In The Mo, a new online source for entertainment recommendations, filmed this video clip for Bellavitae over a year ago. The website is now live, and covers most major cities across the country. Check it out:
It’s been nearly six years since we signed our lease on Minetta Lane and prepared to open Bellavitae. Looking back, many of our concepts seem cliché now, but at the time, we were one of the pioneers in New York’s restaurant scene. Perhaps we were not always the first with these ideas, but Bellavitae undoubtedly influenced the city’s dining experience. The sincerest form of flattery comes to mind, as many of our original concepts are ubiquitous now, such as:
The Chef’s Bar (we called it “the sushi bar” until the day we opened)
Cooking in a wood-burning oven (although we never did pizza)
Using only seasonal, organic, and local produce whenever possible
Dishes prepared for sharing, especially appetizers, in a non-tapas restaurant
A high-quality wine selection at every price point
When the recession hit in late 2007, we immediately began to change our model to reflect the new business environment (a Wall Street background helped). I began to wear many more hats than before, and soon I was working well over 14 hours a day – every day. Over the next two years, we found ourselves in a position where, in order to continue the restaurant in our current space and within negative economic conditions, we would need either to significantly raise our prices or lower our quality – neither of which appealed to me. So in July of this year, I decided to close our location on Minetta Lane.
Our Amazing Guests
Thousands of people have visited Bellavitae over the years and, of course, scores of relationships now bless our lives. The remarkable diversity of guests who came to Bellavitae reflected one commonality: a love of good food and wine in the Italian style, prompting an almost cult following that has been simply magical.
We had the opportunity to develop friendships with many in the food and wine world; and were honored to serve numerous influential individuals, such as:
Rose Levy Bernanbaum
Anna Tasca Lanza
Mary Ellen Ward
I’ve never been star struck, but it was always fun to have famous people in the restaurant, many of whom became regulars. Previously, I respected their privacy by not publicizing their patronage, but now it seems appropriate to include them in my reminiscing:
Authors / Publishing World
Journalists / Columnists
The New York Giants
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Mary Louise Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker
Billy Bob Thornton
Occasionally we held events at Bellavitae, and three stand out:
Judy Rodgers from San Francisco’s Zuni Café held a private dinner at Bellavitae and cooked some of her favorite dishes. Her cookbook remains one of my favorites and I’ll always be grateful for her kind invitation to visit Zuni and cook for a few weeks before we opened Bellavitae.
A Night in Sicily was a memorable evening when Anna Tasca Lanza prepared dinner for guests and paired wines from the Regaleali estate with dishes that came from her various cookbooks. We named one of the dishes from that event in her honor, and the dish remained our menu’s number-one bestseller until the day we closed.
Perhaps the most memorable event was in the spring of 2007 when we invited the Tre Bicchieri winners to Bellavitae after their annual tasting at the Puck Building. We prepared a great Italian feast and they brought their award-winning wines – and what a night it was. I don’t remember the menu now, but I do remember most of those who attended, and I’m not sure there has ever been a collection of such prestigious winemakers in one place outside of Italy that wasn’t some sort of promotion. This was all about having fun. I don’t think the following is a complete list of those who attended, but it sure is an impressive one:
We simply had wonderful food, award-winning and incomparable wines, and great camaraderie. How Italian is that?
On Becoming a Chef
What I’ve learned most through our experience on Minetta Lane is how difficult it is to prepare simple food in a restaurant setting. The quintessence of traditional Italian cooking is its simplicity, along with proper technique and using the highest quality ingredients.
Eating in the Italian style is about celebrating the garden rather than “sophisticated” manipulation in the kitchen. In traditional Italian cuisine, there are no complex sauces to hide behind, no short cuts on technique, and nothing available to mask improper balance or inferior ingredients. Nevertheless, after six years, the ability to perform this challenging task consistently became almost second nature to us and it’s a skill that I now proudly think of as proprietary; it is perhaps my greatest personal asset.
There are too many individuals to thank for me to include in this post, and I hope to reach out to each person in the near future. The many people who have come into my life because of Bellavitae touches my heart and will always be a part of my soul. From staff to guests and to all of those listed above, I will be forever grateful.
I don’t think of Bellavitae as a destination, a restaurant, or even a way of life. It’s simply a way of enjoying Italian food and wine. So keep an eye on this blog, as I will continue to write about Italy’s greatest gift to the world.
So what happens next? All I can say is look for Bellavitae in the future – and look in unexpected places.
A helpful way to understand any society in history is to study its cuisine. Sicily is especially fascinating due to influence from other civilizations throughout its history. The Greeks, Phoenicians, Iberians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Angevins have all shaped Sicilian traditions, including cuisine. It wasn’t until 1860 that Sicily became a part of the Kingdom of Italy.
Over the centuries, Sicily has developed layers of interesting culinary traditions and unique flavor combinations. If you begin to study Sicilian cuisine, you will undoubtedly encounter Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza di Mazzarino, one of the important historians of Sicilian food and wine.
The Amazon.com review of her book, The Heart of Sicily, captures the spirit of Anna Tasca Lanza:
Many cookbooks tempt, inform, and inspire. A few capture the essence of a place, but rarely does a cookbook communicate the very soul of a place. Anna Tasca Lanza’s telling of life at Regaleali, the vast estate that has belonged to her family since 1830, is so vivid that you feel her sitting next to you, talking and turning the pages of The Heart of Sicily as if it were a photo album.
Tasca Lanza provides enough information about Sicily’s complex history and rich culture to help you understand the special nature of Regaleali and what her noble family – rich with barones, principessas, and contessas – has created. Under their stewardship, this working estate has become an international cooking school. It is also the place where Tasca Lanza pursues her passion for preserving the abundant culinary and cultural traditions of Sicily.
The short video below, narrated by her daughter Fabrizia, gives a glimpse of the beautiful estate:
In February 2005, after Bellavitae had been open less than two months, we asked Anna if we could feature her at a private dinner that would include recipes from her cookbooks paired with wines from the Regaleali estate. We would call it A Night in Sicily. Much to our delight, she enthusiastically accepted. She publicized the event on the Regaleali website where it remains today:
Anna Tasca Lanza, from The World of Regaleali, will be hosting a dinner at a new restaurant in New York. She will be at Bellavitae on Tuesday, February 15, 2005. There is a reception from 6:30-7:30 pm where you can meet this fabulous chef, and a dinner following at 7:30 pm. The dinner will be a special five-course menu featuring Sicilian dishes prepared from Anna’s cookbooks and will include a tasting of Regaleali Tasca d’Almerita wines and olive oil. A Night in Sicily will be a rare opportunity to meet and talk to a noted culinary authority and taste the flavors of Sicily here in the United States.
The evening was delightful. Guests enjoyed the food and wine pairings, as well as the interaction with one of Sicily’s food and wine authorities.
One dish stood out that evening, and it was the cauliflower. It was so impressive that we asked her if we could put it on our menu. She said, “Certo!” [Of course!]. In order to acknowledge the recipe’s source properly, we call it Cavolfiore ‘Anna’ [Cauliflower ‘Anna’].
By far, the most popular dish on Bellavitae’s menu is Cavolfiore ‘Anna.’ Imagine, the item most ordered at an Italian trattoria is a vegetable!
There are several Sicilian dishes that are similar to this recipe, including Pasta con i Broccoli Arriminati [Pasta – usually bucatini – with cauliflower, saffron, pine nuts, onion, currants, anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs]. But I suspect her recipe is based on a more well-known dish called Cavolfiore con l’Uvetta e i Pignoli [Cauliflower with Raisins and Pine Nuts]. Raisins and pine nuts in a dish divulge its Sicilian origin.
Anna substitutes currants for the raisins and adds caramelized onions. Genius. The flavors work exceptionally well together, and the sensation in the palate is most pleasing. The juxtaposition of contrasting flavors and textures create perfect balance. No wonder it’s so popular!
We thank Anna Tasca Lanza for her great work in researching, documenting, and promoting Sicilian culture, especially the region’s food and wine. And we think of her every time someone orders Cavolfiore ‘Anna.’
Here’s an excerpt from her biography that appears on the cooking school’s website:
I was the first of four children. Welcomed with great joy but with one regret: I was not a boy.
My family lived a very comfortable life. My grandparents were very much present along with my parents, a brother and two sisters. At the age of 15, I was sent to Lausanne to study at the école menagère Briamond, to learn how to be a good wife. It was a revelation to me: I learned many things, from embroidery to French cooking. When I came home after two years my father put me to the test immediately, asking me to prepare choux au fromage, which turned out perfectly (to my good fortune). But then nothing happened; for years I never again touched a saucepan. In the meantime I married Venceslao Lanza di Mazzarino, son of a great Sicilian noble family who was accustomed to eating international cuisine prepared by the cooks of the family, once called Monsù.
Mine was not exactly what one would call the life of an average housewife. I lived with Lanza in a huge palazzo in the center of Palermo, where nobody had any idea what went on in the kitchen and where the chef, every evening, questioned Count Fabrizio, my father-in-law, about what was wanted for the following day’s menu. None of us, and above all my mother-in-law, the lady of the house, ever set foot in the kitchen. These, as you can see, were other times!
When Fabrizia was born, we moved into our own household, and this changed our relationship with food because I suddenly found myself facing the stove. Encouraged by my parents, I set up a little cooking school at Regaleali, the family vineyards, assisted, at first, by my sisters Costanza and Rosemarie. I began to visit America, year after year, and got to know that extraordinary country where, with great freedom, everyone– young and old, women, men and children—is offered an opportunity in life. I got to know the world of people who work with food, all so generous and encouraging about my Sicilian adventure. In 1989 I had my first group of American students.
Promoting my school and our wines, I did a little bit of everything, writing several Sicilian cookbooks in English (these had great success), giving talks and demonstrations at the Smithsonian, with James Beard, at Cipriani, at the Culinary Institute of America. Perhaps the most moving thing I’ve done in my career was to give the Commencement speech at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, saluting and encouraging young Americans as they began their life as chefs.
The March/April issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine features an interesting interview with Sicilian singer and songwriter Carmen Consoli (interview only available in the physical magazine or online subscription). Here’s the last question of the interview:
What do you eat when you are on the road?
“I carry a Michelin Guide around with me everywhere I go, because I really like to eat well. In New York, I really like Bellavitae near Washington Square Park. It is an Italian restaurant with good ingredients imported from Italy.”