Lisa Abraham: Italian chef says
it’s all about the ingredients

“Cooking, to me, is like a desire. When you miss something, you want to cook it.”

This is how Italian chef Fabio Bongianni described his favorite food. It’s whatever he is longing for at the moment, and he cooks what he is hungry for, which often means seafood.

Bongianni spent four days last week teaching classes at the Cucina at Gervasi Vineyard in Canton. He was lured to Ohio to teach after Gervasi owner Ted Swaldo ate at Bongianni’s restaurant in Rome, That’s Amore, just steps from the Trevi Fountain.

Bongianni also teaches cooking classes at his home in Rome and his country home in Tuscany. After returning to dine at That’s Amore several times during his trip, Swaldo insisted that Bongianni come to Canton to teach at Gervasi’s new cooking school.

Bongianni, 50, was actually training to become a lawyer when he decided to abandon that career for his true passion, food. After training at the Ritz Escoffier, he began opening restaurants in Rome. His first two, successful American-style steak-houses, came to an end when mad cow disease took hold in Europe. That’s Amore followed in 2004.

This wasn’t Bongianni’s first visit to the United States, but it was the first time he had gone beyond New York City, and he was excited about coming to middle America and especially about the snow on the ground, which he rarely sees in Italy.

Teaching American students was nothing new for Bongianni. Most of his clients in Italy are American tourists.

Bongianni said he tries to teach techniques, rather than recipes, so that students will learn how to prepare dishes that can be adapted to “what you have in your refrigerator or what you buy at the market,” he said.

Bongianni said he has eaten good Italian cuisine in the United States and the not-so-real-Italian as well. The difference is in the ingredients, he said. Authentic Italian cooking is a challenge for Americans because the essential ingredients aren’t always available here.

“What makes the difference are the ingredient — that tomato, that eggplant, that artichoke, that zucchini,” he said.

For his classes in Canton, one of Bongianni’s biggest challenges, and that of the Cucina Director Jennifer Wolfe Webb, was finding meat with bones in it. Most meat suppliers remove the bones for preparation in restaurants. Not being able to cook with bones will dramatically affect the flavor of sauces, soups and other dishes, he said.

The reality of coming to landlocked middle America also was surprising to Bongianni, when he discovered how far removed he was from fresh seafood. Finding it, particularly whole small fish like sardines, posed problems. Fish stock made without bones will have no taste, he said.

Two of the dishes Bongianni was teaching to students here were a risotto made with red wine instead of white, and an easy veal stew.

Here are the recipes to try for an authentic taste of Italy at home.

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