Rebecca Wilcomb talks about tortellini in brodo like a Cajun talks about okra.
Whenever the chef goes to an Italian restaurant where the menu looks promising, she orders the dish she grew up with her Italian grandmother.
“I only had one that came right after hers,” she said of her nonna’s meat-stuffed pasta balls in a tasty, light broth. It’s a dish she knows how to expect every time she gets off the plane in Trecenta, her mother’s hometown in northern Italy.
Wilcomb knew the dish would be served at Gianna, the sleek new Italian restaurant she opened in April in the Warehouse District with partners from the Link Restaurant Group. It bears the name of his nonna. Much of the rest of the menu is the culmination of years of research and contemplation as Wilcomb quietly ran the kitchen at one of the best restaurants in New Orleans, Herbsaint.
Memories created by eating dishes prepared by her grandmother Giannina Chieregati on visits to Italy and her mother Graziella’s cooking at home formed the basis of her menu. The dishes also reflect cooking styles, methods and flavors from years of tasting, testing and traveling through Italy with Wilcomb’s partners in the business: company founder and chef Donald Link, co-chefs Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt, and Heather Lolley, the Link restaurant groupdirector of operations.
“As a team we have been to Italy three times,” she said. “So a lot of the food was influenced by those meals we ate together.
“We prepare rustic Italian cuisine that is truly rooted in Louisiana tradition and ingredients. He has a sense of place. You eat rustic Italian food, but I want people to feel like they’re sitting in New Orleans. That’s what I really, really want for this place.
Cooking Italian food in New Orleans
Italian restaurants in New Orleans have evolved beyond popular Creole Italian favorites smothered in a thick, slow-cooked red sauce, with restaurants like Ristorante del Porto and Paladar 511 demonstrating the increasing variations in styles and choices.
“People have a very specific vision of what Italian is to them, and Italian is so much,” said Wilcomb. “What was important to me is that this menu reflects a lot of ideas about what Italian could be like.”
Gianna’s menu shows how seafood and produce from the New Orleans area combine beautifully with the Italian way of eating, she said.
An appetizer consisting of a bite of fresh peppers stuffed with fresh tuna is a perfect example: the peppers grow here and the tuna is pulled from the Gulf of Mexico.
“There are tuna-stuffed peppers all over Italy,” Wilcomb said. “Every grocery store you go to, they have the case of dishes made with peppers stuffed with tuna.”
Just as okra vary, dishes like “tortellini de Giannina in brodo”, as they appear on the menu, vary from region to region, even from household to household. she declared.
“I feel like the more I learn about Italian cuisine, the more I don’t know anything about it,” she said. Wilcomb described the food of the coastal Veneto, where his family comes from, as “light years away” from the Campania wine region.
Its baked eggplant casseruola might make New Orleans think of old-fashioned eggplant parmesan, but it’s baked, not fried, with a little tomato sauce and breadcrumbs like they do in Campania. , she said.
Sift through culinary memories
Wilcomb’s childhood memories include visits with his nonna to Luigi the Butcher to choose a chicken, being hoisted up into trees to pick fresh cherries, and chopping into sweet cantaloupe still warm from the field.
She remembers eating braised chicken with olives, rabbit cacciatore, baked lasagna with béchamel and radicchio – always radicchio.
“We had radicchio at every meal at my nonna’s house,” she said, adding that her grandparents grew it in the backyard.
“What I learned from her was a love for flavors, really fresh ingredients and a connection to where you buy your food,” Wilcomb said of his grandmother.
“It’s always like that when I go there,” she said, adding that her third cousin’s garden was a thing to see.
Her goal at Gianna is to honor that experience as much as possible.
Wilcomb said the restaurant group had developed relationships with local farmers through forage harvester Ashley Locklear, and decades-old associations with shrimp and fishermen and with local experts, such as the St. James Cheese Company, who imports the specialty cheeses they want.
Cooking and eating for fun
While much of Gianna’s food is rooted in precious childhood memories, some, like meatballs, are on the menu simply because Wilcomb enjoys eating them.
“I’ve always liked to eat,” she says. “Even as a child, I ate everything. I started cooking on my own because I wanted to make delicious food so that I could eat it. I have always loved to cook.
“I cook a lot at home. People think it’s weird. “Are you tired of cooking?” ” I’m not.”
She learned to cook as a child in Italy and Massachusetts, where her family settled after her mother met her American-born father, Michael David Wilcomb, who was stationed at a military base in Europe.
Wilcomb has no formal culinary training. She started working in Boston-area restaurants as a bartender and waitress, before moving to the kitchen where, she says, she had excellent mentors.
In 2008, she moved to New Orleans “to escape the winter”. His first stop – with his resume in hand – was Herbsaint. She started as a line cook, became sous chef, chef and eventually executive chef in 2011. She won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South in 2017.
Rebecca Wilcomb from Herbsaint wins the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South
Diners peering into the open kitchen of the new restaurant can watch Wilcomb in action, his eyes passing over the cooks’ hands as they peel the skins of roasted tomatoes or form meatballs.
One recent afternoon, she stood at the wooden counter and pitched little mounds of lemon-scented ricotta perfectly spaced atop a long sheet of fresh pasta. She gently placed another sheet of pasta on it. Then, using an Italian brass pasta cutter, she created small ravioli flowers that were gently boiled and tossed into a hot skillet of light marinara with roasted cherry tomatoes.
The scallop-rimmed ravioli dish, finished with fresh basil and plated very hot, light and delicious, is an example of the simple preparations around which Wilcomb has built his menu.
A marriage of old and new
Wilcomb’s 6,000-square-foot restaurant opened on April 20 on the ground floor of five floors Kalorama condo development at 700 Magazine Street. The new construction allowed the Link Group to design from scratch.
The large corner entrance with two golden stenciled lions above the door opens to a modern space in neutral colors. Light enters through large windows. There is a Venetian glass inspired chandelier and an artistic octopus wall painting. An elegant gray zinc semicircle bar is in the center.
“Italian design often creates something new out of something old,” she said. “It’s either really old or super modern, so we’ve tried to marry the two.”
The space is perfect for a festive meal, but Wilcomb wants people to feel at home walking around in shorts and a t-shirt, especially once the outside tables are in place.
Her comfort food arrives on mismatched china bought in antique stores and on eBay. His chopped salad is served in wooden bowls for 70 cents.
The restaurant is the result of more than five years of research into every detail. “The food was the fun part” of the equation, Wilcomb said. She must have grown up with the idea of being the face of a new restaurant.
As Wilcomb researched and worked his way up through the ranks to Herbsaint, the catering group has expanded beyond Pig, which opened in 2006, to include Butcher Pig and the private Calcasieu event space in 2009, Grilled seafood with peach in 2013 and The bakery bakery in 2015.
The chef remembers that during one of the Link group’s trips to Italy, Stryjewski asked him, “So, Rebecca, when are you going to open an Italian restaurant with us?” And my response was “I’m not ready, Stephen”.
So why was she ready in 2019?
“We do a lot of things in this business out of intuition and gut feeling,” she said. “Everything comes from the heart. The heart guides us in everything we do. So how do you know you’re ready? It’s just a feeling. “
gIanna, 700 Magazine Street, 504.399.0816
This story is part of Where NOLA Eats series on neighborhood restaurants in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Do you know a restaurant whose story deserves to be told? Leave your suggestion in the comments below, or send and email to [email protected]with your proposals.
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