Chef Chat, Part 3: Renato De Pirro of Ristorante Cavour

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After our energetic and wide-ranging discussion (covered in Chef Chat, Parts One and Two), Chef De Pirro brought out a few of Ristorante Cavour's representative dishes, each one a gracefully calibrated balance of flavor and texture.

We began with the smoked Sicilian swordfish and eggplant involtini, a thin, dusky-colored swath of cured fish folded around burrata cheese, grilled eggplant, basil and pine nuts, sitting amid a swirl of red and yellow bell pepper sauce, and topped with a Sichuan peppercorn foam - a whimsical nautical touch, and De Pirro's nod to molecular gastronomy. The fish was lightly smoked, allowing the subtler flavor of the burrata and the vegetables to shine through, with the three peppers providing a sweet/faintly numbing counterpoint. The mouthfeel of the fish was especially noteworthy: delicate, but not so delicate that it dissolved in your mouth after two bites. Great stuff.

De Pirro takes obvious pride in sourcing his ingredients, both locally and (as much as possible) from Italy. The swordfish in this dish comes from Favignana, an island off the western coast of Sicily; the burrata comes from Apulia, or, as Chef De Pirro calls it, "the place where burrata was born."

Next up was a spaghetti with spring onions and sea urchin, nestled in a bed of pancetta cream, which you need to dig a bit to find and mix in. This deceptively ordinarily-looking dish is a sublime blend of richness and earthiness. The urchin adds a briny kick, and the pasta, so often a mere vehicle for the sauce, is just as much a star here. It's Senatore Cappelli spaghetti, another product specially imported from Italy. As De Pirro explained, the pasta is made from heirloom wheat specially grown in Abruzzi and extruded from a centuries-old bronze trafila (the mold through which pasta dough is pressed). He brought out a sheaf of the uncooked spaghetti for me to touch; the strands were as rough as sandpaper. Upon seeing my reaction, De Pirro smiled and said that the roughness of its surface was why Senatore Cappelli pasta excelled at holding a sauce. Well played, chef. Well played.

Following the pasta course came a thick chunk of Piedmontese beef with fresh berries, Vincotto sauce and sauteed asparagus, with a chaser of pickled chanterelle mushrooms. The meat was cooked almost medium, but although I typically order my beef rare I had no complaints; it was shockingly tender and had outstanding flavor. The reason, according to De Pirro, was the particularities of the Piedmontese breed of cattle, which are naturally lower in fat and calories and higher in protein and Omega 3 fatty acids. "It's basically the healthiest meat you can find," he chuckled. This particular beef comes not from Italy, but from a herd in New Jersey.

To end the meal, De Pirro brought out a simple Moscato zabaglione in a teacup, with a rich chocolate sauce floating on top. As I dug out each ethereal spoonful of custard, the chocolate flowed downward, following the dictates of gravity and covering each successive bite with a progressively thinner layer of chocolate. I would like to say that the chocolate lasted until the last bite but that would have required more self-control than I possess. It was a deeply satisfying end to the meal.

I would return to Ristorante Cavour in a heartbeat. The intimate setting is perfect for special occasions, but it'd be just as good for an old-fashioned nice dinner out. It's showy, but not stuffy or pretentious, and while the prices are high, they're not unreasonable. You'd pay as much or more at many other restaurants in town.

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