Lunch With Leonardo

Posted by on July 3rd, 2011

There are a few restaurants on the Central Coast that I have been excited to write about since this food column first debuted. Trattoria Grappolo was firmly seated at the top of that list, but I struggled to begin the story. Not because it wasn’t interesting, but because head chef Leonardo Curti does so many interesting things.

Besides running a much-loved restaurant in Santa Ynez, he also caters, hosts food tours of Italy, leads adventurers into the Santa Ynez Mountains for gourmet picnics and teaches cooking classes, not to mention overseeing a growing family of five.

I couldn’t decide what I wanted to write about more. I was grateful then, when the decision was made via my editor, who snagged me an invitation to an afternoon cooking class with the Curti clan. Never one to miss a moment of awkward standing-around time before a gathering, I arrived early. But even an hour before class started, a blur of motion enveloped the kitchen, which rang with the symphony of cookware that always precedes a large meal. Around here, mealtime and consequently cooking class is a family affair.

Leonardo and family.

Leonardo prepares his classroom as his wife, Jennifer, moves quickly around a large island checking on pre-measured ingredients. His three young daughters, never far from the action, staple together recipes, fetch herbs from the garden and entertain this reporter with stories of their pets.

Camilla is the oldest and clearly the ring leader of the trio. When not helping her father with preparing the meal – she’s got big dreams of being a chef – she’s making sure I’ve got all the important information about the family straight. She tells me Leonardo’s grandpa, Alfonso, inspired his culinary endeavors, her dad has wanted to cook since he was a teenager, he met her mom at Grappolo and — lest anyone forget — the four most important people in his life are her, her mom and her sisters.

“Everything revolves around family, food and friends,” says Leonardo in an accent that leaves no doubt to the authenticity of his Italian roots. He reminds me that almost everyone in the western world starts their day with food. “Even if we are just eating bread, it’s a celebration,” he says. “It nourishes the body and soul,” adds Jennifer.

The large counter is starting to overflow with ingredients as the classroom fills up with guests and the garlic in the air means it is almost time to start cooking. Leonardo raps a wooden spoon against some pots hanging behind him, to get the attention of his 30 or so students.

Undoubtedly a showman, Leonardo keeps his audience’s gaze fixated on him with big gestures and fast talk, like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Rightly so, as what he is about to do borders on the otherworldly. Taking a few cups of chocolate chips, cream and orange liqueur, he whips together a mousse in no more than five minutes and sends it off to fridge in small cups.

He then turns to pre-cooled cups of mousse; flipping them onto a plate, dusting with cocoa, drizzling chocolate sauce and garnishing with fresh mint. It is sweet and flavorful, just like dessert should be. After standing the meal on its head and starting with dessert first, he moves on to the rest of the lunch, keeping his students dazzled with kitchen secrets.

Did you know that wonton skins make great ravioli pasta? Did you know the ridges on those ravioli are for scooping up sauce? What about the fact that beating cilantro with the back of your knife lets the flavor mix with soups better?

I didn’t know a week ago, but Leonardo wasn’t stingy with his kitchen tips. Good advice for the kitchen wasn’t the only thing in abundance at the class. We cooked our way through two raviolis, a carbonara and two styles of lentil soup, not to mention the mousse.

Leonardo brings an immense amount of skill and experience to the kitchen, but sometimes the secret to great food is knowing where to find the good stuff. His counter is stocked with fresh herbs, and an abundance of cured meats can be found around the room. One of those is pork cheek, diced and added into the carbonara. It adds a hearty crunch to the dish traditionally served with bacon.

The way he prepares some of his dishes takes American presuppositions of Italian food and twists them around. He takes the filling from what would – in most other restaurants – be spinach ravioli and boils it without the pasta, creating a dish sure to please anyone who’s weary of filled pastas that are light on fill and heavy on pasta.

Even when Leonardo does create traditional ravioli, he does it in a way that defies the expected. Using a pumpkin filling that includes spices like nutmeg, he puts together ravioli that is unmistakably Italian but at the same time evocative of American home cooking. He tops those pastas with a butter and sage sauce. Cooked until the fresh sage has started to crisp, the concoction renders a kind of wild earthiness reminiscent of a stroll through scrub-land.

With each dish, he draws his audience further in. He spoons out decadent portions of butter into his pan, and the students react like children who have just seen something naughty, giggling gaped-mouth at his lavishness. He sends dishes out into the crowd from his counter and waits for the inevitable sighs that follow. He jokes, tells stories and laughs along when his students correct his pronunciation of English words.

But his greatest trick he has saved for last: After the plates have been passed and the class draws to a conclusion, Leonardo announces that he will be serving a five-course lunch, just in case anyone was still hungry.

A long line of overflowing platters had just arrived from Grappolo’s kitchen, care of Leonardo’s brother Giorgio. First, Penne Arrabiata; aka penne pasta angry-style, a reference to the red sauce that kicks up the heat. This isn’t your grandmother’s marinara; then again, maybe it is.

Gnocchi Quattro Formaggi rounds out the pastas, served in a rich, white cheese sauce and cooked to near perfection. There was spinach cooked with garlic; an arugula, beet and tuna salad; white beans and Tagliata di Manzo, which I believe roughly translates to really great beef.

My very favorite dishes of the evening were an unbreakable tie between the Trippa alla Fiorentina and banana squash mashed potatoes. The first being a dish of tripe and tomatoes, possessing an enticing combination of texture and flavor, the latter being a creamy blend of potatoes turned a golden hue when blended with banana squash. If that wasn’t enough to excite the taste buds, it’s also infused with truffle oil.

It was all very good. I know this because instead of writing down helpful things like detailed visual descriptions or careful examinations of the taste I was experiencing, my notes consist of unhelpful scribbles like, “What amazing flavor!” or the redundant, “Goodness, that is good.” I left that day feeling like I had been ambushed by one of the great meals of my life.

Of course, this article would be a very mean trick if I didn’t live up to my motto of “try it for yourself.” Fortunately, thanks to Leonardo’s passion, willingness to share and entrepreneurial bent, your options aren’t limited to a night at his Santa Ynez restaurant, Grappolo – though that certainly won’t disappoint.

He also opens his cooking classes to the public and often for a good cause, donating part of the ticket price to charity. If an immersive Italian food and wine experience is something you’re looking for, then his tours of Italy (the next in September) are sure to excite. Leonardo invites small groups to take exclusive tours of wineries and cooking classes throughout Tuscany.

For more information on the cooking classes, email Jennifer at ljcurti@comcast.net and for more information on his tours, visit www.passionatepalatetours.com.

This article was originally published on March 17, 2011 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.