Jim Poris / October 2007
Food Arts presents the Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Cesare Casella, a Tuscan son who's been making a lasting impression on Italian cuisine in America for nearly 15 years. In that time, the multitasking Casella, 47, has been the chef of four New York City restaurants—two of them his own—started a food products import company, sowed Italian vegetable and herb seeds for upstate New York farmers to raise and market, brought Tuscany's bistecca alla fiorentina breed of Chianina cattle to New York state, penned three cookbooks, and recently became dean of the fledgling Italian Culinary Academy at The International Culinary Center in New York City. And on the seventh day, Casella doesn't rest, but eats and cooks some more because, he says, "my passion for cooking and food has always overwhelmed me."
For Casella, food and restaurants have literally been his life, having grown up in his parents' trattoria Vipore just outside the medieval walls of Lucca in northwestern Tuscany. "I slept in a Murphy bed because my bedroom doubled as the private dining room," he recalls. His parents--Rosa, who ruled the kitchen, and Pietro, who made the pasta, grilled meats, and passed on his road warrior obsession for primo ingredients to his son--did all they could to steer Casella toward another profession, even trying to persuade him with a new car. To no avail. At 14, he attended cooking school in nearby Montecatini (Sirio Maccioni's hometown), then four years later returned to Vipore, where, after much persistence, he eventually took over the kitchen, modernized the menu with herbal notions, and became a local hero when the restaurant gained a Michelin star in 1993. (Now rented, Casella plans on reclaiming the Vipore space when the lease expires in a few years.) So respected is he that a recent visitor to the Lucchese region mentioning his name along the way was showered with food gifts—cheeses, polenta, farro, and more—to deliver to Casella in New York City.
It was just that reputation that brought an offer from Pino Luongo to come to the city to run Coco Pazzo in 1993 and a year later Il Toscanaccio as well. After parting in 1996, Casella, hankering for native foodstuffs, discovered a Texas rancher raising Chianina cattle, six of which he bought in 1999, the offspring now being raised at the biodynamic Thanksgiving Farm at the Center of Discovery, a rehabilitation facility in Harris, New York. So at Beppe, his restaurant from 2001 to 2005, and currently at Maremma, diners can periodically order a true Florentine steak as well as a range of Tuscan beans and grains imported by his company Republic of Beans. Is it any wonder why Dorothy Cann Hamilton tabbed him to set up ICC's Italian school, which graduated its first class from the nine month program in August?
"I love what I do; it's my life," says Casella, easily recognizable by the trademarked spray of herbs he keeps at the ready in his tunic pocket. "In this country a lot of people change careers. I wouldn't know what else to do. I only know how to be a chef. It's important to be sure of what you are."