Rare is it to meet someone who truly loves everything about what they do, where their job is not just a job but a love and passion. Chef Scott Tacinelli of Quality Italian is one of those rare finds who reminds you of the importance of finding love in your work-literally. Chef Scott works alongside his wife, Angie, both connoisseurs of food, Italy, and the idea of "dolce vita." I was lucky enough to meet with him at Quality Italian, where Italy meets New York City in perfect unison right in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
Meat Manhattan: Chef Scott Tacinelli, Executive Chef of Quality Italian
So I actually changed my career. I used to sell advertising for CBS radio for around 9 years, but I always loved cooking so I enrolled in a couple of recreational classes in culinary school and really liked it while I was working at CBS. And then I decided to take the plunge and leave my job selling advertising and started cooking.
I worked for a very short period of time at Momofuku and then I worked for about 6 months at a bar in Hoboken. And then I worked at Park Avenue Café as a line cook and was promoted to sous chef. I worked there for about 3 years and then went on to be the chef de cuisine at Quality Meats and worked there for two years. Then I was asked to be the Executive Chef here at Quality Italian.
Quality Italian focuses on artisan butchery by featuring butchers like Strassburger and innovative steak cuts on the menu. Why do you think there is this newfound appreciation?:
I think that people, as they get more interested in food, are more interested in things that have more flavor and things that are more interesting. Something like a filet tends to be a little bit boring and monotone. People are looking for other cuts that have more fat or are aged in different ways and can be cooked with various techniques like veal shanks that you can braise. I think that’s why people are more interested in butchering now and other culinary areas.
When people think about Quality Italian, they think about the chicken park. How did you come up with the concept?:
When we were working on developing this restaurant, the owner, Michael Stillman, said he wanted a chicken parm for two. So we had a lot of different ideas that we were working on. The original idea was that we boned out a whole chicken and stuffed it with pasta and breaded the whole thing and deep fried it. But it was really challenging, and it felt kind of sketchy to put cooked pasta inside of a raw chicken, so we decided not to do that.
And then I came up with the idea to make a pizza that didn’t really have the crust—the crust was all chicken. So it went through a couple different phases in the beginning about how it actually would be put all together.
My wife actually works here too as the chef de cuisine. I am really good at coming up with ideas, and she is good at actually making them work. So she came up with this idea of making a farce-a chicken meatball.We came up with this idea to talk half white meat and half dark meat, process it in a food processor (not a meat grinder, because it doesn't work in a meat grinder-it incorporates too much air into it). So we did it in a food processor and then added various herbs and spices. We dry all of our herbs here so they are all really fresh. Then we press the chicken into a mold, freeze it, and bread it. It's a big process and takes a really long time to make. I have three people whose primary job is to just make chicken parm. That's how popular it is.
How do you go about creating a new dish?:
The food here is interesting because it is a really good balance of a new interpretation of Italian American food—you know, red sauce food, the kind of food that I grew up eating—and true Italian food. There are a lot of elements of Italian food here you see in Italy. We try to keep that in mind when Angie and I are coming up with new dishes on the menu. We either take it one way which is totally Italian American or we take it the other way.
Usually when we come up with an idea, we really talk about it together. We developed the menu together-100%. I know that if I make something and she tastes it and likes it, I can tell right away. And if she likes it, I know that it's good. When she makes anything, I always like it. But its harder for me to get her to like something. She's a little bit more scrutinous than I am. It's a fun way to come up with food.
I like the food here a lot. It's not too fussy but it has a lot of interesting elements that are different than most Italian restaurants in New York.
Three things in your kitchen you can't live without:
Coffee is one thing.
I certainly can't live without my knives. For me that's the most important tool. Some people say it's their spoon, tweezers, but mine is definitely my knives. I use them all the time.
nd then I would say my staff-my chef de cuisine, my sous chef. those are the people who really make the kitchen work. They mean a lot to me. It's a really family oriented kitchen and it's a team effort.
Best thing to cook for your significant other:
Well we don’t really cook for each other. We actually never cook for each other. That’s a hard one because we really never cook at home ever. We definitely like different food though. She loves pasta. Her favorite thing to eat is probably spaghetti. Sometimes we will come home from work and she will eat an entire box of spaghetti. She’s really into it, it’s her thing. Me, I eat whatever.
Like you said, Angie, your wife, is your chef de cuisine. What is it like working with her?:
It's great. It really is. It's hard sometimes to find the balance of how to reprimand, because I am technically her boss and how to treat her in front of other people. That's been a little bit of a challenge in opening this restaurant, but I honestly love it. Now I don't think I could ever not work with her. It's really special. We get along really well, and our food together is special. That's the hardest thing-I wouldn't want to cook at a place without her because I think we really complement each other really well. We understand what each other likes, and we really have similar interests in Italian food.
She worked for a brief period of time at Torrisi Italian Specialities, and during that year, we never saw each other. I think we had two days off together in an entire year. We had completely opposite schedules, and she was working crazy hours. And then we went right from that to creating this place and being together all the time. I couldn't imagine going back to something like that. It would be very challenging.
What did you serve at your recent wedding?:
Our wedding was in Florence, Italy. We went through a couple of different venues and ended up settling on a place called the Baglioni Hotel in Florence because it had a rooftop and you could see the hotel city. And the city of Florence is really beautiful from the top with all of these terra-cotta roofs. We got the menu and we kind of thought, “Sure, it looks alright.” And then a week before the wedding, neither of us could even remember what was on it. We got there and the food was amazing. It really was perfect. We both love pasta, and the first two courses were two pastas—one was a ravioli stuffed with cheese, spinach and some sort of pork ragu, and the second course was almost a bucatini with veal cheek ragu. It was delicious. I can’t remember exactly what cut it was, but it was some Tuscan beef sliced with some nice local vegetables. It was exactly what we could have asked for.
The cake was hilarious. She comes from a bakery family who bakes italian pastries in Cleveland. They have a huge bakery. So the cake came out and it looked so funny because it was a really big round cake, almost like a Napolean. It was delicious—the best cake ever.
It was really really perfect. The wedding was great, so much fun. About 40 close friends. One of my friends literally flew out Friday night and left Sunday morning. It meant a lot to me to have people come that far to celebrate.
What's one thing Italians do better than New Yorkers?:
They live life. They work to live, they don’t live to work. That being said, there are a lot of negatives with that because they have a lackadaisical attitude. But they certainly enjoy life and family a lot more. You know, at 5 o’clock everyday they have apertivo. It’s just a much more relaxed way of life.
You only have one life to live, and life goes so fast sometimes, especially in New York. But when you go there and you see the way Italians live, it's very hard to not want to live like that. They really understand life a lot more.
What's one thing New Yorkers do better than Italians?:
New York has a sense of pride. I love New York City. That’s why I live here. I’ve been questioning what to do with my life now that we have gotten married, but we really both love this city so much. In Italy it’s a very laid back pace. You go there and it’s a plate of pasta with delicious sauce, and it’s been the same style of cooking for I don’t even know how long. In New York, there’s always new things.
Everyone is always trying to do the next best thing which is interesting because you can always see really exciting things that are happening. In Italy, the food is delicious everywhere, but it has literally been the same woman cooking this plate of pasta exactly the same way for 30 years. They are very strict with their rules. They don’t like to bend.
In New York, you do whatever you want. If it tastes good, then people make it. That’s what I think is interesting about New Yorkers. They are willing to push the envelope a lot and see how far you can take things and see what things can develop into. In Italy, they know that what they have is great, and they’re not going to change it.
What do you expect to be doing in the next five years?:
hat’s tough. Angie and I literally talk about it everyday. We have a lot of different ideas. This company is wonderful and we have no plans yet to move. We have always had a dream to have our own restaurant. A lot of chefs have that dream. Is it going to happen? I have no idea. It’s a lot harder, especially in New York City. If it did ever happen, I don’t know if it could even physically happen here.
Call me in five years and I'll let you know. It'll be interesting to see where we are and what we're doing. We might still be here, we might be opening a Quality Italian in Tokyo, or we might be living in the Bahamas with a little tiny burger place. I have no idea. I'm excited to find out where it takes us.
Who is your cooking inspiration?:
My favorite restaurant in New York is this place Estela. Everytime I eat there I am so humbled and love the food so much. The chef is Ignacio Mattos. I’ve never met him, but I am really inspired by the way this guy makes food. I’m a very simple person, and I like simple food. His food looks so simple, but it’s not simple at all. Everything tastes amazing. Everything about it moves me. The first time I ate there I was just blown away.
There are a lot of great places and a lot of great restaurants in New York. I love going to new places, but there is something about Estela that is just really special. I don’t think it could ever be replicated ever again. The guy is a genius, he really is.