Event Review: “A Taste of Tuscany” Dinner with Chef Cesare Casella (Rochester, NY)


Chef Cesare Casella, Courtesy: www.wegmansamore.com
Chef Cesare Casella, Courtesy: http://www.wegmansamore.com

Event Name:  “A TASTE OF TUSCANY” WITH CHEF CESARE CASELLA  
Purpose:        World renowned New York City restaurateur and Tuscan native, Chef Cesare Casella takes over the kitchen at Amore Italian Restaurant, for an amazing evening of food and wine.
Location:    Wegmans’s Amore Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar, 1750 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 
When:         Wednesday, March 11, 2015, seating from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
NOTE: Chef Casella will be back at Amore on April 15th, 2015.
Cost:           $49 per person or order à la carte off the tasting menu, wine pairings available for an additional $29 per person or à la carte off the wine menu (plus tax and gratuity)

Event Overview

Wegman’s Amore Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar welcomed world renowned, Tuscan-born Chef Cesare Casella for a special five-course dinner, featuring dishes from Casella’s Manhattan restaurants and cookbooks.  Chef Casella took over the Amore kitchen for one night, to serve fortunate guests his Taste of Tuscany dinner, with available wine pairings.  Chefs and kitchen managers from several other Wegmans locations descended upon Amore to collaborate in the kitchen for this special evening of food and wine.  Even CEO Danny Wegman made an appearance, greeting diners and kitchen staff.

Chef Cesare Casella at Amore Restaurant "Taste of Tuscany" dinner in Rochester, NY on March 11, 2015. Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Chef Cesare Casella at Amore Restaurant “Taste of Tuscany” dinner in Rochester, NY on March 11, 2015. Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

Chef Casella not only expertly managed the entire staff and oversaw all the food preparation, but he also found time to visit with guests during the dinner service. Outfitted with his signature pocket full of fresh rosemary sprigs, he is unassuming, yet full of verve and passion.

His charming and genuine style were clear in his sincere inquiries about the food and the experience. Even amid the rush of a busy dinner service, he calmly took the time to answer our questions about the food and how it was prepared, pause to take a few photos, and even sign our menus at the end of the evening. And oh, that smooth Italian accent made the three of us swoon just a bit.

By all accounts, Chef Cesare Casella is not only a superb and talented chef, but he is also a really nice gentleman, with a warm smile, infectious enthusiasm, and a kind heart.

 

The Venue

Amore Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar is attached to the Wegmans Food Market store at 1750 East Ave, in Rochester, NY.  Executive Chef Russel Ferguson and Restaurant Manager Jigmed Latshang lead the team of professionals in this 85-seat eatery.  They skillfully incorporated the Wegmans Italian Classics line of products into their healthy Mediterranean favorites menu, while also using fresh, seasonal ingredients for meals you won’t soon forget.  With daily lunch and dinner service, as well as a full wine menu, a family style dining option, and take-out service, they are a busy group of culinary professionals.  Amore also offers three unique rooms for private dining, and a variety of special events.

Amore Restaurant and WIne Bar, Rochester, NY, Courtesy: www.wegmansamore.com
Amore Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar, Rochester, NY, Courtesy: http://www.wegmansamore.com
Open since June, 2013, Amore’s interior feels more like an Italian villa than a grocery store restaurant. Stone and stucco walls, arched doorways and reclaimed exposed timbers, along with an earth tone color scheme, make for a cozy and authentic feel.  Pops of deep red catch your eye, in both the tiles around the pizza oven and the bar stools. Finally, the Italian music playing in the background is sure to get you into the mood of an Italian countryside getaway.  Amore was recently named a Diner’s Choice 2015 Winner by Open Table.

The Dinner

The menu for the evening was a prix fixe, five-course meal, complete with available wine pairings. If desired, you could instead buy elements of the meal or wine selections à la carte. Understandably, Amore’s regular menu was not available for the evening. The menu was printed on a cream-colored, rectangular shaped heavy paper stock, featuring black and red text.

My two dinner companions and I ordered differently with regard to the wine.  While we all ordered the entire five-course prix fixe dinner, Sharon ordered the entire wine pairing, while Barb ordered a glass of wine à la carte, and I refrained from any wine. Instead, I drank water and ginger ale.  Barb enjoyed her glass of red wine, while Sharon’s comments on the wine pairings are shown with each course below.

Amore's "A Taste of Tuscany" menu, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore’s “A Taste of Tuscany” menu, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore Dinner with Chef Casella - wine service, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore Dinner with Chef Casella – wine service, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

Before the first course, we were served freshly baked, sliced bread with olive oil for dipping. A small jar of pepper-oil on the table was available for use with the bread as well.  I enjoyed the bread, as it was warm and airy.  The dipping oil was earthy and pungent, with a surprise kick of heat.

Sliced Bread with Olive Oil to start the meal, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello
Sliced Bread with Olive Oil to start the meal, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

 


 

Shown below are the menu descriptions of each course, along with the à la carte pricing option. Below each course is a photo of the dish, and my opinions (and those of my dining companions) of the components of this truly fantastic meal.

First Course ($7 à la carte):  A selection of salumi and an escarole salad with anchovy vinaigrette
Wine Pairing: Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, DOCG, Col de Salici NV

First Course: selection of salami and an escarole salad with anchovy vinaigrette, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello
First Course: Family Style selection of salami and an escarole salad with anchovy vinaigrette, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello
First Course on individual plate, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
First Course on individual plate, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first course selections of salami and cheese was beautifully served on a paper-lined, heart-shaped wooden board. A variety of Italian specialty meats awaited us, including spicy salami, mild salami, and variations of sopprassetta and prosciutto.  The pungent, soft cheese which accompanied this course was velvety smooth – a perfect pairing of meat and cheese. The slices of toasted focaccia bread were seasoned with just the right amount of garlic.

With this course, we were severed a tasty escarole salad, topped with a generous portion of a wonderfully salty anchovy vinaigrette. I liked that Chef Casella was not shy with the anchovy dressing – it was bold and worthy of center stage.  He owned it.  Admittedly, I was not a fan of anchovies, until now. He converted me.

Sharon commented that the sparkling glass of Prosecco was a “nice start” to the meal.


Second Course ($11 à la carte):  Tartara di Tonno: Marinated tuna, celery, tomato and capers
Wine Pairing: Chardonnay, Antinori Bramito Del Cervo, IGT, Umbria 2012

Second Course: Marinated Tuna, celery, tomato and capers, Courtesy: Sharon Garafonello
Second Course: Marinated Tuna, celery, tomato and capers, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

Going into this dinner, I knew that we would be served raw tuna for the second course. I don’t normally eat raw tuna, mostly because of my paranoia about raw seafood. However, I put my trust in Chef Casella and his vast knowledge and talent…and I ate the raw tuna.  I’m glad that I did because it was such a different texture and flavor than anything I was used to eating.

Because it was marinated, it tasted as if it was fully cooked. Cut into small cubes, the superbly seasoned tuna was delicious…it almost melted in my mouth.  The celery, tomato, and capers were well integrated into the mix, adding flavor, without detracting from the freshness of the tuna. A bit of olive oil drizzled over the top finished off this marinated tuna nicely.  Together with a duo of crispy bread wedges and peppery arugula, this dish had an earthy feel.  It was the most surprising facet of the five-course meal, because I liked it more than I had anticipated.

Later, I discovered that the tuna was brought in fresh from Ecuador – only the best for Chef Casella’s guests!

As for this wine pairing, Sharon remarked that the chardonnay was light, not heavy or buttery. She continued to sip this selection into the next course.


Third Course ($12 à la carte):  Rigatoni All’Amatriciana: Signature blend of nine meats, onions, Italian tomatoes and artisanal pasta
Wine Pairing: Famiglie Merlot, IGT, Umbria 2011

Third Course: Rigatoni with signature blend of nine meats, onions, tomatoes and artisanal pasta, Courtesy: Sharon Garafanello
Third Course: Rigatoni with signature blend of nine meats, onions, tomatoes and artisanal pasta, with grated cheese, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

As we were waiting for our third course, we noticed Chef Casella gracefully sprinkling grated cheese on three plates of rigatoni. Usually this is done by the kitchen staff, not the visiting, renowned chef. Sharon remarked (probably louder than she meant to) that she hoped those were our dishes. Honestly, we were all a little start struck, like teenage girls at a boy band concert. Unfortunately, those three dishes went to three other lucky diners, but ours soon followed.

As an Italian-American, I have to say that this course was the most comfortable for me. The artisanal rigatoni pasta was perfectly al dente and had a wonderful fullness.  And the sauce – oh that sauce! With Chef Casella’s signature blend of nine meats, it just kept delivering layers of phenomenal taste. At first, I noticed the rustic texture, and then came the fresh tomato taste and finally, a kick of heat when you least expected it. Spicy peppercorns and sweetly carmelized onions added to the fabulous, rich flavor of the sauce.

Sharon commented that the Merlot paired with this course had nice legs and it complimented the rigatoni and sauce well.


Fourth Course ($19 à la carte):  Manzo (Beef): Roasted skirt steak served with heirloom beans and sautéed winter greens
Wine Pairing: Super Tuscan, Barco Reale di Carmignano, Tenuta Capezzana, Toscana 2010

Fourth Course: Raosted Skirt Teak with heirloom beans and sauteed winter greens, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello
Fourth Course: Roasted Skirt Teak with heirloom beans and sauteed winter greens, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

As the fourth course was served, we were feeling rather full and satisfied. However, this dish teased our taste buds such that we could barely get a photo of it before digging in. Then we remembered that we are refined young women, and we must not inhale our food with abandon, regardless of how delightful it looks. So, we picked up our utensils and acted well-mannered once again. Leave it to Chef Casella to cause us to almost lose our manners. Hey, a girl can only handle so much!

Barb loved this course the best of anything served during the evening.  She was impressed with how well the roasted skirt steak was seasoned and that is was remarkably tender. I agreed. I didn’t even need a knife to cut the steak.  It was juicy and practically melted in my mouth. Cut on the bias, the strips of steak were served alongside sautéed winter greens (which we think was rappi) and heirloom beans. This was a truly hearty yet delicate dish.  Any true Italian would love the sautéed winter greens on this plate; they were not bitter as one might suspect. Instead, they were savory and full of body, nicely coated in oil and garlic. I could eat those greens every day.

We asked Chef Casella how he made the beans with such a flavorful crust, making then slightly crunchy on the outside, yet silky and light on the inside.  He took the time to stand at our table and explain how he tried to make the dish wish several different kinds of beans, but only these heirloom beans worked out this well. He told us that he finished them in the oven to give them the outer coating. Honestly, after that I am not exactly sure what else he said because I was a bit lost in his charming Tuscan accent – I just enjoyed hearing him speak with such passion about his culinary pursuits.

The Tuscan wine paired with this dish was Sharon’s favorite wine pairing of the evening.  She favored it over the other wines which she still had not yet finished.


Dessert ($6 à la carte):  Lemon Panna cotta served with pine nut biscotti and a fresh blueberry sauce
Wine Pairing: No wine pairing for the dessert course.

Dessert Course: Lemon Panna Cotta with pine nut biscotti and fresh blueberry sauce, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello
Dessert Course: Lemon Panna Cotta with pine nut biscotti and fresh blueberry sauce, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

After a nice break in the endless parade a food, our dessert arrived. I had planned on just tasting it, as I was full at this point. However, once I got a taste of this lemon Panna cotta, I just had to finish it. It was such a light and airy offering that I just didn’t understand how it could deliver such beautiful flavor.  Paired with a fresh and tart blueberry sauce, this dessert was the perfect ending to this dinner tour of Tuscany.  The freshly baked pine nut biscotti were a happy surprise. They added a bit of crunch to this otherwise smooth and light dessert.  Sharon saved hers for later, while Barb and I devoured ours even though we didn’t think we could eat another bite.

Sharon, a trained pastry chef, commented that this was the best Panna cotta she ever had. High praise no doubt. In fact, she declared that the meal in its entirety was “Cesarlicous”

Service

Although it has been in business for almost two years, this was my first visit to Amore Restaurant and Wine Bar. I was pleased to see that they provided traffic control in the busy parking lot attached to the super market. An attendant opened the door for me as I approached and friendly hostess greeted me upon my entrance.  My friends and I were seated immediately upon our arrival, even though we were more than 10 minutes early for our 6:45 pm reservation.  We were seated at table directly in front of the open concept kitchen, giving us a perfect view of not only the staff and servers, but also of Chef Casella deftly overseeing the operations.

Chef Cesare Casella overssing service at Amore's "Taste of Tuscany" dinner, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello
Chef Cesare Casella overssing service at Amore’s “Taste of Tuscany” dinner, Courtesy: Sharon Garofanello

The kitchen was understandably busy, but not chaotic in the least. This team knew what they were doing and they did it well. Our server later told us that the entire team of chefs, servers and management had spent the previous day with Chef Casella, going over the menu and tasting the food.  She said that he was a pleasure to work with and she enjoyed working at the event. In fact, the prior year she was a guest at the dinner.

Amore Server Center, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore Server Center, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our server was knowledgeable and friendly. She checked back on us often, but not too often as to upset the flow of the meal. My water glass was kept full throughout the evening, which I liked. (I have a pet peeve about having to ask for more water.)  We were offered a refill on our bread basket, which was also a nice touch. With each new course, we were given clean silverware.

Interestingly, with an open concept kitchen, the servers and chefs have to be careful with their language and their actions, as they are visible and audible to the diners. This was possibly the quietest kitchen I have ever observed. Like a well-oiled machine, the crew worked well together and demonstrated excellent communication skills. Chef Casella was like a skilled ninja, calmly floating from place to place, in the kitchen, in the dining room, chatting with diners – always with a smile.  His self-assured attitude set the tone for everyone in his charge.

The Atmosphere and Experience

Amore Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar has a comfortable, warm ambiance. The atmosphere was electric, filled with anticipation and excitement, as we patiently waited for a glimpse of Chef Cesare Casella. We didn’t have to wait long – he was soon front and center, expertly taking command of the kitchen and leading the culinary team through a successful evening service.

Amore place setting for "A Taste of Tuscany Dinner", Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore place setting for “A Taste of Tuscany Dinner”, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

The place settings were smart and tidy, featuring Chef Casella’s signature sprig of fresh rosemary. Our table was set with two lit candles, in frosted votives, setting the mood for a relaxed evening.

The dinner was a phenomenal value, priced at only $49 for the prix fixe menu of five courses of Tuscan-inspired goodness.  I noticed a few patrons ordering à la carte, but most appeared to indulge in the entire menu. With each new course, we were treated to a virtual voyage to Tuscany, each course building upon the other, finishing with a sweet crescendo of lemon Panna cotta dessert.

As with any dinner outing, there are likely to be large groups of diners. Unfortunately, our table was within just a foot or two of a group of approximately 20 diners, who were boisterous and rather distracting.  I tried my best to ignore their loud and ill-mannered behavior.

It was an extended evening; the three hour meal was longer than I would have liked. It moved along at a pleasantly leisurely pace until the dessert course. After waiting about 40 minutes, we finally were able to enjoy the sweet finale. It was worth it.  I understand that there is a movement for “slow eating” which is becoming popular with the trendy crowd, but I prefer to keep things moving along at a leisurely, but not overly prolonged pace.

Throughout the meal, Chef Casella was gracious with his time in stopping by our table to chat and answer questions about several of the courses. He was also very accommodating of our requests for photos, both during and after the dinner. I would have liked the opportunity to purchase one or more of his books during the evening. Perhaps they could have been made available in the restaurant lobby, and perhaps he might have signed copies? Possibly, he did not want to commercialize the event. However, my friend Sharon noted that she stopped at a local bookstore to purchase one of his books, prior to the event, and none were available. Having the opportunity to purchase a signed copy of one of his books at this dinner event would have been an added thrill!

Danny Wegman, CEO of Wegmans Food Markets also made an appearance, greeting Chef Casella and the Amore management staff individually. He also visited a few of the tables, shaking hands with acquaintances and welcoming guests.

Amore Restaurant receipt for "A Taste of Tuscany" with Chef Cesare Casella. What a value!, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore Restaurant receipt for “A Taste of Tuscany” with Chef Cesare Casella. What a value!, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

At only $49.95 for this dinner, I was impressed with the great value. I would have expected to pay much more for a dinner of this quality and size.

Our server happily accommodated our request for three separate checks.  Upon delivering the check, she noted that they automatically added a 20% gratuity, as this was a special event dinner. We didn’t take issue with that, as the service really was as superb as the meal.

We appreciated that the entire kitchen and management staff worked well together to offer a great experience for the guests. In fact, the management team eagerly jumped in to assist servers in getting the food to the tables as quickly as possible. Rarely would you see that in a standard dinner service…or perhaps it is standard in Amore? As this was my first visit, I cannot say, but it sure was enjoyable.

Overall Impression

Wow, what an evening of great food, great wine and great friends. Not only did we get to enjoy a wonderful five-course dinner, but we also were fortunate to meet Chef Casella, chat with him a bit and take several photos. He was kind enough to sign our menus and indulge three self-professed foodies with a few kind words.

Amore's "Taste of Tuscany" trio of menus signed by Chef Cesare Casella, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Amore’s “Taste of Tuscany” trio of menus signed by Chef Cesare Casella, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

My friends and I all truly enjoyed ourselves.  It was a fun and exciting evening.  And what a great value! It was a priceless experience to talk with the chef, take photos and have him sign our menus. I can’t wait to see him again soon.

I enjoyed the special service for this event, from the moment I parked my car, until I paid my check.

I encourage you to make your reservations early for the next event in April (2015), as this event sold out. I know you’ll enjoy yourself!

Chef Casella posing for phots at Wegmans Amore Restaurant, March 11, 2015
Chef Casella posing for phots at Wegmans Amore Restaurant, March 11, 2015

   

About Chef Cesare Casella

Cesare Casella was born March 1, 1960 in Lucca, Italy. He is a chef, restaurateur, writer, consultant and educator. Casella’s signature style includes a piece of fresh rosemary in his shirt pocket.

He is the owner an executive chef of two Italian restaurants in New York City and an expert in Tuscan Italian cuisine. He is the Dean of Italian Studies at the International Culinary Center and serves as Chief of the Department of Nourishment Arts at The Center for Discovery, where he works to raise awareness about sustainability and nutrition.  Casella is the founder of the Italian Cooking School by Cesare Casella that strives to teach about the true meaning of Italian culture and cooking. He also serves as a consultant to upscale distributing companies for salami and Italian food trattorias.

Chef Casella has written several books including 2013 James Beard Foundation Award nominee, The Fundamentals of Classic Italian Cuisine (2012), True Tuscan (2005), Italian Cooking for Dummies (2002), and Diary of a Tuscan Chef (1998). Currently, he is working on a new book under the working title, The New Italians. Chef Casella is also contributing to the English edition of Food Editore’s Gusto, an encyclopedia of Italian food and ingredients.

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