As a home cook, I’m fascinated by the hospitality industry. To read Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography is to learn that a New York restaurant’s kitchen is often a loud, profane place, with cooks constantly engaging in vulgar banter as they prepare hundreds of dishes during each service. Yet Bourdain freely admits that his kitchens are not necessarily typical, that some chefs (like the legendary Scott Bryan, formerly of Veritas in New York City and Falls Church’s own 2941) run kitchens like well-oiled machines, with exquisitely trained cooks assembling their world-renowned cuisine without a spare F-bomb for the expeditor.
I wanted to know more about how professional chefs really work. After all, as any longtime resident is wont to observe, DC is emphatically not New York City, and our restaurant scene, while maybe not quite as extensive as theirs, is assuredly nothing to sneeze at. And best of all, I think, ours is not limited to the city center, as great cuisine can be found downtown, far out in the exurbs, and everywhere in between.
I got the chance recently to talk to Giuseppe Ricciardi (who goes by Joe), chef/owner of Dolce Veloce in Fairfax and its sister restaurant, Dolce Vita. Joe is a longtime DC-area restaurateur who opened Dolce Vita in 1994. The restaurant is exactly what you might expect from a non-franchised, neighborhood Italian restaurant– a relatively small kitchen crew, a cozy dining room, and a strong emphasis on high-quality pasta and fresh fish – but his new place next door is an entirely different concept, focusing on wine and cicchetti, or small plates. Joe explained to me that Dolce Veloce is meant to bring in a crowd that wants to enjoy their wine, to try a few different dishes, to talk and socialize rather than sit down to a full Italian dinner. The cuisine is lighter than what you’d find next door, including pizza cones and Panini plates priced at $6.99, all the way up to bowls of risotto and seared salmon dishes selling for $10.99 each.
When I asked what makes professionals’ cooking different, Joe’s answer was simple: “The difference between a trained chef and an untrained chef is the fact that a trained chef recognizes certain flavors, has a palate for certain flavors.” I got the distinct impression that a longtime restaurant professional like Joe holds himself to much higher standards than I ever do at home. And presentation matters! “As far as presentations are concerned, your eyes eat before your stomach, so you want to make it pleasant looking – you don’t want to burn the fish, you don’t want to cut the fish into triangles! There are certain things you do to make the dish appealing.”
I was greatly intrigued by his cicchetti concept – after all, tapas restaurants are quite popular – but translating Italian cuisine (or, at least, American-style Italian, with its heavy sauces and cheesy pastas) into small plates seemed like a challenge. Wine pairings, too, seemed like a bit of a challenge with a relatively expansive menu. But Joe, a trained sommelier as well as a chef, explained that when he wrote the menu, he tried to pair at least a couple of different wines with each dish. The plates at Dolce Veloce, he told me, are meant to include at least three different flavors each, which also allows his customers to try out many different wines with the food. He confessed a taste for higher-end wines, noting that understanding the complexity of good wine makes one appreciate them even more. And his restaurant is unique in my experience in at least one way: with a take-away license, the restaurant can sell wine for customers to take home. That is, they sell restaurant quality wines without the restaurant markup. If nothing else, the dining room itself should tell you how seriously Joe takes his wine: everything from the plate glass on the storefront to the stone tile throughout the dining room is designed to keep the hundreds of bottles of wine displayed there at the proper temperature.
Chef Joe was kind enough to show me around his kitchen that afternoon, and it’s a bit different than I expected. It’s a cramped space through a door behind the bar at Dolce Veloce, but two cooks are easily able to work the six-burner stove, deep fryer, and oven during service. The economy of space is especially interesting: the kitchen is equipped with reach-in refrigerators, cutting boards, and prep trays behind the cooks as they work the hot line, and not a square foot is wasted. It’s clichéd to observe that “time is money,” but with cooks ready to prepare any of more than three dozen dishes (by my count from the menu) in just a few minutes, the efficiency is assuredly an asset.
Joe’s team had prepped a fresh salmon filet and set out a plate of spices and ingredients. After rubbing the fish with spices and seasoning and heating some oil on the stove, Joe dropped the filet into a ready pan and began searing it. When making the dish during service, he said, his cooks will finish the fish and sauce in the oven: “These dishes are meant to be fast, easy, without headaches.” When cooking three or four plates at once, he said, his cooks use the oven as much as possible. With gentler heat than on the stove, the sauce “never gets bitter, never gets overcooked.” Without missing a beat as the fish cooked, he pulled out another skillet, quickly heated some oil and garlic, and tossed a plate of fresh spinach leaves in to wilt. Joe explained as the spinach cooked that he prefers to serve his vegetables with “their natural flavors,” so he sautéed the bed of spinach for just a couple of minutes before plating. The dish was finished with 25-year old raspberry balsamic vinegar, artfully drizzled around the fish. It’s that artistic touch that seems to differentiate the professional eye from my own.
And his attention to detail was superb. A moment’s distraction while he cooked the fish (my fault; I was asking questions the whole time) resulted in a couple of darker edges on the cooked salmon filet. Joe was quick to point them out as the filet came out of the pan – he wouldn’t serve it in the dining room – and explained that the higher heat in the skillet demands more care from the cooks than finishing the dish in the oven. I’ve committed worse culinary crimes than a slightly overcooked fish filet, but his standards are higher. Joe is ready to suggest wines to pair with any of his plates – as he prepared the salmon that afternoon, he suggested a dry California Chardonnay to go with the fish and its accompanying sauce. With the lighter fish and heavier sauce, he told me, a few different wines are possibilities.
Joe explained to me repeatedly that he works hard to treat his staff well, a policy that exhibits itself in many ways at his restaurants. His kitchen crew at Dolce Vita was relaxing in between the lunch and dinner service hours when I walked through, a rare luxury in an age of restaurants with extended operating hours. His cooks, he said, often start out as dishwashers, and stay with him for years. His kitchens, he said, don’t reverberate with screaming because he wants his food to reflect his staff’s attitudes. That’s a stunning revelation from a working chef – you can’t shake a stick without finding an angry chef on TV these days – and it’s fascinating to me that his crew can drill out high-quality food, including special orders from regulars who will ask for something unique, without cursing a blue streak or otherwise losing control.
Ultimately, Joe explained, Dolce Veloce is about slowing down and enjoying wine, food, and company. “People are always in a rush. They’re always worried about the next dollar. They’re always worried about, ‘Can I buy another Mercedes?’ We’ve forgotten some of the important things: friends and family, and the good times we have together.” His customers, he said, like the “lightness” of the Dolce Veloce cuisine. The place, he noted, is very popular with female customers and with the younger set, and he works hard to cater to people who don’t know much about wine just as much as those who have a few thousand bottles in a cellar.
To me, Joe’s kitchen at Dolce Veloce reflects his enthusiasm for the tactile pleasures of food and wine. With economy of space and a well-trained staff, he produces superbly professional food. With a wall of wine in his dining room, he trades in bottles both economical and lavish – and though I might not be able to match his cooks’ professionalism, I’ll keep trying to perfect the easy cooking skill and practiced eye for presentation he showed me.
Dolce Veloce is located at 10826 Fairfax Boulevard in Fairfax, west of Route 123 and next door to Dolce Vita.
-HML (H. Michael)