A series of cushy consulting gigs in the '90s convinced the Italian chef Cesare Casella to settle down here for good. He had started out at his parents' restaurant in Tuscany, where he earned a Michelin star, and when ...
A series of cushy consulting gigs in the '90s convinced the Italian chef Cesare Casella to settle down here for good. He had started out at his parents' restaurant in Tuscany, where he earned a Michelin star, and when he came to New York, he brought his talents to Coco Pazzo, the seminal and glamorous Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. In the following years came Beppe, Maremma, and other projects. Now, he's got Salumeria Rosi on the Upper West Side, a small restaurant where you drink wine and eat small plates and salumi, and Il Ristorante Rosi, an elegant spot for the Madison Avenue crowd where the chef can revisit a lot of the cooking that made him famous. In the following interview, Casella talks about coming to New York, why he's always got rosemary in his pocket, and what he does at his restaurants.
Can you tell me about coming to New York in the early '90s.
I used to have a restaurant in Lucca.
Yes. I grew up in the restaurant. My life was only about restaurants and cooking, since I was four-years-old. I went to cooking school, and after that I became more involved with the restaurant and we got a Michelin star and all that. I started having lots of American customers, so I would visit here.
I got offered jobs here, but I said "no." I did say yes when they asked me to come consult once a month, since that sounded cool. Where I was was mountains, rosemary, and cows. Little by little, I started coming to New York more, until I took the job at Coco Pazzo. Then came Maremma, Beppe, and all of that.
What was it like cooking back then compared to now?
It was completely back different then. The '90s was so different. I would go back home and tell my friend, "You know who was here this week? Oh, Madonna, the Stones was there, Frank Sinatra." My friend would call me a bullshitter. Then I would go back the next month and tell him, "Oh, I saw Bruce Springsteen, Kennedy, et cetera." Every time I would visit he would ask me, but I stopped, because he would just tell me to go fuck myself and that I was lying.
After a few months, though, my friend who worked in Italian TV came to New York to do a program on famous Italians living outside Italy. I wasn't famous, but he was my friend. He came in on the night before Shirley MacLaine won the Oscar, then the day Julia Roberts came in, and the day Tom Cruise came in. So he gets all this footage of these stars, so the show becomes basically all about me! [laughs] Then my friend noticed.
Working here back then was like a high every day. It was all new to me. I had been working in the mountains and suddenly I was flying on the second floor of the TWA plane and a car would pick me up at the airport to take me to the hotel.
What about Italian food in the city now compared to then?
Today Italian ingredients are more accessible. When I was at Coco Pazzo, we had the best, but it was very expensive. There are so many good Italian restaurants today in New York. You can get so many great things now.
Would you say they are better now?
Yes. There are so many different ones. We have a very nice representation of Italy here. I think a lot of the places here could be in Italy and do very, very OK. You have a lot of great Italian chefs who are American.
And you're happy about that, yes?
To be the dean of the Italian Culinary Academy and see that is wonderful. I'm proud. These chefs love Italian food and and are making other people love Italian food. Look at Mark Ladner and Michael White — they are great Italian chefs. They could cook in Italy and be in the top of every guide.
How did Salumeria Rosi come about?
One night while I was at Maremma, I went to dinner with an Italian journalist friend of mine and a man I found out was the owner of ROSI PARMACOTTO, the company that makes these very good products. We talked and quickly realized we wanted to do something similar, and we started working on this.
The idea is very simple and very old: the