Coming Home
to Merlo on Maple

Interview by Jeffrey Steen |
Culinary Personalities

As the story goes, your passion for cooking moved from the kitchens of family and friends to restaurants and, eventually, the hungry diners of Chicago. Why did you make the transition from cooking at home to cooking for a living?

It was a pleasure to cook for my family, and it's always been one of my favorite things. I worked previously in fashion, and when I decided to get out of the industry, I thought it natural to devote my career to what I love—cooking. Having the opportunity to serve real Bolognese food to those who don't often get the opportunity to try it was the icing on the cake.

Part of your inspiration was your grandmother's cookbook, rich with recipes from Bologna. What classic dishes are included in it? What are your favorites?

Some of my grandmother's classics and some of my favorites include Tortellini in Brodo, Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese, Cotolette di Vitello alla Bolognese, Fritto alla Petroniana, and Tortelloni di Ricotta. When properly executed, these recipes are always met with praise from happy customers.

With such strong family ties, do you still regularly cook at home? How is what you cook at home different than what you cook in the restaurant?

I cook at home as often as I can for my family. At home, it's a little more improvisational. The pantry is always stocked differently, so it's all about using what's available to create something everyone will love. They always seem to enjoy it, which makes me think they're either big fans of the food or they're great actors. [Laughs]

You've long been an advocate for fresh, seasonal ingredients—it's even a part of your family heritage. How much effort do you put into utilizing local ingredients, and how often do you source nationally or internationally in order to make a recipe truly authentic?

We import many non-seasonal ingredients that are crucial to the cuisine at Merlo. This includes Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, speck, regional cheeses like mozzarella and fontina, porcini mushrooms, and olive oil. We also import certain seafood like turbot, sole, and red shrimp. The ingredients we import are crucial to recreating the true flavors of Bolognese cuisine.

But we also buy locally as much as possible. Much of our fresh produce, herbs, meat, and even some fish are locally-grown and locally-sourced. Seasonal and local foods help to ensure we have the best ingredients for the best dishes.

Tell us about some misconceptions Americans have about Italian cuisine, specifically about the food from Bologna.

A myth about authentic Italian food is that it's the same as American Italian. Many American Italian dishes are simple, cheap to produce, and are found on plenty of restaurant menus. In Italy, food is intricate, profound, and an essential part of the culture. Countless chefs have served Italy's noble ruling families, and the recipes they've passed down from generation to generation are what my grandmother passed down to me. These are the recipes I strive to serve at Merlo. Bolognese food in particular is hard to find in the United States, so giving customers something authentic and accessible is my goal.

Every chef has them, so we're guessing you do, too: What no-nos are there in your kitchen, as far as preparing Italian food is concerned?

It may look strange to a newcomer, but in my kitchen there is absolutely no space for a microwave. To me, it's not natural.

Chicago is a big culinary town. Have you found it difficult to make a name for yourself with all of the talent in Chicago's restaurants?

I was actually expecting it would be difficult to break into Chicago's restaurant scene, but I was pleasantly surprised by the reception Merlo received. I think the idea of authentic Northern Italian cuisine got some attention, both critically and from customers. In addition, we've always thrived on word of mouth. Our customers are extremely loyal and are happy to recommend a great spot.

Surely you've had culinary mentors through the years. Who are some individuals who really stand out to you as models of what a chef should be?

My first mentor was Pellegrino Artusi. He wrote a cookbook at the end of the 1800s called “La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiar Bene” that forms the base of my knowledge. Many great Italian chefs captured my attention—all the way up to Gualtiero Marchesi, who is considered the father of modern Italian cuisine.

Do you ever make it back to Bologna? If you do, does it always feel like you're going home, or is it different each time you visit?

I don't often go back to Bologna because the restaurant needs me here. Yet no matter how long it's been since I've been away, I always feel completely at home as soon as I return. In Bologna, no matter how much things have changed, you can be certain your favorite monuments, buildings, and of course, wonderful restaurants and trattorias will still be there.

With notable success at Merlo on Maple, some would guess you're eyeing bigger projects. Is there anything else in the works for you, or are you happy with cultivating the family at Merlo?

I love so many things about Merlo on Maple—the history of the building, the location, our loyal customers, everyone on my staff. Considering all of these ingredients, I very much doubt I'll leave it for something bigger.

All this talk about Italian food is making us rather hungry. Would you mail us a jar of your homemade bolognese?

I've prepared a jar for you and it's on its way. I promise you'll enjoy it!