Bridging the Old World

Jeffrey Steen |
Culinary Personalities

Your background touches on numerous locations, chefs, and cooking styles. Tell us about how you got started in the restaurant industry.

I started when I was 13, so it's been 30 years and counting. It all started because I wanted a summer job. My allowance wasn't enough, you see. I had a friend who had gotten a job at a restaurant, so I gave it a go myself. I didn't realize until later on that I had my career staring me in the face. I loved cooking at home, baking, making meals in the kitchen—all from a very young age. And as soon as I stepped into a restaurant kitchen, my career was set.

Where have you spent the bulk of your career?

Most of it was in Baltimore's Little Italy. It was very male-dominated, and I was actually told I couldn't be a chef. Maybe a salad girl, my boss said. [Laughs] As you can imagine, that just didn't sit well with me. Shortly afterwards, I came across an apprenticeship at King's Mill in Virginia, and dove into French restaurants. After a while, I moved back to Baltimore and got back into Italian restaurants, but more on my own terms. Contacts from that work led me to a restaurant opening in Atlanta, and after getting that restaurant going, I linked up with 101 Concepts. One of my partners, Steve, and I came up with the idea for Cibo e Beve, a restaurant that took shape under 101 in 2011. We are both in love with Italian cuisine, so it just made sense.

Can you explain the idea behind the concept? Did you want to focus on regional cuisine? What about the beverage program?

We built the restaurant so that it would be interactive. There are several spaces for eating and drinking—like the Zinc Bar, the antipasto bar with views of the kitchen, and the dining room. There are elements of entertainment throughout, like the 75-pound ice cube at the bar from which the bartenders make their own ice cubes. At the antipasto bar, the pizzaiolo and antipasto chef are constantly interacting with guests, telling them about this ingredient or that. It really does have something for everyone.

When it comes to the food, I would say I pull from all over Italy. My background is in Tuscan cuisine, but I also pull stuff from Campania, and the south. Burrata is on the menu, for example, and that's from Puglia. Our pizzas are authentically Neapolitan—made with San Marzano tomatoes and “00” flour, cooked up in a wood-fired pizza oven.

Though you pull dishes from all over Italy, do you stay true to the classics in each region, or incorporate some of your own style?

I wouldn't say I'm a purist. Sometimes, I think a traditional dish should remain traditional. With our bolognese, for example, I'm very particular. But then, I might take another classic dish and turn it inside-out. Take our Caesar Salad, for example. Most places that serve Caesar give you croutons, romaine, Parmesan, etc. Here, we've added a twist: We deep-fried a poached egg and put that on top of the Caesar with a frico (Parmesan crisp) and white anchovies.

There are some other twists at Cibo it seems, like a prominent handcrafted mixology program alongside a fantastic wine program. That's a bit unusual for an Italian restaurant.

Well, most restaurants are moving in that direction, and it seemed like a good thing to incorporate into Cibo. We really pride ourselves on our wines, too, though. We offer reserves at a great price, and classics that people expect in a nice Italian restaurant. They work side by side.

After 30-some years in the biz, surely you've stumbled across some surprises. What have you not expected?

We wear many hats as chefs, and for that reason, we're always stumbling across different experiences and challenges. I'm a cook, an accountant, sometimes a psychiatrist, a repair person. Then there's the challenge of keeping up with trends. When you're just starting out, you're not thinking about that, but you have to stay on top of it. And, of course, there's the inherent nature of our workday. I was just joking about this with a co-worker—the average employee works a 9am-5pm day, but that's like a half-day for us. We don't realize it, because we love what we do.

You mentioned keeping up with trends. Is that so you can fight what's mainstream, or feed into it?

You know, people are looking for restaurants that are outside the box these days. Yeah, you've got the places that your parents and grandparents go to—your staple restaurants where the menu never changes and you order the same thing again and again. But there are so many foodies these days, the expectations for chefs and restaurateurs are higher than they used to be. Sure, there are chefs so far outside the box, they're in their own category—Heston Blumenthal, for example. We take pieces of uniqueness and combine them with what's comfortable and recognizable. That's our balance.

Can you tell us about some of Cibo's menu items that demonstrate that kind of balance?

Well, I can tell you that I will never be able to take the meatballs off the menu. That's classic. Or the Caesar salad. I also have this dessert on the menu right now that people are flipping out over—gelato pie with butter-pecan gelato in shells made of crushed Oreos, pecans, and bacon fat. I top it off with gianduja chocolate. People love that. I mean, they're coming in just to get that dessert.

Now that I think about it, there is something on our brunch menu that's very popular, too. It's a dish that you'd find up north, called Red Flannel Hash. It's made with beets, potato, short ribs, horseradish aïoli, and poached eggs. It's not typical, but people can relate to it, and they love it.

I'm also tapping into gluten-free items like our Lasagna, made with Caputo gluten-free flour pasta. It's the only lasagna we have on the menu, and people adore it—and they love that we're paying some attention to dietary needs. I make a tiramisù that's also gluten-free. It's a hit.

Aside from the menu—and its outside-the-box items—what makes Cibo e Beve such a cool neighborhood spot?

The third Saturday of every month (summers excepted) we do a cooking class. They're pretty intimate events and a heck of a lot of fun—30 people or fewer learning to cook three or four dishes. For $40, you can eat, drink, and learn. What's better than that?