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Chef or Artist? It's Pretty Much the Same ThingA chef from Ischia turns traditional Neapolitan dishes into modern masterpieces
The island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, Italy, has many gifts, but none are quite as delicious as its culture of family and food. Ciro Mattera, chef and owner of Ristorante Saturnino in Forio, Ischia, embodies the old-school principles that make the island a bit like its own living time capsule. His appreciation for history and tradition are evident in not only his cuisine but his approach to life.
Along with his wife Stefania, who helps run the business, Mattera often shares the history of the restaurant he now runs, which dates back to the 1940s and was originally launched by an American. At heart, Mattera is a family man. The youngest of 12 sons, he uses traditional family recipes and the tastes of his childhood as the driving forces behind the dishes he creates. Mattera's approach to cooking can be described as Italian comfort food elevated to high cuisine.
He has received critical acclaim for his take on classic Neapolitan recipes, including placement in the Michelin Guide and a similar guide in Switzerland. Mattera has traveled throughout Europe, including in Copenhagen and London, to share his artistic interpretation of Neapolitan dishes. Known for his homemade fresh pasta with seafood, Mattera credits his mother, who would make 10 dishes a day for the family in their home kitchen, with raising him as if he was in a restaurant from birth.
While he remains on the cutting edge of the restaurant business in Italy, his dishes are influenced by his childhood on the island. For instance, he offers an entire tasting menu of different takes on rabbit, for which Ischia is most famous. Recently, when he traveled to the United States and served as guest chef at Galloping Hill Golf Course's Red Knot restaurant in Kenilworth, N.J., Mattera served homemade ravioli stuffed with coniglio Ischitano and dressed in a red sauce.
His genius as a chef lies in simplicity. For that night in New Jersey, which was billed as "A Taste of the Dolce Vita," Mattera insisted on using no more than three or four ingredients for each of the dishes on the tasting menu. Structured as a typical Italian menu with antipasto (appetizers), primo (first course), secondo (second course), and dolce (dessert), the meal included both tuna lightly marinated in a citrus dressing with a fork of pasta and a bite of snapper wrapped in vegetables and sitting in an onion puree as appetizers, that ravioli with rabbit for the first course, and a slow-cooked beef shoulder in a red wine sauce with a creamy potato side for the second course, and his take on Italy's famous ricotta and pear dessert for the finale. (You can see photos and learn more about the menu at the Italian Mamma website.)
Much like most of the nonni you know, Mattera is a disciple of the freshest ingredients and everything made from scratch. He and his wife, however, have adventurous taste buds and want to try all kinds of world cuisines, including Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and American. Although his wife does the cooking at home, Mattera, who was a house guest of ours, served up traditional coniglio Ischitano and pasta with herbs and a touch of tomatoes for Sunday Funday. The couple is never off the clock. Even while Mattera is cooking up a feast at home, his wife keeps the kitchen immaculate. She washes the dish as soon as it touches the sink. Upon observation of the couple and the chef, one recognizes that progress doesn't have to mean giving up tradition. And delicious food – much like a zesty life – doesn't require complexity. Truly, that's the "bellezza" of southern Italy and that dolce vita of which we always speak.
WRITER'S NOTE: The chef and his wife are family friends of mine, and my brother is the director of Food and Beverage at Galloping Hill. So, I was a totally bias participant in this event, and I'm unapologetic about it.
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