Chef Chat, Part 3: Maurizio Ferrarese of Quattro and His Traditional Italian Food

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Maurizio Ferrarese Quattro at the Four Seasons 1300 Lamar St. Tel: 713-276-4700 http://www.fourseasons.com

This is Part 3 of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed the previous posts, read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we've been chatting with Chef Maurizio Ferrarese, executive chef of Quattro at the Four Seasons hotel, a title that includes responsibility for overseeing the entire food and beverage operation at the hotel.

We found out that Ferrarese began his career at the tender age of 13, when he began his culinary education by commuting to a culinary school two hours outside of his hometown. We found out about his rise within the four seasons ranks, starting in London, then going to San Diego, Chicago, Hawaii, Budapest and Florence before making his home in Houston.

Today, we taste some of his food, what he calls "simple food," and food that "sticks to the traditions."

Ferrarese had me sample food in the same order that one would do so in Italy. It started with an appetizer, a thinly sliced venison carpaccio, the rounds of meat laid out in an aesthetically pleasing array, then drizzled with sea salt and olive oil, and topped with fresh berries, leaves of brussels sprouts, and walnuts. On the side were a trio of condiments, including a pink berry sauce, julienned apples and pickled fennel.

"You can pick and choose and eat it how you like, with what you like," he said when I asked him how to approach the dish.

Truth be told, the dish was so lovely to look at, it could have been the subject of a still painting. The shapes and colors, rounds and squares layered with pops of black, vivid green, pinks and reds were simply beautiful. The veal carpaccio itself was mild in flavor and very lean, but dipping it in one of the sauces, or tasting it with a tangy berry or crispy walnut, made it much more interesting than the traditional carpaccio of beef with shaved parmesan that you might see at any typical Italian restaurant.

There were two pastas for me to try, a cavatelli con anatra, or handmade pasta shells with duck confit ragout. The pasta shells were plump and slightly chewy, almost the consistency of a gnocchi, their shape reminding me of large pieces of barley. The duck ragout mixed in, and the light layer of creamy sauce, made this a hearty dish, good for larger autumnal appetites.

The lasagna, provided by special request after he told me how it was made, was divine, a huge slab of house-made lasagna bolognese, with a bolognese sauce made of Texas Akaushi beef. The thin sheets of pasta interwoven with meat sauce and ricotta had a slight crisp from being finished off in the oven. The sauce was hearty and bursting with flavor, a simply wonderful dish.

Also divine was the butternut squash risotto -- and if you love risotto, you must try the version at Quattro. The creamy rice dish took on the yellow color of the butternut squash, the rice kernels exhibiting the slight bite which is the the mark of a perfectly prepared risotto. Topped with braised duck to offset the slight sweetness of the butternut squash, it showed off Ferrarese's mastery of this specialty from his homeland.

I had my eye on the veal osso bucco, elaborately served on a rectangular wooden plate inside a cast-iron mini cauldron. Served on top of a creamy polenta and topped with vegetables and shaved black truffles, it was tender and melt-in-your mouth, the addition of black truffle enhancing the already fragrant stewed meat with an added layer of earthy fragrance. To top it all off, the bone marrow had been separated from the meat, and was served standing next to the mini-cauldron so you could easily scoop out the marrow at your leisure.

As much as I loved the more elaborate dishes, it was the simplicity of a well-executed rotisserie chicken that I enjoyed the most during our tasting. The flavors of the moist chicken, which had been finished off with a glistening brown, honeyed glaze, were almost my undoing. Think of drippings from the pan that are so thick they're caramelized -- that was the flavor you got when you bit into the piece of chicken. Served with a freshly crisp, summer salad, it was like something your Italian grandmother would make, modest in terms of the ingredients but transformed through the art of cooking.

As if that wasn't enough, we still had the grand finale in the form of The Quattro Signature Dessert. A large rectangular plate was served with four different items -- a coffee affogato, a cannoli, fresh fruit, and chocolate covered marshmallow -- then finished off tableside with a flourish of four flavored sauces splashed on the plate in an abstract design. If you order the Signature dessert, you not only get sweet somethings but a mini tableside show, too.

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