Executive Chef at Felidia
As one of the country's most-beloved and well-respected chefs, surely it must be a daunting task, to say the least, to select the right person to man the kitchen of your namesake restaurant?
But Lidia Bastianich found exactly who she was looking for when she hired Fortunato Nicotra, a Piedmont-trained and Michelin-starred chef, nearly 13 years ago. Nicotra brings the same sense of adventure and appreciation for quality to his cooking at Felidia that Lidia brings to each of her endeavors around the world.
The inventive and refined palate of flavors and ingredients that Chef Nicotra employs in his dishes are his way of cooking as true to his Italian roots as possible. "I don't really like the term 'modern Italian cuisine,' " states Nicotra. "Using fresh, local ingredients is more traditional in terms of Italian cuisine than anything else. When Italians cook, they get the best and the freshest tomatoes they can--they'd never use any that came from far away or were out of season."
Speaking of tomatoes, when in season, guests at Felidia encounter a large variety of local heirloom tomatoes on Nicotra's menu--called out by their individual names, like Toy Box and Lemon Boy. The chicken comes fresh from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, and Long Island fluke and tuna are used whenever possible.
Beyond what's local, Nicotra especially enjoys using a variety of ingredients that he's discovered since moving to New York, experimenting with items that aren't frequently put to use in Italy. One such ingredient is peanut butter, which Nicotra has become fanatical about. He has found inventive ways to integrate it seamlessly into his dishes through such recipes as his foie gras sandwiches and the peanut-butter-and-jelly panna cotta. He has also developed quite a taste for corn, which is usually found in Italy only in polenta, and it is used in a variety of Felidia's menu items. During the fall and winter months, Nicotra loves cooking with American-style squashes like the acorn, butternut, and hubbard varieties, which have never been readily available in Italy.
And while he's happy to use whatever can be found close at hand, there are still a few staples that Nicotra has sent from Italy--like the big, cylindrical wheels of Grana Padano cheese, melt-in-your-mouth burrata, and aged Balsamic vinegar. His guests seem pretty content to have a taste of the old world, too.