August 1, 2014

Well Done, Chef

chef.jpgThe Naples Winter Wine Festival’s accomplishments have been written about extensively, but what about the stories we don’t hear? There is a ripple effect from the world-renowned event, and one of the most exciting ripples to wash ashore in the past year is the addition of Sea Salt to the Third Street South dining scene.

Chef Fabrizio Aielli and his co-owner wife, Ingrid, fell in love with Naples after he was tapped as a celebrity chef for the wine festival, and they quickly became regular seasonal visitors. Though it took six years to tear themselves away from their award-winning restaurant, Teatro Goldoni, in Washington, D.C., they took the year-rounder plunge in 2007. Now, rather than the hustle and bustle of our nation’s capital, they wake each morning to the peaceful, laid-back style of Southwest Florida.

“People look at me when I say this, but it’s true,” Aielli says. “Naples is very European in feel; the people are more relaxed here than in Washington.”

He’s engagingly earnest when he speaks, and his boyish face and thick black glasses are reminiscent of a younger, more elegant Phil Collins, the famous singer and drummer, a comparison that will soon prove to be apt.

After Sea Salt’s hectic opening month—when everything that could go wrong did, including a blown transformer, broken-down computers and the custom-made sea salt panels in the dining room shattering one afternoon—Aielli and his staff have settled in.

The secret to his success? Vision, talent, passion and never, ever taking a day off. Not that there aren’t pockets of calm for Aielli in a typical week. In fact, his days start off quietly. While Ingrid attacks the morning with her trademark energy, often going for a brisk walk on the beach with Sea Salt’s chief operating officer, Lili Montes, Aielli prefers to sit alone in his backyard.

“I listen to the birds; it’s just quiet for a while,” he says. That hour in the backyard will be the last quiet time he has until midnight. He slips in the back door of Sea Salt at around 10 a.m. to address the day’s business with Lili. She’s been there since 9, organizing the office and putting out the hundreds of little fires that always seem to flare up overnight. She’s a model of efficiency, and her space in the office is cleanly delineated from Aielli’s, a testament to their different personalities and functions.

She debriefs him on what to expect from the day, and then Aielli picks up the phone to order fresh mussels. From that moment on, he is in full business mode, negotiating prices, checking in or turning away food, addressing employee issues, teaching a cook how to prepare the line more efficiently. His eyes are constantly in motion, roaming over the restaurant, back to front, the floors, the chairs, the ceiling, looking for … what?

“Anything,” he says. “Everything. It’s all my responsibility. I call any customer, personally, if there’s a complaint. I take the blame for whatever went wrong.” And in a refreshing bit of candor, he laughs and says: “I take the credit, too, when everything goes right.”

Not that he doesn’t give kudos where appropriate. He nods his head toward different employees as we hustle toward the hostess stand, mentioning their strengths under his breath, proud of the loyalty he’s already cultivated.

The hostess, Liz, is a perfect example, and they bend their heads over the reservation book before the lunch rush like a married couple poring over a family album before a reunion. Lunch hits hard.

Just as the first order rolls out of the printer in the kitchen, Aielli is on the line, and the frantic, intricate dance of a busy restaurant kitchen begins. For the next three hours Aielli and the cooks rarely have time to speak, their hands darting over plates like hummingbirds, and Aielli inspects every dish. If it’s not perfect, it’s not leaving the line.

“No, no,” he says, motioning the cook to give him back a plate of crab cakes just as a server picks it up. One is broken, and he slides it off, replaces it with an intact one, and gives the cook a pointed glance as the server whisks it away. The cook nods silently.

This is not a chef who spends crunch time wandering the dining room to accept congratulations for his staff’s hard work; this is a hands-on, in-the-trenches warrior, and his troops know what’s expected from them at every battle—though there’s always time for some extra instruction if someone is struggling.

Aielli notices another cook having difficulty with a piece of tuna and slips away from his station to show him how to hold it correctly so that the slices fall neatly against each other. “See?” he asks, and the cook nods, his eyes intent on Aielli’s hands. “It’s not so hard, right?”

In his hands, it looks deceptively easy. The cook completes the dish under Aielli’s watchful eyes, and once the tuna is plated, Aielli feels comfortable enough to go back to his station. As lunch gives way to late afternoon, he leaves the line to begin his preparations for dinner. But the customers never stop coming in. “Everybody’s relaxed. They come in at noon; they come in at 3.”

He shrugs. “They’re happy all day long here.”

Aielli seems happy all day long here, too, and his afternoon is spent in a combination of table visits, employee discussions, manager tête-à-têtes and phone calls. In responding to a customer upset over not being able to get reservations at short notice, Aielli is accommodating and ends the conversation with: “Call anytime; I’m here, 24-7.”

He’s less accommodating with vendors, insisting on the best price, the best quality. And he has current pricing from competing vendors sitting on the desk in front of him to back up his negotiation. He’s polite, but unwavering, and those conversations end the same way: “Call anytime; I’m here, 24-7.”

He clears some time to go over the new wine-by-the-glass menu with Lili, squinting through his glasses.

“The font is as large as I can get it and still get the region in there,” she murmurs, intuiting exactly what he’s about to object to. He looks another moment and then nods, sliding it back across the table at her.

“Good, it’s good,” he says. “The wine, it’s important. This isn’t going out to eat, this is dining. The food, the wine, I want it to be global. We’re providing a global experience to the community.”

The word “community” comes up a lot, and in the Aiellis’ short time here they’ve already become involved in the Naples Cultural Landscape Foundation, creating the Naples Backyard History-tini. It consists of citrus vodka, lemon juice and simple syrup, and they donate a portion of the proceeds of each one sold to the foundation.

The Backyard History-tini leads to further perusal of the drink menu, and a clue to Aielli’s dynamic personality is revealed with the Dark Side of the Moon martini, made of grape vodka, simple syrup, lime, mint, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries—a nod to Aielli’s long-standing admiration of the rock band Pink Floyd.

He laughs when I point it out to him. His passion for music is as eclectic as his passion for food, from mystical hard rock to opera, and once things “calm down” he looks forward to getting his drum kit out of storage to resume another life-long love.

I try to draw a comparison between the drummer in a band and the chef in a busy restaurant, but he shakes his head. “It’s more like a …” Here he pauses, grasping for the correct word in English.

He waves his hands in the air. “The maestro, you know?”

“The conductor,” I supply, but maestro does, indeed, seem to fit better.

“When you get your drums back, you can set them up in the corner,” Lili teases him, pointing toward the bar.

“Nobody wants that,” he says, grinning.

He knows what Naples wants from him: more dishes like the home-fried potatoes with white truffle oil and parmesan, braised lamb shanks in fig sauce and the divine gelatos he makes himself. I admit to craving the mussels in red curry, and Lili laughs.

“I remember when he came up with those,” she says. “We were sitting in the backyard at [the Aiellis’] place, and he came out with a big platter of them, then went back inside to grab some wine. By the time he came back they were all gone.”

He grumbles a bit at remembering that, but it’s a good-natured grumble. “That’s what I like,” he admits. “Cooking at home, for my friends. No time right now though.”

Time is always in short supply. Lili brings him a two-inch-tall stack of checks to sign, the air in the restaurant begins to slowly vibrate again as everyone’s thoughts turn from lunch to dinner, and Liz begins to badger him for the evening’s menu changes.

“Anything for me yet?” she asks.

“Not yet, not yet,” he says with a wave. “I’m waiting for one more delivery. Soon.” He looks at me defensively as she leaves. “I try to do it earlier, I do, but it never works. I want to serve the food as soon as it gets here. Extremely fresh, made up of extremes.”

When asked to clarify, he adds, “I like extremes, opposites. I had two dogs. A Great Dane and a Yorkie. Extremes, yes? It’s the same way with food.”

The night shift begins to filter in, calling out to each other as they prepare the dining room, and they have a brief meeting that Aielli does not attend.

“They don’t need me there,” he says. “I get too caught up in the small details; we never get out [of] the meeting if I go.” Finally the delivery comes in, and Aielli leaves his paperwork to check in fresh seafood and tweak the menu.

He may love the warmth of Southwest Florida, but he spends a lot of his time in the chill of the walk-in refrigerator. This is where his inspiration for the evening’s meals will arrive as he takes stock of salmon from Scotland, massive slabs of Kobe beef, tuna loin and Kona Kampachi® from Hawaii, and nearly everything else from our local waters and fields.

He points to a cutting station inside the walk-in. “It’s all done in here, in the cold,” he says. “Keeps everything fresh. It never leaves here until it’s ready to be cooked.”

Hashing out the dinner menu, he talks about the future, focusing on how to show Sea Salt’s appreciation to their local customers this summer, a time when Neapolitans traditionally complain that the businesses they’re supporting out-of-season don’t seem to keep up the quality or service standards apparent in-season. He and Lili bandy ideas around for wine tours, partnering with other restaurants in the Third Street South area, and cooking classes, and their voices raise as the noise level begins its steady cocktail hour climb.

As the first dinner orders chatter out of the printer, Aielli takes a final swallow of water, wiggles his eyebrows at me with a smile and then enters the kitchen, watched carefully by a line of cooks. Their maestro has arrived, and the music of Aielli’s passion begins again.

I don’t rejoin him until after 10 o’clock, when he tours the dining room, taking in satisfied diners finishing up dinners and desserts. He checks in with the hostesses, the bartender and the manager before getting on the phone to order produce for the next morning.

He won’t get home until midnight, where he’ll relax with some Malbec while he and Ingrid discuss the day and make plans for the next, when it all begins again. And it shows no sign of stopping any time soon. He suggests making reservations six to eight weeks in advance and says that their success has far exceeded their expectations.

And that elusive day off? Aielli smiles wearily at what has become a daily question from staff and customers. “I’ll take a day off,” he says, “when everything is perfect.”

For anyone else, perfection might be a tall order. But then Chef Fabrizio Aielli isn’t anyone else. He’s Naples’ newest reigning celebrity, and in a town of overachievers and legendary social mavens, that’s a heavy crown. But he wears it well, and with the sort of confidence that makes you believe that perfection, indeed, might be found—just down the street in Naples.  

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