Tuscan Simplicity: Specialty of the House

Worcester Telegram & Gazette : January 23, 2008

Specialty of the House features local chefs who cook up exciting new dishes for readers to make at home. Justin Melnick is today’s chef.

Insalata con Funghi is a simple concept, yet very flavorful.

Justin Melnick of Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca first made the salad for a family he was visiting in the Umbria region of Central Italy. It came about when the chef thought he didn’t have enough courses for a meal. He recalled “going through the house” pulling together ingredients for a dish. The salad was inspired by local ingredients such as prosciutto, pecorino, arugula and olive oil. The original recipe contained wild beans growing outside the house, he said.

The salad he created has been on the menu at Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca, located at 154 Turnpike Road (Route 9) in Southboro. The season it was used roasted pears took the place of the mushrooms in today’s version. Melnick said he plans to reintroduce the salad later on.

Home cooks will find it easy to make variations of the dish. For example, substitute your favorite mushrooms for the Trumpet Royale mushrooms, if unavailable. Chefs often use Trumpet Royale, a firm and nutty flavored mushroom, in place of wild mushrooms.

Melnick, of Shrewsbury, suggests serving the salad after an entrée, or before, if desired. It makes a great first course, he said, but it also can be a side with a hearty stew or braise.

Our take on the dish is that it definitely will help get rid of the winter doldrums. It brightens the table and pleases the palate.

About the chef:

Melnick, 24, grew up in New Hampshire, and decided on a culinary career when he ran the kitchen of a family-owned restaurant while still in high school. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked and trained at respected Boston restaurants including The Butcher Shop, a Barbara Lynch restaurant, and Olives, one of Todd English’s restaurants. He came to Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca as sous chef in 2006, working with the former executive chef, Tony Bettencourt, who left last month to open his own restaurant in Salem.

Melnick said he strives toward authentic Tuscan cuisine, utilizing fresh, local and organic ingredients.

He strongly supports smaller farms that raise animals in a natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free environment.

His cooking philosophy at Tomasso is in keeping with the tradition of Tuscan cuisine.

He makes “everything from scratch” and cures all the meats served at the restaurant.

He said new hires are amazed when he takes them on a tour of the kitchen and opens the doors to the walk-in freezer.

“There’s no frozen food in it,” Melnick said. “Everything here is fresh.”

Melnick said the staff also is taught not to rely on machinery to perform some of the kitchen tasks. “We always whip cream by hand,” he said.

The chef enjoys sports and traveling, especially in Italy, when he has the time.

He speaks “some” Italian, he said. An outstanding moment during his recent trip to Italy was dining with the family of Italian wine maker Sergio Mottura, whose estate is on the border of northern Lazio and Umbria.

Melnick said he reads cookbooks, visits New York restaurants and talks to other chefs to gain insight into the business. “I want to gain as much knowledge as I can,” he said. Favorite chefs include New York City chefs/owners Daniel Boulud and Danny Meyer. He also likes London chef and restaurateur Giorgio Locatelli, whose roots trace back to Italy. Melnick said he is reading a book written by Locatelli. “It was the perfect holiday gift,” he said.

Melnick will represent Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca at the 2008 Worcester Wine and Food Festival, Feb. 28, in the DCU Center, and at the Nantucket Wine Festival in the spring.

INSALATA CON FUNGHI

  • Trumpet Royale mushrooms, see note
  • Sliced prosciutto di Parma, sliced very thin, see note
  • Pecorino Toscano cheese, large dice
  • Baby arugula
  • Lemon
  • Olive oil

Notes: Substitute your favorite mushrooms if Trumpet Royale are unavailable.

Prosciutto is Italian for ham.

Prosciutto di Parma is labeled for its region and is described as Italy’s true prosciutto.

Italian products can be found in specialty stores and supermarkets.

Cut mushrooms in half and marinate with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Grill or roast mushrooms until tender.

While mushrooms are roasting, mix baby arugula, Pecorino Toscano and a few slices of prosciutto di Parma in a bowl.

Once mushrooms are cooked, add them to other ingredients. Dress salad with fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and salt.

Mix and serve.

– By Barbara M. Houle FOOD EDITOR