bresaola di Tonno at Bellavitae.

If you are craving authentic Italian food
head on down to Bellavitae, located at 24 Minetta Lane. First, a quick history lesson: Minetta Lane follows the path of Minetta Brook. In the early 1800s the brook was redirected underground, and this charming village alley is a reminder of its route. Ok, back to Bellavitae: In a city filled with too trendy trattorias, Bellavitae is above and beyond. The food is simple yet refined and delicate.

What I love about Bellavitae is that it is low-key and reasonably priced, yet the food is crafted from high quality Italian ingredients. I like sitting at the Chef’s Bar and ordering a few small plates to sample.

On this particular Sunday evening, I started with the Bruschetta with Bresaola di Tonno and a luxurious chickpea puree. The Tuna and the chickpeas are an interesting flavor combination and an excellent showcase for the quality extra virgin olive oil. Next, I had the cod, baked with tomato sauce. The tomato sauce was especially fresh (and a beautiful bright red hue), perfect for mopping up with some crusty bread. The decor is simple and clean; the walls are decorated with vibrant photographs of local italian grapes and a selection of Fortuny lamps.

The view from the chef's bar.
I sat down with owner Jon Mudder and Bellavitae's passionate chef, Raffaele Ronca.

What does Bellavitae mean?

JM: It’s a play on words. We actually made the word up. If you look at the word, there is a Latin AE that’s combined at the last letter. If it’s just the A, as in Bellavita ... that means beautiful life. If it’s just the E, as in Bellavite ... it means beautiful vine. So if you see the AE together, it’s kind of a pun. Beautiful life, beautiful grapevine.

When did you open Bellavitae?

JM: We opened December 23rd 2004.

Wow. I thought this was a newer restaurant.
Owner Jon Mudder and chef Raffaele Ronca.
JM: We always have stayed under the radar screen. We don’t put out PR releases and we are looking to develop a certain kind of clientele. PR just brings everyone in that may or may not appreciate what we are doing. We want this to be a special place. Mainly for people from Italy or people that travel to Italy. Those are the folks that are really connected to Bellavitae

RR: Those that have been to Europe ... they really know the flavors of Italy. They can recognize that this is authentic Italian. This is basically home cooking.

Raffaele working Bellavitae's brick oven.
What is your most popular dish?

JM: I would say it's a pasta dish called Cacio e Pepe. It’s a Roman dish. It’s made with three ingredients and it’s probably our most difficult dish to make consistently because it’s so simple.

Our chicken has also turned into a real signature dish. We take a Cornish hen and completely de-bone it. It has no bones except for two bones on top. Raffaele puts some Italian herbs on it and it’s roasted in a very hot brick oven.

How did you come up with the chef’s bar?

JM: When we bought the place the oven was there and we built the chef’s bar. We wanted a place where people could gather and eat. Honestly, one of the things that I don’t really care for in New York are people that eat at the front bar. I like the bar to sip wine and eat finger food. We use the front bar as our holding area. So if people want to eat in a bar setting they can eat at the chef’s bar and watch Raffaele cook and have that kitchen experience.

Chef, do you cook at home?

RR: I like to try things at home. I am always thinking constantly about food because I love to cook. When I am by myself and I have my quiet time I just come up with things. The other day I had some time on my hands to make my kitchen really dirty so I made some fresh dough. I made pizza and I put some eggs on it.

That sounds delicious.
Polpettine Fritte – Fried Little Meatballs. Sformatino di Melanzane – Layers of Baby Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Tomato Sauce from the Brick Oven.
RR: It was really runny and really tasty. I am always thinking about Bellavitae. When I want to add a new dish it has to be well thought out. You have to think how am I going to make it work? What is it going to add to my workday?

Once you have a menu and it’s set, things run themselves in a way. Once you explain to your team how to do it, it’s easy. Also on the creative part you can feel a little distant. So I like to always think about food and to cook because it keeps me motivated and excited. To be excited you have to always a be in a creative mode otherwise everyone gets bored. That’s why I like cooking. Once I get the flavors combined the way I want it ... I just get so excited.

JM: What‘s interesting about Italian cooking is that it’s so simple. Simple is difficult especially in a restaurant setting because if there are only 3 or 4 ingredients in a dish, the balance has too be perfect. Raffaele has this talent of being able to find the perfect balance. Food doesn’t come from a factory, it comes from mother nature. The recipes have to change with the seasons to keep that balance.

Behind the chef's bar.
RR: It’s not just the produce, but it’s the way you are cooking it. If you are not focused and paying attention to what you are doing the recipe will not taste the same. Food has to be cuddled. You have to show love to it or it will not taste good.

I am allergic to oregano and I noticed you are not so heavy with the herbs, which I like.

JM: He is not a heavy-handed chef. He cooks with finesse. You want to taste the pasta and if there is too much going on ... it’s really not Italian anymore.

What restaurants do you like to go to?

RR: I tend to go to Batali’s restaurants. I like small Italian places like The Little Owl. The Little Owl is one of my favorites because it’s very intimate.

What part of Italy are you from?

RR: Napoli, but I grew up on the coast. I have a lot of experience with fish because my grandparents had a house in Sorrento. My family are all cooks. Some of them own major restaurants in Italy. I was in kitchens all my life. One of my favorite memories of my father is going down to the cantina and stepping on the grapes. My father made amazing red wine that had a sparkle to it.
Clockwise from top left: Cornaletti al Forno – Italian Peppers braised in the Brick Oven; Baccalà alla Francesca – Fresh Cod with a spicy Caper Tomato Sauce baked in Terra-Cotta; Paccheri con Sugo di Agnello – Paccheri with Lamb Ragú; Crostone Siciliano – Ceci Purée and Sicilian Bresaola di Tonno.
Tell me about the wine program at Bellavitae?

JM: We typically are attracted to small producers. We like those that are family run and have been in the business for generations some going back to the 1400s. We have deep relationships with almost all of the producers on our wine list.

Who is your favorite customer?

JM: my favorite customers are Italians. When Italians come to America the first thing they ask is where can I get a good bowl of pasta? It’s part of their culture. If Italians love what we do ... then we are doing a good job.

— Jordana Z.
The ricotta cheescake which we were sizing up for our next visit. And a cappuccino to close out the meal, before we departed with leftovers in hand ...

Comments? Contact Jordana here