“All the food was simple. And I don’t mean easy or dumb. I mean that for the first time, I saw how three or four ingredients, as long as they are of the highest and freshest quality, can be combined in a straightforward way to make a truly excellent and occasionally wondrous product.”
—Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential, in reference to Le Madri and its head chef, Gianni Scappin
Best-selling author, ex-chef, and star of CNN’s Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain shines an occasionally harsh light behind the kitchen door of top restaurants world-wide in his notorious book Kitchen Confidential. Few great chefs he came in contact with escape his hilariously acid pen, let alone receive his absolute respect. Giovanni “Gianni” Scappin, head chef and co-owner of Cucina in Woodstock and Culinary Institute of America Italian Cuisine instructor, is, as seen in the above quote, one of those rare few.
As one of the finest restaurants in the area, Cucina brings the wonderful history of Italian cooking to the rural setting of Ulster County through the artistry of a master chef who could be easily said to be unmatched in the genre, having made his reputation in some of the world’s finest and most famous restaurants.
Gianni Scappin was born in Marostica, in the Veneto Region of Northern Italy, about one and a half hours from Venice. His parents owned a small trattoria “home-style” restaurant specializing in hearty fare like risotto with porcini, lasagna, and seasonal dishes like leper in salmi (stewed hare). As a very young man Gianni remembers his father Luigi working patiently in the kitchen, stirring the risotto for what seemed like hours, putting great care and passion into preparing the deceptively simple repast. Much later as an adult, Gianni realized the special lesson his father imparted to him. “He left me with a lot of wisdom. He cooked, you see, with his soul.”
Gianni helped out at the trattoria, but wanted to get out, travel and do something other than cooking. “I was so confused. I wanted to become a doctor, but we didn’t have the money, so I had to do something that would make money fast! In Italy, you can usually get a job very easily as a cook. And they pay pretty well; you’re working sixteen hours a day, so they’re supposed to pay you well.” Gianni applied to and was accepted at the Recoaro Terme Culinary Institute, where he studied in a four-year program with basic training of cooking techniques, and summer on-the-job work in restaurants all over the country, learning the multiplicity of styles of different regions.
Fresh out of school, Gianni indulged his “gypsy soul,” and at the age of eighteen worked for a year at the Dorset Hotel, Bournemouth U.K., learning more classic French techniques, and improving his English. After a cruise-ship gig that took him to Mexico and South America — a job he frankly terms “slavery” — a mandatory year of military service, and a brief stint in the voluminous kitchens of the Excelsior Hotel in Venice, Gianni made the crossover to America, accepting an offer from a former boss to be executive chef for Castellano in New York City.
...as an adult, Gianni realized the special lesson his father imparted to him. “He left me with a lot of wisdom. He cooked, you see, with his soul.”
Castellano became very successful with Gianni at the helm, introducing uninitiated Americans to the wonders of the now-familiar “foccacia,” “tiramisu,” and “risotto,” using more traditional ingredients instead of Americanized versions. In Gianni’s opinion, Little Italy was at that time overrun with tomato sauce and bad Parmesan. “Angel hair with tomato sauce! In Italy we give angel hair to people who are sick, because it’s easy to chew.” Fresh ingredients and seasonings caught on with the cognoscenti and celebrities like Mick Jagger and Clint Eastwood, and pretty soon Gianni was doing well enough to actually take a whole day and a half off every week. “I felt like I was a king!” After four years there, he moved on to become executive and corporate chef for the BICE Ristorante, overseeing the development of several restaurants worldwide, and honing his organization skills, which were soon to come in handy.
When famed New York restaurateur Pino Luongo requested Gianni to head the kitchen at his Le Madri, Gianni accepted the job and quickly elevated its already stellar reputation, creating what he called “a balance between sophistication and simplicity in cooking.” Gianni had the kitchen humming smoothly, and at one point briefly employed the afore-mentioned Bourdain (as recounted in Kitchen Confidential) as a sous-chef, before recommending him to Luongo, who was looking for an executive chef for his soon-to-be-opening Coco Pazzo Teatro. “He had a good background, working in France. Good head, cool guy, so I said, ‘Sure.’ I introduced him to my boss [Luongo] and said he would be good to work for the new opening restaurant. We trained him for two weeks, moved him over there, and a month later, we had to fire him! He couldn’t handle the volume.” Bourdain’s amusing account shows no rancor to Scappin or Luongo, however, but gratitude for the opportunity and lessons learned.
Another time at Le Madri, a gentleman showed up one day to Gianni’s kitchen, saying he was a mutual friend of actress Isabella Rosselini, asking if he could possibly hang around some — helping out, of course — to observe Gianni at work. The man had an idea for a movie he wanted to make, did not yet have the funding, but still wanted to do research for it, so Gianni took him on. Stanley Tucci worked for Gianni at Le Madri sporadically for several weeks, and one shift Tucci triumphantly came in, saying “We got the money!” Thus was born the critically-acclaimed and successful movie Big Night, featuring Tony Shalhoub with writer/director/producer Tucci, with Gianni’s consultancy bringing an honest resonance to this award-winning film and its cookbook cousin — co-written with Tucci’s mother Joan Tropiano Tucci and Mimi Shanley Taft—Cucina & Famiglia (Wm. Morrow). Soon after, however, Gianni’s wandering spirit struck anew, and after four productive and happy years at Le Madri, he moved on.
After a brief period in Brazil, Gianni and his wife Laura moved back to his hometown in Italy, where he resuscitated the family trattoria — closed since his father’s death in 1991. Gianni found himself enjoying the slower pace of life: sleeping more, going to market, and making whatever he felt like making — whatever was in season — with just him in the kitchen and his sister waiting the tables, the menu of the day up on a big board. Gianni admits he would have been happy to stay there “forever,” but his wife preferred the U.S., so they returned to New York, but this time, instead of the city, they went upstate to Rhinebeck.
Gianni’s consultancy brought an honest resonance to the award-winning film the critically-acclaimed and successful movie Big Night, featuring Tony Shalhoub with writer/director/producer Stanley Tucci, and its cookbook cousin — co-written with Tucci’s mother Joan Tropiano Tucci and Mimi Shanley Taft — Cucina & Famiglia...
When the Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.) in Hyde Park, decided to install a functioning high-class Italian teaching restaurant — The Colavita Center — on its campus, Gianni was tapped as a consultant, and after its completion stayed on as an instructor. Gianni sees in the students the impatient kid he was himself in his father’s kitchen. “It’s a challenge. You have to be a psychologist, a father, a best friend they can trust, because if they can trust you, then even if they screw up, they have the guts to come and talk about it.” By the time the students get to his class level, they’re well-versed in techniques and full of creativity, but they’re there to learn more. It’s dignity, responsibility, and organization that often make the true difference between cook and chef.
Ask what the most important ingredient is for kitchen greatness, and without hesitation, Gianni answers, “Passion. If they have no passion cooking, I cannot help them change. By the time they get to me, they’ve already spent a lot of money [to be there], so I won’t tell them to quit. But if you don’t have it, it’s not the business to be in.”
Gianni still needed a place to create great cuisine for the public, opening the highly successful Gigi’s Trattoria in Rhinebeck, but it wasn’t long before he was on the lookout for a new place. A good friend and fellow transplant from the City, Lois Freedman, wanted a partner for a more “old-school” Italian restaurant, and Gianni was up for it, admitting “instead of trying to look forward with Italian cooking, trying to be different, with Cucina I went kind of ‘backward.’” The Emerson at Woodstock, at the intersection of Rtes. 212 and 375 became available, and Gianni and Lois came up with an un-pretentious easy-to-understand menu, getting fresh seafood from the market three times a week, and striving for Italian authenticity in, whenever possible, local ingredients. Décor-wise Cucina is very open, warm, and peaceful, eschewing tablecloths and maintaining a casual sophistication that’s a good fit with Woodstock.
When we ask about the future of Italian cuisine here in the States, he sees “more specific ingredients getting highlighted. Like really amazing olive oil, amazing mozzarella, prosciutto, that you don’t get yet in the U.S. The American people are building a very sophisticated palate, starting from the big cities and spreading out, and they’re going to know (the difference). Italian food is here to stay, and the ones who are able to bring in the real salami from Italy…well, it’s another world of surprises. We are only able to get about 20 percent of what is available in Italy.”
Cucina opened earlier in the summer, and operated for a time without a liquor license, which can be a time-consuming ordeal to obtain in the state of New York. (Restaurateurs well know the vital importance of bar revenues.) They managed to stay open and maintain staff for the several months it took to get the license; no small feat, as Gianni and Lois had to absorb the shortfall, keeping their quality staff on payroll. Many in the community — including Rep. Maurice Hinchey — who welcomed the great food and atmosphere of Cucina wrote letters on their behalf to the Liquor Board. It was a tough summer — Gianni still seems a little shell-shocked from it — but finally, they prevailed. Still, it was a close call. One more week would have finished them.
Cucina has proven that it is here to stay. And Gianni seems to be here to stay too. Well OK, for a time anyway. “I’m already to that point in my life where I feel like I deserve to take life easy. Ride my bicycle, see my family, have a good glass of wine. I don’t need to make ‘more and more.’” But for now, it’s teaching by day, running Cucina by night, and giving us fortunate enough to live nearby some of the very best Italian cuisine this side of the ocean.
Cucina is located at 109 Mill Hill Rd. — intersection of Rtes. 212 and 375 — in Woodstock, open 7 nights with brunches on Saturday and Sunday. Call 845.679.9800 for reservations. Additional information is available at www.cucinawoodstock.com.
Photos of Gianni Scappin by Matt Petricone