November 2, 2011

A visit to COOK for Massimo Bruno's Italian Supper Club

COOK has become a bit of a sensation in Philadelphia since its opening in September. We walk by on a regular basis wondering what it's really like inside, and if the price is worth the chance to have an intimate food experience with such big names as Georges Perrier, Michael Solomonov or Sal Vetri (Marc's dad).

Lucky for us, we got to check out COOK through a complimentary invite to a private event hosted by Mavea. Mavea recruited Toronto culinary guru Massimo Bruno to host one of his infamous Italian Supper Clubs in Philly, where he cooks and shares a meal with attendees. Each of his Supper Clubs focuses on one of the 20 regions in Italy. He chose his hometown of Puglia, Italy for this night.

I’ll freely admit I was skeptical about 16-seat COOK, thinking the concept is good in theory but wouldn’t live up to the price (classes range from $65 to $165/person).

However, the opportunity to ask questions and get to know the chef is enlightening. It’s not something we would attend regularly, but if you are planning a special occasion and looking for a unique experience, it is a home run. We highly encourage you to be selective about the event you choose because the host and the topic will make a huge difference. The evening with Massimo could have easily run $100/person, which we would have been ok with paying for an anniversary dinner, birthday or some other special night out.

Massimo's gregarious personality and passion for food made the night especially fun. Both Massimo and his partner Enzo Frati clearly want to share their love for food and all things Italian.

They took us through an 11-course meal with plenty of wine that stretched to four hours. You can see the full menu to the right. A few photos are below, but check out our Facebook page for a complete album. Highlights included the focaccia, polpettine de pane (meatless meatball), orecchiette col ragout de braciola (ear-shaped pasta with meat sauce) and the spigola al sale (salt crusted sea bass). I also loved the burratta, a cream-filled mozzarella from Claudio's in the Italian Market. It was some of the best cheese I've ever had. Alexis Siemons with Teaspoons & Petals, who served tea at the end of the event, said the cheese sells out quickly and it's best to eat the day you buy it because of the cream base. It's incredible!

What struck me most about the meal was how my views about food are defined by my Italian heritage. The set up at COOK enabled me to have an intimate conversation with the host, and in this case Massimo reinforced several ways you know you're Italian:

1. There's a pasta board on your Christmas list: Massimo brought out his personal pasta board when making the orecchiette. Surprisingly, I've never seen one of these. It's an excellent idea for anyone who makes pasta on a regular basis and a perfect gift idea for any Italian.

Robin of South Jersey Locavore making our pasta on Massimo's gigantic pasta board 

2. Fistfuls of salt don't phase you: Any good cook knows you must salt the water before adding pasta. An Italian knows you use handfuls of salt - not dashes. Massimo uses four to five handfuls of salt in his water and drowns his fish in it before baking. Check out the mound of salt on top of his sea bass. Add lemon and it was instantly one of our favorite courses.

Enzo salting the sea bass
Now that's a LOT of salt!

3. Simple food makes sense: Throughout the night, Massimo discussed the importance of keeping ingredients simple in Italian cooking. For example, a good sauce only needs tomatoes, olive oil, onions and garlic. Perfect.

4. Food is an avenue to learn about a culture: The manner in which people make, eat and share food is unique to every city, region and culture. Through his culinary tours and Supper Clubs, Massimo explores the regions of Italy to help guests and himself better understand the wide range of values and customs.

5. Dessert gets in the way of more pasta. Share a meal with me and you'll know I always choose more pasta over sweets. Massimo couldn't have agreed more when I mentioned my preference. In fact, he said most Italians feel the same. 

Homemade focaccia bread with tomato
Paparadelle with white fava puree

6. Sauce + bread = heaven. People always ask me about my favorite food. It feels odd to respond that it could be the perfect sauce on a piece of bread. But as our night at COOK was winding down, Massimo and Enzo were still pouring sauce on leftover focaccia. They must have seen my eyes light up because within seconds I had my own plate of focaccia and sauce to toast to Italian tradition.

Enzo and Massimo, dipping bread in sauce (at the end of our giant dinner)

7. Sunday meal reigns supreme. As Massimo explained, Sunday is often the most important day of the week to Italians because that's when families get together to cook, share a large meal and enjoy one another's company. This was ritual for me growing up and is something I've carried on to this day.

8. Superstitions rule your life. Italian culture is full of superstitions such as malocchio and the corno portafortuna. Aaaand never moving when something good happens in a big sports event. Watch a game with me and you learn quickly that superstitions decide the outcome of the game. More than once I've made Kristy sit still when the Phillies get a big hit thinking that was the cause. You'll see why, then, it was funny to hear Massimo tell this story about the 2006 World Cup:

If you've been to COOK already, let us know what you thought!

253 South Twentieth Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

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