In The Kitchen With Cesare Casella

By Fabiana Santana

diaryoftuscanchefCesare Casella is a celebrity in the culinary world. He has written three books — Diary of a Tuscan Chef, Italian Cooking for Dummies, and True Tuscan) and has appeared on numerous Food Network shows, often with one of his best friends, Mario Batali. The chefs have helped raise money together for the Food Bank of New York City during the holidays by hosting Tuscan truffle dinners and entertaining guests with their Italian banter.

Cesare grew up in a restaurant family. His parents owned a small trattoria called Vipore in Lucca Italy. At 14, Cesare enrolled in culinary school in Montecatini and took over the kitchen at Vipore, eventually elevating it to Michelin star status. He has cooked in countless critically acclaimed restaurants since then and currently runs his Salumeria Rosi, s small rustic Italian salumeria near Lincoln Center. He also acts as the dean of Italian Studies in at the International Culinary Center’s Italian Culinary Academy, inspiring aspiring chefs in New York and in Parma, Italy to follow their passions and cook from their heart.

His cookbook, Diary of a Tuscan Chef, is a collector’s item – Batali calls it “the real thing” – and fans of the congenial chef – easily recognizable by his signature bouquet of rosemary neatly tucked into his jacket pocket – stop him to praise his work in the kitchen.

“In Italy, we have a saying, ‘a tavola non si invecchia’ or ‘at the table you never grow old. My table is always full of food and friends.”

These days, Cesare is busy getting ready for the holidays in his restaurant and at home, where an Italian Christmas feast will certainly be on the menu. “Christmas in Italy is a feast, like Thanksgiving is here. There is always antipasto, always pasta – usually lasagna. And always contorni or sides, with a big main course like a roast or lamb. Even a turkey. Celebration food.”

The multi-course meal is all about portions, he says. “Everyone should taste everything,” so portions should be generous but not gluttonous.

He says a great time saving tip is to use what is on the menu, like cheese from the lasagna or raw veggies from your sides, as snacks for guests to nosh on while they wait for dinner.

“We don’t do too much before the meal because you don’t want to fill them up. You want them to eat dinner, which starts early afternoon and lasts into the evening, but offer small things to whet the appetite.” Pair the horsderves with an apperitivo like Campari or Aperol as it helps to enhance the appetite as well.

Also, don’t busy yourself with dessert. “In Italy, the dessert every family must have is the panettone – kind of sweet Christmas bread cake. And we buy it, we don’t spend time making it because there is always something in the oven already.”

Visit Cesare at Salumeria Rosi 283 Amsterdam Ave., New York City (212-877-4800; salumeriarosi.com) or contact the Italian Culinary Academy to take one of his recreational courses.

Recipe: Cesare Casella’s Lasagna Vegetale