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Il meglio dell’Italia via Alforno and Cafe Allegre

Il meglio dell’Italia means “the best of Italy.” At two shoreline eateries, Alforno and Cafe Allegre, the finest Italian cuisine is always on the menu.

In a nondescript Old Saybrook plaza sits Alforno. Its signage — brick oven pizzeria — deceives: diners expecting standard pizzeria fare may be startled by its distinctive cuisine. Explaining his menu’s philosophical inspiration, owner Bob Zemmel says, “If it wasn’t from the Renaissance in manuscript, it won’t be authentic.”

Rooting his dishes in historical recipes is a challenge Zemmel relishes. For someone who never took a cooking class and isn’t even Italian (he’s of Ukrainian descent actually), Zemmel can describe nuances of preparation and technique with impressive mastery. He freely credits his Italian wife, Linda, for playing a major role in his culinary education.

When she was food editor of the Hartford Courant, Linda attended a cooking school in Florence taught by award-winning chef Giuliano Bugialli. His best-selling book, Fine Art of Italian Cooking, features Renaissance recipes dating back to the Medicis. After Linda completed his two-week course, “we became social friends and just became part of each other’s lives. We would go recipe testing with him in New York and Italy.”

Alforno’s success is also tied to Zemmel’s love of Pepe’s pizza in New Haven. Envying their crust, he employed a method he refers to as “reverse engineering,” in which you try to figure out how something is made, then try to make it yourself. Through experimenting, Zemmel felt confident that he achieved just the right texture and flavor. It was all he needed to open Alforno’s in 1992. “It was an enormous success from the get-go,’ he says. “Beyond expectations.”

Zemmel_01(1)Good thing the pizza was such a hit, because other menu items came slowly. “We had one non-pizza item in the beginning,” he says. “Roasted chicken. Nobody bought it.” That’s far from the case today. Every night features four or five new entrée specials based on historical recipes, augmenting standard offerings like lasagna, ravioli, and veal or chicken parmesan.

Recent specials included Roman spaghetti al’Amatriciana, a dish savored for the unique flavor bacon imparts to the red sauce. It is reputedly a favorite of popes and cardinals. House-made grilled pistachio sausage with rigatoni and shrimp tagliatelle is also big.

Zemmel still has fun trying to reverse engineer dishes he has when he goes out to eat. He says, “I use my chemistry background” for figuring out ingredient blends and quantities. While obtaining fresh produce from local farms and using “super premium ingredients,” such as plume de veau veal is crucial, “the most important thing in serving food to people is correct salt,” he says. “It’s the key to making our food taste good.”

Another distinguishing feature of Alforno is the fact that it’s a complete scratch kitchen. Sauces, stocks, bread, even cannoli filling, are all made fresh. Zemmel’s favorite dish — cannelloni Florentine — is made with crepes. “We make our crepes from scratch,” he says. “Our filling may be a combination of veal, chicken, wild mushrooms and bound together in a besciamella sauce.” For an exceptionally satisfying meal, he recommends pairing with a super Tuscan wine, a blend anchored by sangiovese with some merlot to soften the finish.

What looks like a routine pizza shop from the street continues to fool those who venture inside and discover long wall panels of vibrant geometric art and racks full of wine ranging from nominal to high-end. “I get comments every single night,” Zemmel laughs, “from people stunned to discover our decor and the quality of the food.”

Maybe one of these days he’ll even get around to putting up a new sign outside.

Alforno is at 1654 Boston Post Road in Old Saybrook. www.alforno.net

Learning from Nonna

Silvio Suppa’s eyes sparkle when he recalls learning recipes from his grandmother, or nonna, during his childhood in Italy. His voice transmits warm affection and longing. Today everyone can enjoy the old family recipes of Silvio’s nonna at his acclaimed Madison restaurant, Cafe Allegre.

He recalls standing at his nonna’s side around the age of seven, learning to make chicken soup when his mother was sick. “She said chicken soup was very simple. That was the first thing I learned. I loved what she was doing and I’d follow along. Pretty soon I started to like it and started to ask questions.”

Hers was a “poor kitchen,” he says, meaning you only had what you grew or raised yourself on their large farm in Benevento in the Campania region. That could include using every part of an animal — the ears, head, intestines, etc. — to develop deep rich flavor. “It’s healthier, inexpensive, and delicious,” he says.

Suppa recalls watching his grandmother make ‘Sunday sauce.’

“She’d use all kinds of meats — chicken or veal or pork — and leave it on simmer two to three hours.” After church, “you’d come home and the house smelled so beautiful. And she would smile and say, ‘Nonna loves you,'”

Silvio_Suppa06v3-2With just a little cooking school, most of what Suppa learned came from his grandmother. At age twenty, he emigrated to the U.S. He soon began working at Del Monaco’s in New Haven, affording him the opportunity to continue learning alongside some very accomplished chefs.

Eventually Silvio and his wife, Vittoria, operated Del Monaco’s for 25 years before opening Cafe Allegre 17 years ago.

“We try to buy a lot from local farmers,” he says. Wherever fresh ingredients are available, he will make any effort to obtain them. Not long ago, while driving through North Madison, he noticed a tree with some very large mushrooms growing high up the trunk. So he knocked on the owner’s door and asked permission to harvest off them. Surprised and amused, they offered a ladder. Suppa had a friend come with a truck and a long pole trimmer, filling two large boxes.

Specialties based on Suppa’s heritage, like pasta fagioli, veal campania, braciole with rigatoni in Sunday sauce, along with traditional Italian dishes and a touch of French and continental cuisine, grace Cafe Allegre’s menu. The decor ranges from a formal classic white-table-cloth dining room with fireplace, to an airy solarium, to a bistro-type bar. The elegant white-columned building was once a church, and now includes an inn upstairs.
Taste is important, but so is the presentation, Suppa says. “When you present the dish, it’s like a picture. You have to design and put things in the right spot.”

He realizes he owes his success to his nonna. To honor her, Suppa published a cookbook in 2010. Cooking with Chef Silvio is full of her heirloom recipes and memories of her kitchen. “I want to preserve and document these recipes, so they don’t get lost.”

“A restaurant is a lot of work and stress,” Suppa says. “But there’s a lot of satisfaction too. I love the challenge. After a hard day, when someone comes up to you and says, ‘what a great dish,’ it makes it all worth it.”

Café Allegre is on Main Street in downtown Madison. www.cafeallegre.com

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