Missy Robbins and Fortunato Nicotra: inner Italy

Ricotta gnocchi from the cook of Lilia and risotto with coffee from the chef of Felidia. The last lesson at Identità New York

Missy Robbins, chef at Lilia in Brooklyn, and F

Missy Robbins, chef at Lilia in Brooklyn, and Fortunato Nicotra of Felidia, co-authors of the last lesson at Identità New York, edition n.10 (photos from Brambilla/Serrani)

The last lesson of the 10th edition of Identità New York starts with an “old” acquaintance of ours: Missy Robbins, chef who became famous in the days of A Voce, an Italian fine dining restaurant which used to be off Madison Park. After a sabbatical year, since 2016 she’s at the helm of Lilia in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a place where, as you can read in the restaurant’s pay off, you can find «wood fired seafood, hand crafted pastas, classic Italian cocktails, and warm hospitality». For sure, they have already received many important acknowledgements, the latest of which was female chef of the year from Esquire.

«Why do I make Italian food? Simply because it’s what I’ve always done. I have Eastern-European heritage, for 5 years I trained with Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia in Chicago. Since I was 28 years old, I worked for a long time in north Italy [including at Agli Amici with Emanuele Scarello] and I’m returning tomorrow: it will be my first visit to Apulia, Sicily and Sardinia, and I am thrilled».

The lesson’s dish: Ricotta gnocchi with broccoli and pesto of pistachios. «Everyone should keep some good gnocchi under their belt, they’re a very powerful secret weapon», Robbins explains, with one of her brilliant images, «Potato gnocchi, however, are hard to make every day, every week, every month at the restaurant. It’s hard to give a consistent texture. Ricotta gnocchi, on the other hand, are easier to control, handling them it’s simpler, and they’re delicious. I use this delicious cheese from Connecticut, close to where I was born. We make them and keep them in the fridge overnight».

Ricotta gnocchi with broccoli and pesto of pistachios from Missy Robbins. Wine pairing: Chardonnay Tellus 2016, Famiglia Cotarella

Ricotta gnocchi with broccoli and pesto of pistachios from Missy Robbins. Wine pairing: Chardonnay Tellus 2016, Famiglia Cotarella

Missy Robbins

Missy Robbins

She starts to do what 6 pasta-makers repeat each day atLilia: on a cutting board, she kneads Grana Padano, ricotta, eggs, semolina and water, making a long and narrow dough, with no yeast. She pulls out a cutting board for gnocchi, with which she makes small white nuggets. Then she starts with a personal anecdote: «Before opening Lilia I didn’t feel too good: I was very tired, overweight, sad. I took a break. A friend suggested I follow the Weight Watchers method. Shit, I said. I don’t want this thing that was popular in the Nineties. I’ll do it for two weeks, I told him. If I don’t see any benefits, I’ll stop. A few days later, I really started to lose weight. It really works, I told myself. In the end, I lost 20 kilos over one year. And I started to reinforce my ability to make pasta with vegetables».

Missy’s sauce for the gnocchi is a cream of broccoli with a pesto of Sicilian pistachios, prepared in the traditional way, and with Grana Padano matured 24 months, whose characteristics Elisabetta Serraiotto describes right afterwards. «How can I tell when the gnocchi are cooked?», the chef continues, «I grew up in Manhattan. If I don’t know how…». 

Second part of the lesson: it’s now the turn of Fortunato Nicotra, of Sicilian and Piedmontese heritage, past and present beside Lidia Bastianich at the helm of Felidia, the restaurant in the Upper East Side where he arrived in 1996, later deserving 3 stars from Michelin and the New York Times and a place among the top 10 restaurants in the US according to Wine Spectator. The lesson’s topic: Risotto with Lavazza coffee and mushrooms.

Risotto with Lavazza coffee and mushrooms from Nicotra. Wine pairing: Merlot Sodale 2015, Famiglia Cotarella

Risotto with Lavazza coffee and mushrooms from Nicotra. Wine pairing: Merlot Sodale 2015, Famiglia Cotarella

Does Fortunato follow memories or innovation? «There’s nothing more to invent. If anything, we can create some small evolutions», this is his brisk reply. As for the risotto: «I prefer Superfino Carnaroli to Arborio because of the starch it releases. I usually get the mushrooms from Oregon but they’re not always available». Meanwhile, he starts with the classic sauté, toasting the rice grains without oil. Aside, he prepares a fondue of Grana Padano matured 24 months. Later he mixes it with butter and then the final touch: «I added coffee beans to the mushrooms, because they belong to the same aromatic horizon and they have various, unexpected points in common». The risotto is served in a Lavazza cappuccino cup. On top, some siphoned Grana Padano and some scales of truffle.

At the end of the lesson, he gives a good summary of his work. «The best compliment?», Nicotra points out, «when clients leave Felidia saying: I ate like or better than in Italy. In the end, this is our daily goal».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

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Gabriele Zanatta


Gabriele Zanatta

born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since 2007, he is a contributor for several magazines and teaches History of gastronomy and Culinary global trends into universities and institutes. 
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