Monday, August 23, 2010
Last month I heard some depressing news from my friend Nancy Jenkins. She told me that our good friend Salvatore Denaro had closed his restaurant Il Bacco Felice in Foligno. It’s hard to explain in words how great this place was. In theory it was just a small enoteca, with about eight tables crowded together. But I’ve had some of the best meals of my life there.
Much has to do with Salvatore himself. Full of energy and enthusiasm for life and for food, Salvatore (who is from Sicily) would welcome you in as if you were family and were coming home after a long trip. And just for you, he had prepared your favorite meal (even if you didn’t know yourself what that was).
I would love to share recipes with you, but they would seem absurdly simple. A grilled steak drizzled with olive oil. Panzanella made with old bread. Cannilini beans dressed with sage and cracked black pepper. But what made these dishes so extraordinary was the attention Salvatore paid to the ingredients themselves. What didn’t come from his own orto, he sourced out meticulously, only using what he considered to be the best. But there was nothing fancy about it. You wouldn’t find ancient balsamic vinegar or fleur de sel or any other ‘gourmet’ ingredients. Instead a bowl of olives brought to the table would be briny and salty and, well, just the best olives you’ve ever had. A pesto would reach new levels when he substituted pistachios brought up by a friend from Sicily for pine nuts.
So you can see why I was so sad about his closing Bacco Felice. The reasons for the closing seem complicated (Salvatore has never been good with money) and his future seems a bit hazy. He was cooking at a restaurant in Spello over the summer, but that didn’t work out. He’s currently staying at Caprai, doing I’m not so sure what. And he says he is heading to NYC to do a stint at Sara Jenkins new restaurant. But in any case, he was happy to let me know a friend had just opened a new place in Bevagna, Trattoria di Oscar (will post on that in the next few days) and met us there for lunch.
The meal was superb. But the highlight? A crate of heirloom tomatoes Salvatore brought me from, fresh from his orto. While Salvatore may have lost his restaurant, and doesn’t have a home at the moment, he still manages to maintain his very large vegetable garden. I was sorry we didn’t have time this week to stop by and eat lunch there, amidst the zucchini, but was very happy to create my own version of Salvatore’s tomato salad back here at home.
Heirloom Tomato Salad
Ok, so it seems like a non recipe. But all of Salvatore’s recipes are like this. The trick, of course, is in the ingredients. This is what you do with truly super wonderful incredible ripe tomatoes.
Core tomatoes and then cut in half inch slices. Lay carefully on a large platter. (Do not cut in chunks and put in bowl: I’ve had so many horrible mushy tomato salads prepared this way. The tomatoes lose all their juice and just turn into a mushy mess).
Drizzle with olive oil, salt generously and top with chopped basil. Do everything at the very last minute (Yes, mom, this means you. You cannot prepare this in the morning so it’s ‘ready.) Enjoy!