A version of this article first appeared in Edible Sarasota, Spring 2010
They say people will move mountains for love, certainly they cross oceans. Andrea Bozzolo, Creative Chef/Owner of Andrea’s restaurant on Siesta Drive, came to Sarasota as proof of that statement. His girlfriend, soon to be wife Ismini, had moved to Sarasota to be closer to her parents – and wanted to stay. Although Andrea’s restaurant, Antica Osteria Di Cossogno on Lago Maggiore in Italy was gaining recognition, and unbeknownst to him about to receive a Michelin star, he packed it all up to seek a new venture here in Sarasota, Florida.
Andrea is a gregarious man with a twinkle in his eye and a passion for food. He wants to “teach people about food and how food is cooked.” “In Italy people eat for pleasure,” he says, “in America they eat to fill their belly.” He wants people to learn how to enjoy their food. He is full of confidence and charm. He had no fears about opening his restaurant in what many consider a non-foodie town in the middle of a recession. He knew that if he followed his own rules and style with a seasonal menu both innovative and classic, people would come.
The kitchen at Andrea’s is smaller than in his home. It is the size of some closets. In fact, the walk-in refrigerator and pantry are bigger than the kitchen! Despite its small size, it functions like the hub of a well-maintained engine. Rows of wire whisks hang on the wall, ready for immediate use. The staff, many of whom have been with Andrea for years, perform a well-choreographed dance of practiced moves. Not a movement or turn out of place, no gesture is wasted. And it is quiet. There is no frantic yelling as occurs in so many kitchens. The staff seems to intuit each other’s needs.
As my mother-in-law, Marcella Hazan says, Andrea knows how to cook! He starts with the freshest ingredients, personally going to the fish market early in the morning to choose the fish that will be on that night’s dinner special. He has made friends with local growers and producers. His balsamic vinegar is the real gold seal Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale from Modena, the kind that retails for $65 an ounce. Andrea changes his menu with the seasons and the products that intrigue him. He said that in the fall he had porcini on the menu and, if people ordered them ahead of time, white truffle. He waxes eloquent about an organic pork jowl and wishes he could serve violino, a kind of goat prosciutto. He buys 50-pound bags of flour imported from Italy at $50 a bag. Store-bought pasta is not for him. All of his bread is made in-house. He wants his diners to understand the difference that quality ingredients make. His mission is to create authentic food that follows the seasons and is a joy both to eat and to create. He doesn’t want to serve what is considered standard Italian American fare; he wants to use real Italian ingredients to make an authentic cuisine. He thrives on learning that people appreciate his food and has made friends with many of his clients. His passion spills over to all parts of the restaurant where he governs as an enthusiastic but benevolent monarch.
Andrea oversees his kingdom with pride. He visits each table at least once during dinner, wanting to know the diners’ thoughts on his creations and eagerly explaining how he prepared an item. He is in his element if he discovers that a wine connoisseur is in the house. A native of Piedmont, home to some of the most prestigious wines in Italy, Andrea has a magnificent cellar and an impressive collection of Barolos. He literally leaps from the kitchen to assist patrons in choosing the wine that will flawlessly pair with their food.
Ismini, who speaks five languages and has a degree in hotel management, runs the front of the house, and the restaurant has reservations through June. She says there is one person who has a standing reservation every two weeks for the foreseeable future. The intimate, tastefully appointed dinning room, is casually elegant; there is thought and care in every detail. The silverware and china are simple, the better to show off the food. The ten tables are far enough apart that everyone feels they have their own space to enjoy their food. On the Tuesday that I visited, the restaurant was packed. Dress varied, some in jeans and very casual, while others were elegant. Dinner starts at 5:00 and Andrea’s is one of the few restaurants in Sarasota where it is possible to eat late.
Andrea quickly grasps an idea and moves forward. He says he was a disaster at school. And one can see that he would be easily bored making the same dishes over and over again. He received classical chef training and then honed his skills as a chef on the Princess Cruise lines. A bit of a rebel, as soon as he was out of school he grew his hair long; rather than cut it, he piled it on top of his head and covered it; earning himself the name “chef artichoke” on the line. He continues his rebellious traditions in America, with an enjoyment of fast cars and his passion for creating new dishes. According to Ismini, he is always coming up with new ideas, sometimes waking her up at 3:00 am to record them so he can try them the next day. He uses his classical training and the best of ingredients then, like a consummate musician he riffs on a theme and transforms it into something uniquely his own.
I arrived at 6:30 pm and already the restaurant was bustling. I tried to find an unobtrusive place to stand in the tiny kitchen, and the first thing I saw prepared was pork belly on a sea of borlotti beans. Andrea broils the belly until it is crisp and juicy. He says he uses what the land produces for his food, and is pleased with the quality of the Florida pork. Next, there were orders for Ossobuco, served over the classic saffron risotto. I was impressed that he made the risotto to order and all’onda, slightly wavy. When someone ordered his tomato soup Andrea explained that he had found a wonderful grower from California whose tomatoes were canned at their peak. I saw a series of wonderful pastas plated and served, Maccheroni alla Chitarra, seafood pasta from Abruzzi and Vongole Veraci con Tagliolini, pasta with clams. His mussels, clams, and shrimp received the proper amount of heat, just enough to cook them but not enough to turn them to rubber. As the night wore on, a series of classic and innovative dishes emerged from the tiny kitchen. He loves parsley and uses it liberally to accent his dishes. Instead of the classic Bolognese, he had made a lamb ragu for the evening. A salad topped with pear poached in Amarone was prepared. Mashed potatoes were molded into a little mountain as the perfect resting place for small pieces of duck. The grouper that Andrea had picked at the market that morning was served with a medley of fresh seasonal grilled cauliflower, carrots, turnips, zucchini and broccoli. From out of nowhere appeared two large pieces of veal for Cotoletta Milanese, which took over the small work place. Andrea explained that he pounds the veal in the afternoon before service so he doesn’t waste precious time during dinner. The eight-burner stove was fully utilized while the prep area was constantly transformed to the needs of each individual dish. It was as if I was watching a dance of an ensemble piece of continuous, quiet movement, with Andrea as the principal dancer. There was no discussion; all of a sudden someone would slip outside to the walk-in and appear with whatever might be needed. The ballet of the kitchen concluded with desserts; a delicate strawberry flan, a lovely light Tiramisu, and a Torta della Nonna. Then… suddenly it was over. As if on cue, the staff started cleaning the kitchen, while the patrons sipped their coffees at their tables. Everything was scrubbed, so clean that you might actually be willing to eat off the floor.