Interview to Chef Sarah Grueneberg: Sicilian summer menu at Spiaggia, Chicago’s four-star Italian restaurant.
I "met" Sarah on-line, few months ago when she contacted me to let me know she was working on a Sicilian summer menu for Spiaggia with top Chef Tony Mantuano. We had wonderful virtual conversations about Sicilian food and ingredients, and I followed from a distance the development of the menu.
I must say I was amazed by Sarah's growing passion and love for Sicilian cuisine and her respectful and creative interpretation. I did not manage to go to Chicago this summer so I did not have the chance to try the menu, but few days ago I made Spaghetti alla chitarra con tonno in tre varianti following her indications and it was a great success. Here is an interview to Sarah, one of our latest virtual conversations...
How did the idea of creating a Sicily inspired menu at Spiaggia come about?
During my first trip to Italy, I visited Lazio, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, and Lombardia. I learned about and tasted so many different ingredients. What was so intriguing to me was how beautiful and different each region was. I wanted to share this with our guests and staff. When I returned, I wanted to focus on an Emilia Romagna menu. After that, I started researching different regions for inspiration. It seemed like everywhere I looked; Sicily was there in my face. I was so inspired with the different imported ingredients available to us. We were approaching the late Spring and Summer seasons, I noticed that many of the vegetables and fruits used in Sicily were abundant at our farmer’s markets. So that pretty much sealed the deal that I wanted to focus on Sicily for our summer tasting menu.
Were you already familiar with Sicilian cuisine?
I am sad to say that the Sicilian cuisine I experienced here was not what I found as I began my research. I started researching for a month just on Sicilian culture and ingredients and trying to source Sicilian ingredients available to us. Then we spent 2 weeks practicing the recipes and dishes. The more I learned, the more I wanted our guests to taste and understand what I had learned that Sicily is about. I fell in love more and more with this region.
Did you have an idea about specific recipes that you wanted to include?
I focused on the traditional recipes and products. Each course includes special items. For example the menu featured granita, arancini, panelle, Salmoriglio, eggplant caponata, Nocellara del Belice olives, capers from Pantelleria, tuna bottarga, Sicilian pistachios and almonds.
Were you interested in traditional recipes or did you look also into modern Sicilian cuisine?
Tony and I focused on traditional Sicilian cuisine. We had to build a foundation of what traditional Sicilian cuisine is. We wanted to focus on making sure that we best represented Sicilian cuisine at Spiaggia without compromise. Each course was built upon a traditional dish or recipe.
What were your main sources of information and inspiration?
I found a wealth of knowledge on the Love Sicily blog, italianmade.com, Beatrice from Gustiamo, Elise from Ritrovo foods, Francesco Padova from San Basilio, The Flavors of Sicily book by Anna Tasca Lanza, Andrea Bezzecchi and Alessandro Bellini of Viola Imports. They are all so great!
Have you ever visited Sicily or are you planning to visit the island soon?
I am planning my first trip to Sicily in February 2010. I plan on visiting Noto, Modica, and Pantelleria.
How difficult was it to get specific ingredients?
We were able to get many jarred items and a few different cheeses. We brought in many different olive oils including Pianogrillo and Monte Iblei. We sourced Ragusano, Pecorino Siciliano, and Piacentinu di Enna cheeses. Fresh produce is the most difficult to get due to the US government.
How did you develop the menu and what was the most difficult part to work on?
I started with a list of ingredients and dishes I wanted to use for the menu. From there the planning of the full dish started. I also tried to use the ingredient in the way that it would be used there. For salmoriglio, I wanted to do it with roasted seafood. Keep it very simple.
Which are the dishes that managed to express the best Spiaggia interpretation of Sicilian ingredients and cuisine?
There are 2 dishes that we think best showed off what we do at Spiaggia.
SAPORI DELLA FESTA STRAGUSTO
Arancino with saffron, Ragusano and spicy pachino tomato
Marinated baby artichokes with parsley and Monte Iblei extra virgin olive oil
Panelle and fried quail egg
Spaghetti alla chitarra con tonno in tre varianti
Hand crafted spaghetti with Sicilian olive oil cured tuna, tuna bottarga
and fresh Ahi tuna
The second course on the menu was inspired by the StraGusto festival. We first read about this festival on the lovesicily blog. The entry described a street festival that celebrated the most loved street foods. The two items we made were an arancino and panelle. The arancino was flavored with saffron, Ragusano, Pachino tomatoes in olive oil, and a little mozzarella. The panelle was made with water, chickpea flour and parsley and deep fried. We paired the panelle with a sunny side up quail egg and lemon zest. Both components came together as one dish with marinated baby artichokes and a sauce with the Pachino tomato. This expresses Spiaggia by taking something like a casual street food and making it elegant.
The next dish was spaghetti with tuna in 3 ways. We used fresh raw Ahi tuna, olive oil cured tuna and tuna bottarga. We purchased the canned tuna from Sicily and blended it into a mousse with olive oil and lemon zest. Oil cured tuna was made into a quenelle on the pasta, the raw diced tuna was garnished around and the tuna bottarga was grated on top of the entire pasta. We loved this dish so much that it is now on our regular à la carte menu.
Did you learn anything interesting or unexpected while developing this menu?
I learned a wealth of knowledge about Sicily. I was very surprised to learn about all of the influence from outside places and cultures like Greece, Africa and the Middle East. This experience has changed me as a person forever. I cannot wait to get to Sicily to experience the flavors myself.
Does the menu as a special name?
Menu di Ispirazione Siciliano
When is the menu going to be launched? For how long will you offer the Sicilian menu to your clients?
The menu was launched in the middle of August and ran until the last week of October.
Thank you Sarah, I look forward to meeting you in Sicily in 2010 and hope we will have the chance to cook together. Thanks also to Spiaggia and Chef Tony Mantuano for bringing the essence of Sicily into Chicago's summer.
Sarah Grueneberg developed a love for the culinary world as a small child. Raised in Houston, Grueneberg spent much of her time cooking and baking with her grandparents while her mother traveled for work. Her passion for exploring flavors and new cuisines grew from her German heritage as she made sausage, cinnamon rolls, and wild berry pies with her grandparents. Her flavor profile expanded in the fourth grade when she created her own restaurant called Taste of the World under her school’s bleachers. Grueneberg created globally-inspired menus and dishes from grass and flowers. From a young age it was easy to see that Sarah was destined to be a part of the culinary world.
Sarah attended the Art Institute of Houston and attained her associates degree in culinary arts in 2001. That July, she joined Brennan’s of Houston working under Chef Randy Evans where she began as garde manger and worked her way up to become the restaurant’s youngest female sous chef at the age of 22 in 2003. While at Brennan’s Sarah was exposed to the epitome of southern hospitality and to a well-rounded menu of Texas Creole featuring locally driven foods, game meets and fresh farm produce.
In September 2005, Sarah joined the award-winning team at Spiaggia, Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant helmed by Chef Tony Mantuano. With just a brushstroke of experience with Italian cuisine, she started on the line, which afforded her the opportunity to learn about Italian food, culture, and products. After much diligence and determination, she was promoted to purchasing sous chef in February 2007 where she developed her leadership skills and gained insight into the business operations of a restaurant. In this position, she worked closely with Executive Chef Missy Robbins learning how to source and treat ingredients, developing her creative side. In August 2008, Sarah was promoted to chef di cucina, taking over for Chef Robbins.
To further broaden her hands-on experience with Italian cuisine, Sarah spent some time in Italy in early 2009 learning from some of the Italy’s best chefs and producers. Grueneberg cooked in heralded kitchens including: Il San Lorenzo and Grano in Rome and Del Pescatore, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Canneto Sull'Oglio where Chef Tony Mantuano worked in 1984 prior to opening Spiaggia.
Spiaggia, Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant, has set the tone for Italian fine dining in Chicago and in the United States. A favorite of critics and patrons alike, Spiaggia celebrates the cuisine of Chef/ Partner Tony Mantuano who create luxurious, world-class Italian cuisine showcasing the finest ingredients presented with simple elegance. The award-winning wine list, impeccable service, spectacular view and sophisticated, contemporary setting contribute to Spiaggia’s universal regard as a premier Italian dining destination. Throughout the year Spiaggia offers their guests culinary classes which have included lessons from Chef Mantuano’s Nonna, a field trip to a nearby farm for dinner and learning the ins and outs of creating a wine bar at home. Chef Mantuano’s celebrated cuisine is available at Spiaggia, Cafe Spiaggia, and in the elegant Private Dining Rooms of Spiaggia. 2009 marks the restaurant’s 25th anniversary and the team has celebrated each month by surprising guests with complimentary dinners, copies of Chef Mantuano’s cookbook, Spiaggia’s branded olive oil and more.