There’s something of a dichotomy in Italian cuisine which values both tradition and innovation.
But Wisconsin-born celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael White won’t be straitjacketed by expectations. That’s what makes his seven restaurants in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC and Hong Kong so popular.
It’s also the underlying theme of his weighty new cookbook, "Classico e Moderno: Essential Italian Cooking," published in hardcover by Ballantine Books.
In the first half of the 400-page book, White presents Italian classics like pasta e fagioli, mushroom risotto and tortellini in brodo. Then comes the "Moderno" section.
"I sometimes joke that I suffer from a culinary identity crisis, torn between the American and the Italian in me," he writes. "Of course, the truth is that it’s not a crisis at all – it’s a joy. Being able to express myself by drawing on the Italian culinary canon is the ultimate outlet for my passion for Italy’s cuisine. I still discover something new every time I visit Italy and dine in its restaurants, and it always provides inspiration for what I’ll cook next in my restaurants."
What follows are mouth-watering recipes for dishes like pan roasted razor clams with charred corn and soppressata; seaweed pesto; and beef carpaccio with anchovy and mushrooms.
In the handsome book packed with illustrations, White also shares his own unusual story of growing up in Beloit, discovering Italian cuisine cooking with Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia in Chicago, spending seven years cooking at San Domenico in Imola, Italy, and opening his own string of successful eateries on the East Coast.
We had a chance to pitch him some questions and here’s what he had to say:
OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell us a bit about your Wisconsin roots?
Michael White: I grew up in Beloit and took advantage of all of the surroundings. I spent summers on Lake Geneva and on Port Washington on Lake Michigan.
OMC: Do you get back home to visit much?
MW: At least once a year to eat sweet corn and tomatoes in the summer or get back to the lake.
OMC: Ever think of returning to Wisconsin to open a place, say, in Milwaukee or Madison?
MW: I'd love to open an Osteria Morini in Milwaukee one day!
OMC: Your first experience in Italian cooking came at Spiaggia with Paul Bartolotta, right? What was the most important thing you learned from him?
MW: I learned taste from Paul and the importance of simplicity in Italian food.
OMC: And then you went to San Domenico in Imola. A number of Wisconsin chefs have followed that route. Is Marcantilii running something of a college for Wisconsin Italian chefs?
MW: Valentino appreciates young talent, especially hardworking Midwesterners!
OMC: Did you ever face any problems gaining acceptance as a young American in Italian kitchens?
MW: I never felt unwelcome — all kitchens are melting pots.
OMC: Let’s talk a bit about the new cookbook, "Classico e Moderno." It’s subtitled, "Essential Italian Cooking." If you could break it down to its most elemental, what are the essentials of Italian cooking?
MW: The necessity of high quality ingredients is paramount.
OMC: Italian food is something of a dichotomy isn’t it in that there is constant tinkering based on available ingredients, etc., but Italians also have a very purist streak, too, in which they want food made in a very specific way?
MW: I don't let myself get affected by the rigidity and guidelines of certain dishes.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
MW: Typically all of the pastas we make, which are handmade, are my signatures at all of the restaurants. Especially the fusilli at marea and the cappelletti at Osteria Morini, or the trofie at Ai Fiori.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
MW: I like most being able to create and least would be the hours away from my family.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
MW: I collect cookbooks! No favorites – they all serve different purposes.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
MW: Guy Fieri.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
MW: Idea sharing through technology has been amazing as has been the evolution of local products which is fostered through technology and food sharing via the internet.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
MW: My hands.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
MW: A return to the classics.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
MW: Shake Shack double double and peanut butter pink berry.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.